Ornette 2: This Is Our Mystic

[Continued from “Forms and Sounds.”]

Ornette Coleman’s door was always open to other musicians, and a few years ago I spent a couple of afternoons with my favorite melodist. He told me that the first time he picked up the saxophone he played pretty much the way he does today. Most musicians couldn’t make that claim, but it is plausible in his case: Regardless of the context, Ornette Coleman always used the same material in the same style, always based on melody of abstract yet natural beauty.

The kind of music Charlie Parker perfected was at its peak when Ornette came of age. Jazz usually meant swinging bop-type heads with a standard rhythm section featuring discursive solos on semi-complex chord changes. Ornette learned more kinds of music later, but jazz was what initially caught his ear. The early DownBeat blindfold test shows how well Ornette understood this language.

Naturally, Ornette’s first recording from early 1958 has swinging bop-type heads with a standard rhythm section featuring discursive solos on semi-complex chord changes.

Since melody was Ornette’s birthright, his music is structured from the top down. Long before he came up with the name Harmolodics, his bands huddled around the blast furnace of his melodic genius and were inspired to create the rest of the music.

Each member of the group was required to take a lot of initiative. The biggest problem with most critical discussion of Ornette is how little consideration is given to his ensemble. For example, in Gunther Schuller’s long introduction to his transcriptions of Coleman heads (later reprinted as an essay in Musings) Don Cherry’s name isn’t mentioned.

This essay focuses on the bass and piano, so I’m not going to do Cherry justice here, either. But on every track discussed in detail below, Cherry plays the head in perfect unison and harmony with Ornette. Their phrasing is precisely together. The overall swing and rhythmic authority present on the Contemporary albums is due in large part to Cherry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cherry was actually the go-between for people like Red Mitchell and Percy Heath.

This is not to say that Ornette wasn’t the alpha male or a powerful leader, which he obviously was. Many of Ornette’s musicians have never played better than with him. He also did some shaping of his performances, which I experienced firsthand when he taught me his ballad “Once Only.” I learned the melody, wrote it down, and then began harmonizing as he played. After the first phrase, he stopped. “What are you playing in that first bar? A-flat dominant?” It was A-flat dominant. “Try E major instead.” Ah—that was better. But then we played it for quite a while, and he had no further corrections. The lovely harmony played by Greg Cohen on Sound Grammar’s “Once Only” is not like what I played, although Cohen does begin in E major/B Major.

Obviously, I shouldn’t extrapolate too much from one afternoon’s casual reading of a ballad. But even before rehearsing with Ornette a little bit, I already believed that the Ornette we know and love wouldn’t exist without the first Five Spot band with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. (Ed Blackwell and Dewey Redman are the two other most significant collaborators, but David Izenzon, Charles Moffett, Bobby Bradford, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro and Denardo Coleman have also played with Ornette in a sympathetic way. Probably the members of Prime Time have also mostly made up their own parts.)

It’s a shame that interviewers have seldom asked Ornette about his musicians, since he is not secretive about the collaboration process. One of the earliest longer pieces about Ornette is in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. When you compare Ornette’s profile to those of Jackie McLean, Cecil Taylor, and Herbie Nichols, it seems that he’s trying to go the extra mile to communicate the importance of his sidemen to Spellman. The book includes a lot of material, for example, about Ornette’s bassists, and none at all about Jackie McLean’s—although the book’s slant is admittedly more sociological than musical. (Ornette: “David Izenzon has a lot of background. I mean, he knows that he’s Jewish…”)

I asked Ornette about Haden, and he said that Charlie had the biggest ears. When we talked about Don Cherry, Ornette began nearly weeping, saying that Don understood him better than anybody, and how much he missed him.

Ed Blackwell? “He played the most perfect phrases. No one else could phrase the melodies that correctly, except now Denardo can too.”

Dewey Redman? “Dewey could play the keys off the saxophone.” (Ornette was also quoted in DownBeat’s Redman obituary: “Dewey’s creativity was one of the highest forms of spirituality I ever experienced.”)

Haden, Blackwell, Dewey, Cherry: they are Ornette’s people, the inner circle of Coleman magicians who help the mystic deliver his strongest message.

Unfortunately, the first two Ornette Coleman records on Contemporary, Something Else and Tomorrow is the Question, have Walter Norris, Don Payne, Percy Heath, Red Mitchell, and Shelly Manne. These are not musicians in the mystic circle.

However, being on the outside didn’t stop Norris, Payne, Heath, Mitchell, and Manne from being a full part of the collaboration process. They all made up their own parts and played what they wanted. Their solutions are interesting but not ideal.

Part of the problem with Ornette’s early career might be how Something Else and Tomorrow Is the Question were the only albums in stores when Ornette was changing the century at the Five Spot. If the first Ornette record on the shelves had been the masterpiece The Shape of Jazz to Come (with Cherry, Haden, Higgins, and the transcendent opening track “Lonely Woman”) he would have had a better chance of being understood by the jazz community at large.

