The Shape of Jazz to Come – 50 years on, what shape is it in now?

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The piano-less quartet

In that amazing year for jazz, 1959, Ornette Coleman, then aged 29, signed a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records. The fist album to be released on this contract was somewhat presciently called The Shape of Jazz to Come .

Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, and his sound is still suffused with the sound of Texas blues, as can be heard on his Pulitzer-winning 2007 album Sound Grammar .

In his early days Coleman played R&B and bebop, first on tenor, as he looked for ways to get out of Fort Worth. He got away from his home town by joining a travelling show which had a big impact on his subsequent career as he was assaulted after a show in Baton Rouge and during the assault his tenor was smashed. He then changed to alto and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Shape of Jazz to Come used a piano-less quartet, with, besides Coleman on alto, Billy Higgins on drums, Charlie Haden on bass and Don Cherry on cornet.

The tracks

The first number on the album is the stunningly lovely “Lonely Woman” which, unusually for Coleman’s compositions, has become something of a standard. Interestingly, Haden and Cherry would record it again exactly 20 years later on the first album of their own piano-less quartet called Old and New Dreams , in which Dewey Redman on tenor and Ed Blackwell on drums would replace Coleman and Higgins. It is an incredibly beautiful interpretation of the song. In my own CD collection I also have versions by the Modern Jazz Quartet, on their album called Lonely Woman , and on the album Etudes , featuring Haden again, this time with pianist Geri Allen and Paul Motian on drums.

The next track is “Eventually”, which starts at a furious pace with some fairly wild ensemble work in the head followed by wonderful solos, first from Coleman taking wild leaps from lower register to high before settling into a sort growling mid-register, then by Cherry making comments on Coleman’s solo with short staccato bursts interspersed with flowing runs. Then Coleman and Cherry state the head briefly to end the track.

“Peace” follows, perhaps necessarily! Again the head stated by Coleman and Cherry but then a wonderful, all too brief bowed interpolation from Haden before Coleman takes a lovely and thoughtful solo with just great underpinning from Haden’s incredibly sensitive and soulful bass. Coleman makes wonderful use of the space that this track, the longest on the album at 9:05 minutes, gives him, before Cherry comes in with his solo, which is full of notes held for much longer than one expects from him, and again the bass of Haden provides a solid and soulful foundation for him. It is a stunning solo, full of great beauty and thought. Then Haden gets his bow out again for a lovely few bars before the piece comes to an end on a high harmonised ending.

“Focus on Sanity” starts with some high energy drum rolls from Higgins and then Haden introduces the theme and launches into a solo with Higgins providing solid backing. Then the track takes off with Coleman leading from the front with a spirited solo at double time, over a walking bass line with steady drum support which then leads back to the previous tempo and a Cherry solo mostly in the upper register before Higgins takes a solo before Coleman and Cherry end it all off.

“Congeniality” starts with some lovely and unusual harmonies from Coleman and Cherry in the head which leads quickly into a longish solo from Coleman followed by Cherry and then that great harmonised head.

On the last track, “Chronology”, the first solo is taken by Cherry, who stays mostly in the upper register alternating darting, quicksilver notes with some longer notes held in the lower register. Then its Coleman’s turn and he plays a wonderfully rhythmic solo also largely in the upper register. In a way this track sounds the most “boppish” of all on the album. A great and exciting piece of music.

Improvisations unite

How has this album held up over 50 years? I guess for anyone listening to it in 1959 it must have sounded radical, even unlistenable. But after all that has happened since, including Coleman’s own double quartet album Free Jazz , recorded just a year later, this album doesn’t sound quite so radical any more. However its influence on what came after it is undeniable.

Joachim Berendt, in The Jazz Book (I have the 1976 Paladin edition), wrote of the way this quartet worked, “Dismayed by the isolation of the individual in modern society, these musicians (he was referring also to John Coltrane here) feel that their improvisations unite them to a degree ‘as otherwise, among humans, only love can do’ (a quote from Don Cherry).”

What is noticeable on this album is the way Coleman and Cherry interact, as described by Modern Jazz Quartet leader John Lewis, “They’re almost like twins… I can’t imagine how they manage to start together. Never before have I heard that kind of ensemble playing.”

This is indeed a wonderful album which has a firm place in the jazz history books, a place which is unique and inspiring. Lovely stuff, indeed!


Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2009

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