1959 was the year that saw the release of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, Charles Mingus’ ‘Mingus Ah Um’, and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’. One of most important times in jazz history.
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come [Atlantic, 1959] was a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with. The record shattered traditional concepts of harmony in jazz, getting rid of not only the piano player but the whole idea of concretely outlined chord changes. The pieces here follow almost no predetermined harmonic structure, which allows Coleman and partner Don Cherry an unprecedented freedom to take the melodies of their solo lines wherever they felt like going in the moment, regardless of what the piece’s tonal center had seemed to be. Plus, this was the first time Coleman recorded with a rhythm section – bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins – that was loose and open-eared enough to follow his already controversial conception. Coleman’s ideals of freedom in jazz made him a feared radical in some quarters; there was much carping about his music flying off in all directions, with little direct relation to the original theme statements. If only those critics could have known how far out things would get in just a few short years; in hindsight, it’s hard to see just what the fuss was about, since this is an accessible, frequently swinging record. It’s true that Coleman’s piercing, wailing alto squeals and vocalized effects weren’t much beholden to conventional technique, and that his themes often followed unpredictable courses, and that the group’s improvisations were very free-associative. But at this point, Coleman’s desire for freedom was directly related to his sense of melody – which was free-flowing, yes, but still very melodic. Of the individual pieces, the haunting “Lonely Woman” is a stone-cold classic, and “Congeniality” and “Peace” aren’t far behind. Any understanding of jazz’s avant-garde should begin here.
It’s quite possible there has never been an album more aptly titled than Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come. Widely accepted as the first free jazz album, Coleman and righthand man Don Cherry trade solos unrestricted by rules of modality or chord changes. Instead of their solos being statements of purpose or pissing contest egotism, the two players can be heard searching and experimenting with melody, activating the listener to pay close attention to each new note and run. Normally this could come off as scattered and jumbled but Coleman’s quartet is reductive and skeletal. The rhythm section is composed of only drums and upright bass, keeping the focus upon each revolutionary improvisation. Every note played is the sound of progress for one of jazz’s most ingenious vanguards.