After all, it was The Shape of Jazz to Come ensemble at the Five Spot that blew the mind of every serious New York musician. This must be the only time in jazz history when so many major artists reassessed their music based on a recent arrival: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis were all directly influenced by the Five Spot band. If Walter Norris and Don Payne had been there, do you think that Rollins, Coltrane, Mingus, and Davis would have kept going down to see the latest thing?

Norris and Payne are certainly good enough conventional jazz musicians. Something Else is mostly a collection of conventional forms, and when Ornette isn’t playing, Norris and Payne sound fine. “The Disguise,” “Alpha,” and “When Will the Blues Leave” are blues; “Chippie,” “Angel Voice,” and “The Sphinx,” are more or less rhythm changes; “Jayne” is “Out of Nowhere” in the solos; and “The Blessing” and “Invisible” have new but non-challenging boppish chord progressions.

Ornette is quoted in the liner notes:

I always write the melody line first because several different chords can fit the same melody line. In fact, I would prefer it if musicians would play my tunes with different changes as they take a new chorus so that there’d be all the more variety in the performance. On this recording, the changes finally decided on for the tunes are a combination of some I suggested and some the musicians suggested.

I suspect that Norris came up with most of the chord changes on Something Else, changes that more or less fit the brilliant, instantly memorable, and idiosyncratic Coleman lines. Does Ornette improvise on those Norris chords on Something Else?  To my ears, he is just floating over the conservative Norris harmony without accepting those changes as authoritative.

“Jayne” has gone down in history as the tune Ornette wrote on “Out of Nowhere,” but it’s a simple fact that the melody of “Jayne” is not on “Nowhere.” The first 8 bars of “Jayne” never leave G major, whereas “Nowhere” is distinguished by a big out-of-key II/V in bar 3.

However, Norris and Payne do use the changes of “Nowhere” for solos, which is an aesthetic error. If I were a working jazz musician when this record came out and heard Ornette’s solo on those familiar changes, I would say, “This guy could not find his ass using both hands even if there was a hot brick in his back pocket.”


Since I am a modern-day Ornette Coleman fanatic, I listen to this solo and say, “Wow! He proposes those notes as acceptable on these changes… it doesn’t work, though, he needs his cats backing him up.” Charlie Haden brought up this tune in our interview.

CH:  Sometimes the changes he had for the written parts didn’t always fit, so I would look for the right note, even if it wasn’t the root of the tonal center.

EI:   Dewey Redman told me once that he was looking at a piece of Ornette’s music and thought he heard some changes in there. He asked Ornette what the structure was, and Ornette responded by putting a chord symbol on every eighth note! He made sure never to ask Ornette that question again.

CH:   Yeah, NEVER ask Ornette about the changes!

EI:   So, you were making up the harmony. On some of the early music like “Lonely Woman,” “Ramblin,'” and “Una Muy Bonita,” there is also a strong melody in the bass. I have a strong suspicion that those are yours too.

CH:   Sometimes I would play what I was hearing instead of what he had written and he usually accepted it.

EI:   Most performances of “Lonely Woman” leave off your first bass melody, which is a shame, since it is so beautiful. In general, I think that Ornette’s music is more democratic than most people realize. Just listen to the first two records on Contemporary without you.

CH:   Yeah, Walter Norris and Don Payne played those “Out of Nowhere” changes behind Ornette. You can’t do that!

EI:   If I had heard that song, “Jayne,” on the radio in the fifties, I would have thought that Ornette was a charlatan instead of a genius. He needs to be supported the right way.

CH:   They didn’t know what he was doing. Not that they couldn’t play: Walter Norris was great, man. I loved this gig I had back then playing for a burlesque with Norris, Frank Butler, and a great alto player who died too young, Joe Maini. But as much as he knew about harmony, Norris couldn’t forget it when he played with Ornette.

EI:   Ornette is not going to bend to you.

CH:   No, you have got to bend to him. I am always waiting for Ornette to play a tonal center so I can contrast it or play with it to make it sound really good.

On two of the rhythm changes tunes on Something Else, “Chippie” and “Alpha,” the bridge is improvised, without a written melody. This was common practice already: famous examples include Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Wee.” I asked Ornette about this, and he said that the bridge of rhythm changes was how he first knew how to leave the home key. A light bulb went on in my head, and I thought, “Bridge of rhythm changes = start of free jazz.” This makes a lot of sense, and explains why there are so many improvised bridges in his early music.

We can hear this embryonic free jazz in Ornette’s first solo on “Angel Voice.” He mostly plays in the tonic key on the beginning and ending A sections and leaves that key (and normal bridge changes) behind for the whole bridge.

You can almost hear the language of jazz react in shock and bewilderment: “What was THAT? Actually, that felt pretty good!”

