I missed out on commemorating Ornette Coleman’s recent birth anniversary but am posting this now in commemoration of the more mundane occasion of “Ornette time” as the Wesleyan Jazz Ensemble prepares to sink their teeth into his “Humpty Dumpty.” (students: thanks for doing your homework by reading this and listening to these!)

It’s difficult to articulate the way Ornette has inspired me and has influenced music more generally. He is at once truly unique and in a sense universal – it’s as if he tapped into the core of the earth and found an elemental wellspring of sound. To put it in more mundane and specific terms, he was a radical avant-gardist and champion of greater creative and improvisational freedom who upon emerging on the broader scene in the late ‘50s spurred as many “messiah versus charlatan” debates as anyone in jazz history, and yet much of his music doesn’t sound particularly “far out” through a modern-day lens.

Some of that is that folks’ ears eventually caught up and some of it is that he influenced enough other musicians that his concepts (whether his playing and writing or the ideas in his ”harmolodic” system) have been metabolized into the music more broadly. But some of it is that much of his music was simply never that strange to begin with, if one listens without stylistic preconceptions. Certainly there is plenty of music of his that is highly dissonant and dense, and at the same time there is also music that is made even more lyrical and I dare say (to my ears) “accessible” by the freedom he afforded himself to follow his melodic intuition without being tethered to traditional notions of song form and chord progressions (which by the time of the first album on this list were loose-to-absent, typically facilitated by the absence of piano or other chord-playing instruments, though we’ll hear several exceptions below).

Freedom sometimes means chaos and freedom sometimes means having the agency to follow one’s most authentic impulses in a way that even more satisfyingly achieves the same outcomes that rigid structures are designed to ensure. If Ornette embodied only one of these extremes then he would still be an important musician; that he embodies both at different moments underscores how vital his career was to the history of creative arts on a broad level. I’m grateful for him and grateful that I, fairly early on, let go of my preconceptions (almost entirely based on reading about what a weirdo he was) and was able to find not just philosophical interest but true, soul-enriching nourishment in his music.  

Here are 10 of my favorite snapshots, in chronological order, and acknowledging my typical favoring of work that is easily available (thus de-emphasizing his later work, although the importance and vitality of the music that is included is justification enough for that as well)

1 ) “Peace” from The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

This, in a sense, was the tune that represented the biggest paradigm shift in my understanding of Ornette’s music. It wasn’t the first thing I heard (that’d be “Lonely Woman” from the same record) or the first one I really enjoyed (that’d be #2 on this list), but it’s the one that allowed me to really understand the shared DNA that much of his music has with the “straight-ahead” jazz from which it was said to represent such a radical departure. The swinging lyricism here (including the iconic melody of the song) fits right in with the jazz canon, with Ornette’s own melodicism on his alto saxophone improvisation all the more potent absent the encumbrance of standard chord changes.

2 ) “Una Muy Bonita” from Change of the Century (1959)

I’m not sure how many Latin-infused jazz tunes have ever been as catchy as this, and this is supposed to be avant-garde. Like “Peace,” this one features his most iconic quartet (Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins) and also like that one it demonstrates that freedom and anarchy are hardly synonymous, with the loosened relationship with form and harmony simply opening the door to greater melodic freedom from Ornette and Don, along with the unmistakable Billy Higgins bounce.  

3 ) “Embraceable You” from This Is Our Music (1960)

It feels, on the one hand, odd to put the rare non-Ornette tune on this list, but at the same time this is in a sense exactly why even avant-gardists (Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, etc.) record standards from time to time, demonstrating the idiosyncrasies of their styles in otherwise-familiar contexts. This was Ornette’s deliberate move to do just that, and hearing him (alongside Cherry, Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell) simultaneously innovate and pay reverence on this Gershwin classic is as illuminating as it is beautiful.

4 ) “The Riddle” from At the “Golden Circle” Stockholm Vol. 2 (1965)

Ornette’s next great ensemble was this underappreciated trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett. These volumes of live recordings are essential works, with Moffett’s creative flexibility and Izenzon’s virtuosity providing Ornette with perfect foils. This lengthy exploration is fast, fiery, and highly interactive.

5 ) “Old Gospel” from New and Old Gospel by Jackie McLean (1967)

Some folks lament the “what might have been” of this album in that cutting edge saxophonist Jackie McLean hired Ornette for this album, but not for a two-alto throwdown, but instead with Ornette on trumpet. J-Mac and pianist LaMont Johnson testify on this super-catchy, funky tune from the Coleman pen, and it’s fascinating to hear Ornette’s voice on trumpet, an example of his determination to find vehicles for exploring sound and ideas outside of whatever clichés he might be vulnerable to playing his primary instrument and/or in familiar settings. Also fascinating is hearing Ornette reunited with drummer Billy Higgins – I’ve always found it cool that the drummer who popularized jazz boogaloo on tunes like “Sidewinder” and “Watermelon Man” is also the drummer in the most influential group of the most influential musician in free jazz, and hearing those things come together here is delightful.   

6 ) “Round Trip” from New York is Now (1968)

Another year, another interesting configuration of Ornette’s group, here alongside fiery tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman with Coltrane alumni Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in the rhythm section. This is another loopy swinger and the interplay among these four is inspiring, particularly as Ornette and Dewey solo together.

7 ) “School Work” from The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (1971)

Most of the musicians on this ebullient performance, save for trumpeter Bobby Bradford, are veterans of other Coleman ensembles represented here – Dewey Redman is back and the up-tempo swing comes courtesy of Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. The main thematic material of this track, an outtake from his first important album of the 1970s, reappears on multiple subsequent albums, from its orchestral iteration on Skies of America to its funk transformation as “Theme from a Symphony” on the first Prime Time album.

8 ) “The Artist In America” from Skies of America (1972)

When I learned that there was an Ornette Coleman orchestral album I found the very idea bewildering. And honestly it’s still kind of bewildering but in a good way. Some of the tracks are gentle and contemplative, but not so with this – it starts off that way, but (spoiler alert) morphs quickly into some intense playing from Ornette atop gnarly strings and tympani.

9 ) “Times Square” from Of Human Feelings (1979)

The first I heard the name Ornette Coleman, well before I had even vague interest in jazz, was in the context of his harmolodic funk group Prime Time and, specifically, reading in Rolling Stone about their Virgin Beauty record with a few guest spots by Jerry Garcia. I didn’t hear that album until much later, and while it’s certainly interesting, I’m partial to the first few Prime Time albums, which incubated the work of pioneers like Ronald Shannon Jackson and James “Blood” Ulmer, as well as the truly illuminating (though out-of-print) In All Languages on which he interprets the same tunes both with Prime Time and with the reunited “classic quartet” from the first two tracks on this list. This infectious, avant-garde-meets-disco track featured two drummers (Calvin Weston and Ornette’s son Denardo) and two guitarists (Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee) alongside Ornette and the inimitable free-funk bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.   

10 ) “Mob Job” from Song X by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman (1985)

Ornette got some positive attention for this gorgeous collaboration with the important and brilliant guitarist Pat Metheny (whose vocabulary shows a clear debt to Ornette’s innovations, counterintuitive though it may seem to those primarily familiar with his pop-adjacent leanings), accompanied by the drums of Denardo and Jack DeJohnette and the bass of Charlie Haden. This swinging tune is in a sense two songs in one, with a characteristically tasty Ornette solo on alto saxophone (albeit with the unusual-for-his-swinging-tunes addition of chordal comping, courtesy of Metheny) followed by guitar soloing in tandem with some gnarly work by Ornette on another of his “auxiliary” instruments, the violin.


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