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The third jazz record I ever bought was Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music. I had never heard anything like it before and it changed the way I thought about music. I was in high school and was just beginning to immerse myself in the world of jazz. Until that point, most of the jazz I had heard was bebop-era music, which to my teenaged, rock-loving ears sounded a bit cerebral and complex: no vocals to pull me in immediately, bass and drums just thumping away. With Ornette's music (I use his first name throughout this article with all due respect), I heard something different, but also something familiar. This was folk music, it had melody. And it was rock music, raw and edgy, dare I say, almost punk. It made sense to me immediately. There was a lot of blues in there. And a voice. It was a saxophone voice. I was hooked. Here are some favorites, in no particular order.
“Folk Tale” This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961) This record featured the great but rarely recorded lineup of trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Ed Blackwell and bassist Charlie Haden. One of the world’s funkiest drummers, Blackwell was not afraid to play the drums, not just cymbals. On this record he hooks up with Haden in such a deep way that it makes me wonder why Ornette rarely used them together on record. To my ears, “Folk Tale” is an archetypal Ornette tune—full of catchy melodies and grooves, hairpin turns and a kind of offbeat humor that pops up in a lot of his music.
“Human Being” Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977) Soapsuds, Soapsuds features Ornette and Charlie Haden in the stripped-down setting of a duo. Recorded for the great Artists House label, the sonic room afforded by a duo gives these masters room to harmonize and re-harmonize at will. “Human Being” is remarkable for its stark beauty, soulful lyricism and the amazing counterpoint offered by Haden, some of his best playing on record.
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House, 1977) I couldn’t decide between “Human Being” and this one so I chose them both. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” is the theme from the amazing and strange nighttime soap-opera parody of the same name. Norman Lear created the kind of television that pushed boundaries, much in the way that Ornette does with music. Humor, deep emotion and a just-plain-weird feeling pervaded the show. I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of "improvised reality” was a big influence on filmmaker Christopher Guest.
“What Reason Could I Give?” Science Fiction (Columbia, 1971) One of the rare Ornette recordings to feature vocals, this take sounds colossal with Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums, plus four tightly voiced horn players (including Ornette and Dewey Redman and two trumpeters) and a processed mix that adds to the density and intensity. Vocalist Asha Puthli really belts it out with fearless energy, a perfect beginning to a record that has a serious edge to it. Any record that has the word “science” in it has my attention.
“Invisible” Something Else!!!! (Contemporary, 1958) On Something Else!!!!, Ornette’s first album, you can hear a lot of classic bebop references. It sounds a bit like a first step, the beginning of a transition. In hindsight we know where Ornette’s going with his music. But at this point in history the other musicians are very firmly routed in American Songbook forms, which, in a way, is at odds with Ornette’s more folk-and-blues-oriented music. To my ears, Ornette is referencing a more traditional—maybe even primal—approach to music that the modern musicians of the day weren’t hip to yet (or had forgotten).
“The Alchemy of Scott LaFaro” The Art of the Improvisers (Atlantic, 1961) For me, the session that produced this cut as well as the album Ornette! and part of Twins is all about Scott LaFaro (bass) and Ed Blackwell. LaFaro brought a totally different energy to Ornette’s music when he temporarily replaced Charlie Haden. This is truly “out” music, which means it’s atonal. The focus is timbre and energy. The forms are very simple, rough and loose, and sometimes difficult to discern. This is not lyrical music, not folk music as I think of it. There’s a great conversation happening—it’s just not about the weather or sports.
“Feet Music” In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams, 1987) “Feet Music” is one of my favorite Ornette tunes. It’s a funky boogaloo with lots of blues elements. One of the things that I’ve always loved about Ornette’s music is the way he can break a groove for a few bars at a time, then resume it and make it sound alright. That kind of thing is more common in folk and blues music but almost never happens in bebop-era tunes. It’s another example of how his music is so tied to the cadences of the human voice, both in song and in spoken language. This has been a huge influence on my music.
“Tears Inside” Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic, 1959) Another great blues, filled with interesting momentary trips into unrelated keys and a hint of bop phrasing, “Tears Inside” is always fun to play.
“Rejoicing” Tomorrow Is the Question (Atlantic ,1959) Parts of this tune remind me of Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” It’s rooted in bop phrasing and harmonic structure but with a few odd measures and other twists and turns that knock it off-center. What makes this so quintessentially Ornette is the way he solos. It’s a slippery statement that, once again, sounds like a vocalization to my ears.
“Blues Connotation” This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1961) “Blues Connotation” is one of his most enduring and covered tunes and the first one I ever learned to play. Ornette’s saxophone playing and his approach to composition are completely intertwined. It’s not easy to play his tunes without hearing his voice on the saxophone in your mind. Like Bird, his pre-conceived melodies seem to be extensions of his improvisation—part of one sound, integrated and whole. He’s a complete artist and one of my biggest inspirations.