The only composed bridge on near-rhythm changes is on “The Sphinx.” It is also the only rubato music on Something Else. Unlike “Angel Voice” or “Chippie,” “The Sphinx” doesn’t really sound like rhythm changes at the top of the tune. It’s a blinding succession of off-kilter lines in pure diatonic G major. Norris and Payne decide to play it as a rhythm-ish rotation around the tonic, sort of like Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t,” which makes good sense.

But the superb rubato bridge is rendered as a collection of II/Vs starting on C-sharp half-diminished for blowing. That’s not so good. Someone should try to reclaim “The Sphinx” with no changes whatsoever.

Actually, Steve Kuhn almost got there in the Lenox jazz concert discussed in the previous post. Kuhn starts with some of the best piano comping I’ve heard behind Ornette, just riffing discreetly on one note and giving the soloist a nice bluesy texture to work with. On the bridge he plays a simple C-sharp octave, not a fat half-diminished chord. That spareness is a good choice, but probably the band shouldn’t have gone to a bridge at all. They should have stayed with the initial texture until it moved on naturally, following Ornette’s lead.

Ironically, in this performance where the band is trying to keep the AABA going, the drummer is out of his depth and manages to help Ornette derail the form before the end of the first chorus. They play something like only 29 bars instead of 32 before starting over.


Ornette clearly doesn’t mind this, as his solo picks up heat beginning at that moment. Kuhn, on the other hand, probably didn’t love that error: he keeps relentlessly at that bridge behind the other soloists, and in his own chorus the bridge sounds like George Shearing.

I wonder how Kuhn knew to start the bridge on C-sharp, anyway, since he harmonizes the the melody with straight D dominant.


Norris’s version with passing chords was better, and does begin on C-sharp half-diminished.


In final analysis, Norris and Kuhn are excellent pianists, but they needed more time to get up to speed when confronted with Ornette’s unprecedented concept.

The most coherent early Coleman recording with piano is 65 minutes of Paul Bley, Ornette, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins recorded live at the Hillcrest club in October/November 1958. Bley either plays interactively behind Ornette or lays out. The other musicians are the first great Ornette quartet. These too-little-known recordings are the most informative source about Ornette’s relationship to conventional jazz.

“Klactoveesedstene” (Charlie Parker) Ornette and Don play the same intro, head, and tempo as Bird did. Ornette solos first, on the form, with Bley laying out. Unfortunately (or intentionally!?!) Bley comes in on the third bridge in the wrong place, and the form is kind of a free-for-all afterwards, although they don’t leave B-flat much, and there seems to be at least one more clear bridge. Cherry’s brief comments behind Ornette’s solo include the melody of “Congeniality.” The most astonishing moment is the rubato unison line that Ornette and Don play to conclude the solo. On his rare versions of other people’s music, Ornette always includes some original material.

“The Blessing” (Ornette Coleman) This has a great laid-back alto solo mostly in the home key with casual tangents to weird II-V’s. At 3:30, we look into the abyss. The master then wraps it up with a blues cry. Throughout, Bley and Haden play the obvious harmonization of the melody but without the strictness of Norris/Payne on Something Else. There’s no way not to hear the opening phrase of the tune as F-sharp minor to B7, but after that it could go different ways to get to G. That’s just how Bley and Haden play it: open, with options. See also the version of “The Blessing” discussed below on The Avant-Garde.


“I Remember Harlem” (Roy Eldridge) A piano feature with composed lines for the horns. This composition meant a lot to Bley, who recorded a deconstructed version many times, for example on the famed solo recital Open to Love.

“Free” (Ornette Coleman) is the first proper recording of the dominant style of his Atlantic years, up-tempo and no changes, although this bridge is conservative compared to the wild one on Change of the Century. The head is a horn-only call.

When Will the Blues Leave? (Ornette Coleman) In his autobiography, Paul Bley says that when Billy Higgins and Charlie first met, they were playing so well together that they played a whole set at a jam session duo, just the two of them, swinging. Haden and Higgins get to show off that deep groove on “When Will the Blues Leave,” where Ornette delivers his most conservative, form-filled jazz performance on record. He is also swinging like crazy!

Check out the killer Horace-Silver-on-acid horn interludes after the first head and before the last head (not heard on Something Else). Bley’s comping is right with Ornette, hooking him up. Around 3:30 the mystic has had enough jazz, and turns the dial on his time machine.

“Ramblin'” (Ornette Coleman) It’s instructive to compare the canonical version from Change of the Century with the live one made a year earlier. The arrangement is almost the same, but on the Hillcrest version Billy Higgins plays much more aggressively on the head. Haden plays the 12-bar blues throughout the horn solos here but in the studio he wouldn’t follow the form as exactly. In both versions, Ornette barely departs from the home key.

