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Beauty is a rare thing.

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You probably have heard or read something of the music we are playing and if you haven’t we would like to invite you into our musical world. First, the most important part of our music is the improvisation, which is done as spontaneously as possible, with each man contributing his musical expression to create the form.

Now — a little about the music called jazz. First it’s the player. In classical music it’s the composer. In jazz the composer is needed also, but it’s the player who makes jazz so invaluable.

So read the liner notes to The Ornette Coleman Quartet’s 1960 release, This Is Our Music. In 1959, Ornette Coleman was merely a newcomer to the American Jazz scene with his watershed release on Atlantic Records, The Shape Of Jazz To Come. And, oh, what a prophetic title it was.

The Shape Of Jazz To Come may sound tame to our ears today, but at the time the lack of a solid chord structure and wild and free improvisation was a sharp departure from the bebop of the era. Initially hailed by many as a talentless hack, his reception by the jazz vanguard was not a warm one. Dexter Gordon once kicked him out of a session, Miles Davis declared him to be “all screwed up inside,” and Max Roach punched him in the mouth during one of his performances at the Five Spot in New York.

His first recording with his quartet, The Shape Of Jazz To Come was also the first of five releases on Atlantic Records that defined what would become free- and avant-garde jazz. Followed up by the also prophetically-titled Change Of The Century, their finest release to me was the aforementioned This Is Our Music.

As terrific as a record it is, it remains the only recording with the “classic” lineup of his quartet: Ornette himself on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. Never before had there been a more talented ensemble playing together put to tape.

Unlike the equally-influential John Coltrane, Ornette’s music placed a great emphasis on the idea of space in his music. If you listen to Coltrane’s notable records of the era, such as Blue Train and Giant Steps, it is a huge flurry of notes densely packed together, never mind that both of those records is still rooted in bebop and hard bop. In contrast, there is plenty of breathing room afforded to each musician on Ornette’s recordings, especially on the comparatively sparse This Is Our Music. Despite the declarative titles of his albums, it can’t be said that his performances are of equal bravado and showmanship.

It is most exemplified on the track “Beauty Is A Rare Thing,” where Blackwell’s quiet percusive hum and Haden’s slow and steady bowing serve as a stately backdrop to the understated soloing of Ornette and Cherry. Highlight track “Kaleidoscope” is the closest Ornette comes to such a flurry of notes on record, but the Quartet comes off as more fierce and fiery than any other jazz ensemble can manage. Serving as a sort of piece of comparison between the establishment and his revolution, the Quartet covers the Gershwin classic “Embraceable You” on the record, and their deconstruction of it turns a sweet song into one of melancholy and despair. Never one to shy from piercing solos, the pleading heard through Ornette’s saxophone turns the sweet love song into one crying for one last embrace by a departing lover.

Jazz musicians would soon come to embrace what Ornette was doing to their music, including Coltrane himself, and would release some of their variations on this “New Thing,” varying from just the avant-garde approach to composition and playing all the way to album-length recordings of free improvisational jam sessions. Ornette would do the latter merely six months later with 1960’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation with a “double quartet” (one in each stereo channel). Yes, the album title coined the phrase “free jazz,” and the name has stuck since then. Although he never did anything as expansive as Free Jazz again, other musicians pick up where he left off, including John Coltrane with Ascension (1965), Peter Brötzmann with Machine Gun (1968), and Dave Burrell with Echo (1969).

Despite his influence and prolific career (which continues to this day), his status always remained slightly below well known heroes such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his terrific album from the year before, Sound Grammar, but still his name and music is still scarcely mentioned when it comes to the established canon of jazz music.

“We do hope you enjoy our music,” reads the end of the liner notes to This Is Our Music.

I sure did.

Download: The Ornette Coleman Quartet – “Beauty Is A Rare Thing”

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Written by Carman

April 7, 2008 at 2:38 pm

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