Ornette Coleman, Pioneer of Free Jazz

Ornette: Made in America (trailer)

Where do you start to learn of the contributions of saxophonist Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930-June 11, 2015). The All Music Guide to Jazz has so many 5-star reviews of his albums that it isn’t much help. “The Adventure” episode in “Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns” spotlights the LP “Free Jazz,” which has a single track that spans over both sides. That seemed intimidating.

So I took the advice of Tom Moon in 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die and settled on “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” Moon suggests that you “Cue this up whenever you want to be transported to a time when radicalism was on the loose in America.”

And something did seem to be in the air in 1959, when the album was released. For more on that momentous year, check out this BBC Four documentary. The whole video’s worth watching, but if you want to jump ahead to Coleman, you’ll find him at about the 28:00 mark.

1959–The Year That Changed Jazz

Coleman pushed past the restrictions that even the fairly unfettered genre of jazz still hung onto: predictable chord changes, fixed time signatures and keys. He developed his own theory, which he called “Harmolodics.” In the liner notes for “Dancing in Your Head,” Coleman explains this as “rhythms, harmonics, and tempos [that] are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.”

Ornette Coleman Trio Recording Soundtrack to “Who’s Crazy?”, 1966

In “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” Coleman’s quartet was completed by bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, a cast of musicians he would turn to for many recordings. But he would play with many others and evolve through decades, as only the father of free jazz could.

Ornette Coleman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2007.

“Lonely Woman” at Jazz at Vienne, 2008