“Crossroads” (Ornette Coleman) This is the most avant-garde piece from the Hillcrest material: there is no rhythm section when the horns and piano improvise! The band’s excitement at such transgression is palpable, and at the end they are rewarded with the most enthusiastic applause of any of the eight songs. A second theme was added to “Crossroads” and became “The Circle with the Hole in the Middle” on The Art of the Improvisers.

“How Deep Is the Ocean” (Irving Berlin) A beautiful long Coleman line for just the horns introduces trumpet and piano solos. Coleman doesn’t solo, but he does some in-key background noodling for a few bars before the long written line takes it out. It is suddenly clear that the line is derived from the last eight bars of the tune, and Ornette gets a brief cadenza.

There are no more significant Coleman performances with piano until much later.

His next studio visits in the first three months of 1959 produced Tomorrow is the Question, which unfortunately doesn’t have Billy Higgins. In his place was Shelly Manne, a great player who is not an Ornette Coleman musician. Red Mitchell and Percy Heath aren’t in the mystic circle either, so—just like Norris and Payne before them—they create forms to play on that the soloists don’t always relate to.

“Tears Inside” and “Turnaround” are blues and “Tomorrow is the Question,” “Rejoicing,” “Endless” are rhythm changes. On both “Mind and Time” and “Giggin’,” Heath invents interesting twelve bar forms to walk on but neither is a blues. (“Mind and Time” has a really weird 7 + 5 bass motion.) “Compassion” and “Lorraine” are the most avant-garde pieces and probably the most successful overall. Indeed, on “Lorraine,” Mitchell and Manne play the unusual form with rubato melodies and changes of tempo not just on the head but also behind both soloists. This is the most Ornette-sounding track, and Red Mitchell is outstanding.

Without a piano, Ornette’s concept immediately sounds less “wrong,” so Tomorrow is the Question is a better record than Something Else. It also helps that Ornette and Don seem more confident.

Still, keeping the form behind Ornette usually doesn’t work. How symbolic when Manne and Mitchell get a bar off of each other on “Rejoicing”! These professionals would never get lost on rhythm changes in any other context.

Both “Tears Inside” and “Turnaround” are good examples of the Ornette vs. band conflict. While Don Cherry plays the blues on them beautifully, hurrying back to hold our hand if we think he is lost, the leader is scornful of such procedures. Ornette’s solos have wonderful folk phrases and those magical leaps away into new keys, and unfortunately the rigorous bassists don’t support his digressions. The feeling gets diffuse and directionless. Ornette’s solo on “Tears Inside” ends awkwardly, and on “Turnaround” there’s a terrible edit as the head comes back in.

(Manne’s drumming is particularly wrong and cute on “Turnaround.” Again, I’m mostly dealing with the bass in this essay, but the drums are also vitally important. I wonder what Tomorrow is the Question would have sounded like with Billy Higgins aboard.)

If Charlie Haden had been on this date, he would have solved these formal issues. There is no studio recording of “Turnaround” with Ornette and Charlie together, but it was part of the repertoire on the Song X tour (Pat Metheny, Ornette, Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Denardo Coleman). Bootlegs are revealing: Metheny plays the 12-bar form on “Turnaround” accurately, just like with the same rhythm section on 80-81. When Ornette solos, Haden and Ornette leave the form to soar in great whoops of blues. It’s incredibly swinging – not just the beat, but the overall feel. It’s not just blues, it’s all of humanity blues.


The latest version of “Turnaround” on Ornette’s Sound Grammar also ignores the 12-bar form after the melody. Probably this is the way Ornette wanted to play with Red Mitchell, too.

(It’s certainly the way Ornette wanted to play with Christian McBride on “Sonnymoon for Two” the Beacon Theater event with Sonny Rollins. McBride doesn’t let go of the B-flat blues once. When McBride pedals for a moment during Ornette’s first solo it is quite a relief… but McBride is still in the tonality and resolves the 12-bars accurately.

To be fair, beginning with a clear form behind one old master and abandoning it behind another — in the same song, without rehearsal, alongside yet another old master on drums! — requires a leap of faith that few in McBride’s immediate circle of peers could do. 

Sonny is obviously fascinated by Ornette’s first solo because he answers with one in that style himself. Therefore Sonny has also stopped following McBride’s form, so when he plays the head briefly, the beat is turned around, just like Ornette with an early rhythm section. After Sonny encourages Ornette to play another solo Sonny takes another Ornette-ish one.  During all this untethered activity McBride finally loosens up with double stops and rhythmic variation. McBride is still keeping the form, though, so when Sonny brings in the final head, the beat is once again turned around! I love it. If nothing else, this flawed performance proves that Ornette could disorient conventional jazz greats until the very end. )

Some swear by Tomorrow is the Question. It certainly has some wonderful Don Cherry, stronger than on Something Else or even at the Hillcrest. Metheny must have an opinion: In addition to frequently playing “Turnaround,” on Rejoicing he programmed “Tears Inside” and the title track.

For me, though, Tomorrow is the Question is just a fun curiosity except for the brilliant melodies. Charlie Haden is required for the language to make total sense.

An obvious place to hear Haden’s importance is John Coltrane and Don Cherry’s contemporaneous The Avant-Garde with Ed Blackwell and either Haden or Heath. While the tracks with Heath have a similar feel to Tomorrow is the Question, good but a little disconnected, the tracks with Charlie Haden are something else.

On “The Blessing,” Haden’s marvelous walking lines are above, below, and just alongside the changes. It is pure melody in the bass. On “Cherryco,” Haden begins with fast tempo in free harmony behind Cherry. At the start of Coltrane’s solo, Haden begins in the same place, but since Coltrane keeps strongly suggesting E-flat minor, Charlie eventually goes to him—although he never gives up on the chromaticism strongly suggested by the head of “Cherryco.” (A decade later Haden would play free for Dewey Redman and on the form for Keith Jarrett on “Shades of Jazz.”)

It’s too bad that Haden isn’t on “Invisible,” which has an astonishing discordance between Coltrane and Heath. Heath plays the last two bars of every “A” section as C major, the way Norris and Payne play it on Something Else. Coltrane plays it as D-flat. Every time!


This strange discordance says a lot about the fluidity of Ornette’s early music with changes—again, changes that Ornette probably had little to do with. If Charlie Haden had been on “Invisible,” he would have heard Coltrane and the final two bars would have been D-flat.

Haden’s great early run with Ornette was on the Atlantic discs The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and This Is Our Music. On “Lonely Woman,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Ramblin’,” and “Beauty Is A Rare Thing,” the clear harmonic structures were almost certainly created democratically (and probably mostly by Haden). None of them cycle consistently.

As far as I can tell, there is no common-practice blowing over changes by anybody on those three discs, although they hint at it sometimes. “Bird Food” from Change of the Century is boppish in B-flat with an AABA form, reminiscent of some of the rhythm changes pieces from the Contemporary albums. The A section of “Bird Food” stays close to the tonic and the 8-bar bridge is improvised with Coleman and Haden even starting on D dominant. Between the key, the form, and the title, it is clear that “Bird Food” is Ornette’s avant interpretation of rhythm changes.

However, the band does not improvise on rhythm changes, but instead, the idea of rhythm changes. This is now ideal Ornette Coleman music.

The first soloist is Don Cherry. For a chorus or so, it sounds like they might actually be playing real rhythm changes, since both Cherry and Charlie Haden are playing a lot in B-flat and leave it on the first bridge. But they are not, they are being free within the style. Once in a while Billy Higgins does something that demarcates form, like the “ones” at 2:15 and 2:30. The band responds to those demarcations (especially Haden) and the result is a spontaneous but convincing structure.

“Embraceable You” from This is Our Music is probably the ultimate Rorschach test for Ornette’s fans and skeptics. These days I no longer hear the form as constantly getting lost, but instead as a through-composed collective improvisation. Ornette uses pure melody to shape his solo. Haden is right there, abstracting the tune’s changes and humbly serving Ornette’s broken-hearted smear. Blackwell’s mallets are perfect, especially if you can withhold judgement about the time warp during the first time he uses patterns on the toms. The searing, Coleman-composed introduction may be better than the Gershwin tune. It’s a performance that requires compassion to be understood.

The last two small group albums on Atlantic are in the same style as the previous three but with either Scott LaFaro and Jimmy Garrison in place of Haden. It seems like LaFaro must have rehearsed a lot with Ornette, since he knows the heads intimately, even playing a couple of them in unison with the horns. On “W.R.U” his opening C pedal has become one of the standard ways to play the tune. Garrison doesn’t know the heads as well as Haden or LaFaro—a few times he doesn’t quite finish soon enough—but the hook-up with Blackwell is intense. Some musicians say that Ornette on Tenor has one of the greatest recorded bass and drum feels ever.

After the run of canonical Atlantic records, Ornette’s music changed. By 1962 Ornette had been exposed to other things. In my interview with Gunther Schuller I suggest that Ornette’s new trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett was informed by Schuller and Third Stream. Whatever the extent of Schuller’s literal influence, it seems clear that this trio assimilated modernist classical music: Izenzon frequently used the bow and Ornette played noise violin. (Naturally, Izenzon and Charles Moffett must also have contributed to the technical details of this repertoire.) It’s a tribute to the mystic of melody that any of Ornette’s “noise” pieces with this trio (“Falling Stars”) or later bands (“Rock the Clock”) hold up better than a lot of the same era’s unrelievedly dissonant music from European and American classical composers.

After taking on bebop and modernist classical music, Ornette went all the way back to rhythm without professional experience. “Come Il Faut,” off of Crisis, shows 12-year-old Denardo Coleman at his best. Perhaps Charlie Haden learned something from Denardo: on The Empty Foxhole, Haden tries to walk quarter notes against Denardo’s free rhythm with mixed results. However, by the time of Crisis, Haden plays free time throughout.

As great as Ornette’s music had been so far, it reached a kind of apex from 1969 -1972, when his core quartet consisted of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell. Bebop, European modernism, and free rhythm were all assimilated and liquefied. Ornette and Blackwell were playing better than ever, Dewey’s voice was a natural fit, and Haden became louder and stronger with an amp. It was music with howling, epic qualities meant for concert halls, not jazz clubs. Several bootlegs from big European stages rank among the greatest music ever recorded.

For that band’s lone sojourn into a proper studio, Science Fiction, the epic quality is captured by huge amplified bass and a weirdly “split” alto tone, almost as if Ornette is double-tracked. It’s a joyous assemblage of all the best musicians associated with Ornette: not just the 1969-‘72 quartet, but Cherry, Higgins, and Bobby Bradford too. For the first time, Ornette takes on lyrics. Thanks to Asha Puthli, the results are as memorable as his melodies.

Unfortunately Science Fiction was the last record of Ornette with his peers for the remainder of the the decade. His response to fusion, Prime Time, didn’t seem to leave room for much else. The magnificent consolation prize was Old and New Dreams, the 1969-’72 quartet with Don Cherry in place of Ornette. Their greatest work is at the level of the best Ornette.

One of the few pieces shared by Ornette’s 1969-’72 quartet or Old and New Dreams was “Broken Shadows,” recorded by both bands, as well as during the hair-raising NYU performance with Denardo released on Crisis.

“Broken Shadows” is the only example of Coleman composing something meant to have a repeating AABA structure after 1959. While there aren’t really chord changes as such—Haden’s low counterpoint suggests but does not confirm harmony—or steady tempo, the AABA is always marked by one or two horns continually playing the tune. Ornette and the rest of the horns are free to improvise whatever they hear without ever conflicting with the ensemble.

Even though it is strictly AABA, “Broken Shadows” uses a kind of “flexible platform for the free-form soloist” that conservative early groups were unable to deliver. Ornette never changed. He played the same way since birth and waited for others to catch up.

Bonus Track: Science Fiction, tune by tune

The original 1972 LP was a tight and coherent statement.

Side A:

What Reason Could I Give
Civilization Day
Street Woman
Science Fiction

Side B:

Rock the Clock
All My Life
Law Years
The Jungle is a Skyscraper

The 8 tunes break down into pairs:

“Civilization Day” and “Street Woman” are blowing vehicles with the original 1959 quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins.

“Law Years” and “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” are blowing vehicles with the current early-70’s quartet of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell with special guest Bobby Bradford.

“What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life” are vocal numbers featuring Asha Puthli, both Blackwell and Higgins, and a full horn section including classical trumpet players Carmon Fornarotto and Gerard Schwarz.

“Science Fiction” and “Rock the Clock” are conceptual numbers with no clear melodies.

Of the blowing vehicles,  “Law Years” and “Street Woman” are easily singable and tonal, whereas “Civilization Day” and “The Jungle Is a Skyscraper” are dense, virtuosic, and comparatively atonal.

One more pair, revealed only in hindsight: Science Fiction has shone one of the brightest lights on both Asha Puthli and Bobby Bradford.

In the digital era, some of the LP’s logic gets lost. Having the conceptual pieces next to each other doesn’t make as much sense when you don’t have to turn the platter over in between. It also becomes less clear that one side features Cherry and Higgins and the other features Dewey, Bradford, and Blackwell.

In any format, the unusual production values stand out. The sound is very reverberant, with huge direct bass tone and major slap-back on the alto and vocal. It’s not a palette that would work for conventional jazz but somehow suits the howling, epic quality of Ornette Coleman perfectly. The engineer Stan Tonkel did a lot of other work for Columbia but nothing else sounds remotely like Science Fiction. The producer is James Jordan, Ornette’s cousin. One wonders who thought of what. It’s easy to assume most of the direction came from Ornette but Tonkel and Jordan must have also been part of the magic.

“What Reason Could I Give” Complex layering disguises the work’s simple structure: It is basically a short tune, sung with much fervent ornamentation by a Bombay chanteuse on top, harmonized in diatonic fashion by horns.

What reason could I give

to live

only that

I love you

How many times

must I die

for love

only when

I’m without you

Where will the clouds be

if not in the sky

when I die

There seems to be only one little movement where the harmony moves independently, otherwise it is all parallel, just like most of Ornette’s work with Harmolodics. Haden’s bass line is contrapuntal, and I suspect he came up with it himself. Both drummers play uptempo patterns. It’s hard to tell who is doing what exactly but it certainly swings like a madhouse.

Ornette’s decision to start one of his albums of avant-garde jazz with a searing vocal remains surprising. The closest parallel is perhaps the opening dirge “Lonely Woman” on The Shape of Jazz to Come. The man could always come up with magnificent ballads.

“Civilization Day” In stark contrast, this melody is a jagged blur. It’s very precise – Ornette and Don play it exactly the same way twice at the beginning and twice at the end – but it is also intentionally rough-hewn. Out of the melody, the horns play an improvisation without rhythm section. When Higgins and Haden come in, the tempo is brisk. Todd Coolman once asked Haden after a performance with Old and New Dreams, “How can you play so fast?” Haden replied, “It’s really important.”

Unfortunately there are no tapes of the first quartet in action at the Five Spot in 1960. The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century are immortal, but I always wondered how they cut loose live. Maybe “Civilization Day” and “Street Woman” gives an idea? Certainly it is a relief to hear Haden in the mix so strongly (he’s lost sometimes on the Atlantic albums). Also Don Cherry is more present, with more developed chops. Cherry’s long solo on “Civilization Day” has one matchless phrase after another. Folk music, surrealism, blues, the avant-garde, deep intelligence, primitive emotion: it is all there. One can almost hear Ornette listening in delight before stepping up to deliver his own fervent collection of spontaneous melody.

This track is one of Billy Higgins’s most abstract performances as well. He plays uptempo time brilliantly, of course, but his snare comping is marching along in a moderately obtrusive fashion. He’d never play this way for Cedar Walton or another straight-ahead band. During the drum solo, Higgins’s connection to his teacher Blackwell is even more apparent. As far as I know, this is the first time Ornette and Higgins had played together since 1960, and the studio is postively crackling with energy.

“Street Woman” While still burning, the next track is less atonal. The melody is much simpler than “Civilization Day” and the solos stay fairly connected to G, the home key.

“Street Woman” was part of the set list on the 1971 European tour with Dewey, Haden, and Blackwell. Thanks to the bootleggers, it’s only only song on Science Fiction we have multiple versions of by Ornette himself. Live, it was played a little slower than here. Both drummers choose to play a kind of Afro-Latin rhythm under the melody, and of course Haden’s pedal points are also important to the tune’s identity. Don’s harmony in the studio is different than Dewey on tour, so that suggests that Don also made his own choices about what notes to play.

During the horn improvisations Haden creates tension and release with chromatic guide tones in manner probably derived from his favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Haden never hid his Ozark hillbilly sensibility, either. Sam Newsome commented on how Ornette, “…Taught white musicians that it’s OK to embrace a white sound.” There’s no better exhibit of this than Charlie, who always sounds like a cracker even when playing the hippest shit.

Ornette’s music requires collaboration. Perhaps he brought back his first great quartet to honor them as the first group of true initiates. Whatever the reason, I’d argue that these two tunes are among the greatest tracks from this legendary ensemble. The spirit is so entrancing and correct.

“Science Fiction” Ornette looked around at the New York art scene when forming his early-sixties trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. Perhaps especially through Gunther Schuller, he was exposed to European modernist classical music; perhaps especially through his first wife Jayne Cortez, he was exposed to contemporary poetry and dance, especially that which connected to the Civil Rights era.

The Izenzon-Moffett trio would consistently play chaotic works featuring Ornette’s noisy violin and lyrical trumpet. These were palate cleaners, stops along the way between the ballads and the jazzier numbers. This concept continued with various groups in the later 60’s; eventually spoken word was introduced on 1969’s New York Is Now with “Now We Interrupt for a Commercial,” where Dewey Redman gamely interjects some vocal levity into the mayhem.

“Science Fiction” is a continuation of these themes: a noisy “commercial” for the most abstract and unrelenting sonorities, this time in service of Black Arts poet David Henderson. A crying baby relates to Ornette’s oft-stated curiosity about the natural intuition of the very young.

The piece seems to fade in and fade out, as if the chaos should never have a beginning or ending.

“Rock the Clock” is the only tune with the current quartet of Dewey, Haden, and Blackwell. It’s another conceptual noise piece but a bit more organized than “Science Fiction.” At first, Ornette plays Don Cherry-ish trumpet, Dewey works out on his musette, and Charlie scratches frantically away with his bow. Eventually Charlie funks out on wah-wah, Blackwell settles into some serious New Orleans groove, and Ornette delivers his impeccable noise violin. The highlight may be Dewey’s stellar tenor blues. This groove section feels so good, it almost hurts when they go back to the first texture.

Ever since Louis Armstrong, jazz had always used popular music as a source for improvisation. The onslaught of rock music was proving to be less easily digestible. “Rock the Clock” was Ornette first proposal; soon he would forgo acoustic music entirely and form Prime Time. Perhaps feeling left out in the cold, the other three members of this quartet would join forces with Don Cherry and form Old and New Dreams. Dewey would play his musette a fair amount in that group, but Charlie never broke out the wah-wah for Old and New Dreams. He does play it on Don Cherry’s “Brown Rice” (thanks to Jeff Schwartz for the reminder) and Keith Jarrett’s “Mortgage on My Soul.”

Speaking of Jarrett, it is worth remembering that not only did he share his bassist and saxophonist with Ornette during this era, they both were given big budgets for projects at Columbia before being dropped almost immediately after. For years, Science Fiction and Jarrett’s Expectation were comparatively hard to find despite the initial big push. Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis were the other Columbia jazz artists that Clive Davis axed in one go.

“All My Life” This time, Asha Puthli gets a turn with just bass and two drummers before the horns enter as a kind of sympathetic chorus. Again, the melodic material is actually very slender, just a couple of phrases. But what phrases! Like “What Reason Could I Give,” it is an unimpeachable melody for others to honor and decorate.

At the beginning, it seems like Higgins and Blackwell are playing triplets. When the horns come in, they move to a faster four. Special mention should be made again of Charlie Haden’s contribution. I’m pretty certain his bass line comes from him, not Ornette. Not only does Charlie find exactly the right bass melody to go under the tune, he picks up the bow for grinding against the horns at just the right moment. Clearly they rehearsed a lot for this record.

The two tracks with Asha Puthli are the pinnacle of Ornette’s vocal music. There are other pieces to be heard, but their success can vary widely. On Science Fiction all the patterns came together just right.

“Law Years” instantly became one of Ornette’s most-covered pieces. It is just so charming and distinctive, with a combination of major and minor that is a familiar Ornette-ish conceit.

Perhaps inspired by the melody, all the participants take immortal solos. It goes in a smooth curve of blues: Haden: Dewey: Bradford: Ornette: Blackwell. In general it is in C, but of course Haden moves the keys around while following or prodding the horns. Ornette’s final high “C” to wrap up says it all, really.

Bobby Bradford has had a long career in the music, and still is playing great. I saw him a couple of years ago at the Jazz Standard and was blown away. The last time I was at Charlie Haden’s house I “borrowed” an important and delightful David Murray disc I’d never seen before: Death of a Sideman, with Bradford, Fred Hopkins, Blackwell, and a repertoire of all-Bradford tunes. Ron Miles mentions the important Carter/Bradford collaborations above, and there are certainly other Bradford albums of note.

However, Science Fiction is sadly the only Ornette disc with Bradford. It’s perhaps especially regrettable that that the mid-60’s quartet with Ornette, Bradford, Jimmy Garrison, and Charles Moffett never recorded. Still, Bradford plays so good on “Law Years” that if he had never done anything else, he would still be known in this music.

Ed Blackwell is one of the most distinctive drummers in history. While his student Billy Higgins smoothed out some of the angles and went on to be one of the most recorded musicians in history, Blackwell always remained bit of outsider. On “Law Years” the beat is too weird and too tight for straight-ahead jazz. Not that it doesn’t swing! But Blackwell never saw the need to tone down the parade or the African rhythm or the overall noisy celebration in order to be more slick or professional.

For Ornette he is a perfect match. Jazz guys tend to like Higgins more than Blackwell…But if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to say that Blackwell was even greater with Ornette than Higgins. It’s generous of Ornette to allow us the luxury of comparing the two genius drummers side by side on Science Fiction.

“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper” The head is aggressive blur like “Civilization Day.” With three horns instead of two, it is even more loose and raw. Again, though, that is not to suggest that the melody is anything less than specific, for it is always played exactly the same. It has been fun to find out how others respond to it in terms of notation. We’ve had input from not just the horns but also Dan Schmidt and Matthew Guerrieri. In the end, probably Tim Berne’s version will be our urtext, since Tim really understands something about Ornette Coleman.

Dewey begins his solo by singing and shouting through his horn. This mirrors his entrance to the greater jazz world: The first Dewey utterance on “The Garden of Souls,” the first track on New York Is Now!,  has a similar sonority. Jim McNeely told me about being an Ornette fan, buying the latest record, and confronting that initial solo by a previously unknown tenor player. “Who is that?!?”

I didn’t get to play with Dewey much, but I did do the Leverkusen festival with him in 1993, where Dewey let loose with some extraordinary and passionate extended techniques including singing through the horn. The crowd roared its approval, and afterwards Dewey said, “Europeans enjoy the avant-garde.”

It’s worth remembering that Ornette, Dewey, and Bobby Bradford were all black musicians born in Texas before the civil rights era. As the title suggests, “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” is yet another one of Ornette’s profound mergings of the basic and the knowing. Having all three of these immortal Texas bluesmen playing as avant-garde as possible in front of Hillbilly/Bach bass and New Orleans parade drums is as good an example of an earthly “science fiction” that can be imagined.

1) Interview with Gunther Schuller (part one) — the official interview commissioned by Jazz on 3, mostly about Third Stream

2) Interview with Gunther Schuller (part two) — Gunther’s classical compositions, his magic row, and listening to Contours

3) In the Archives with George Schuller

4) Forms and Sounds: Speculation about Harmolodics

5) This is Our Mystic: Early Ornette Coleman