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Jazz 101

Jazz 101: Ornette's Shapes

by Seth Colter Walls

Jazz 101: Ornette's Shapes


In light of the announcement of Ornette Coleman's death, at age 85, we're reposting a survey of his early career, from our Jazz 101 series.

What happens when a kid from Texas tosses out strict chord changes, deep-sixes the piano and then blows acidic blues on a plastic saxophone?

You get Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, that's what. Recorded in 1959 as the first release in a six-album deal with Atlantic Records, that classic LP showed how an abstracted approach to pitch and tonality could still produce beautiful melodies -- see "Lonely Woman," which Lou Reed and tons of other artists outside jazz swear by. (Coleman showed up on Reed's The Raven, decades later, to pay back his respects.) "Ramblin'," "Poise," "Just for You," "Eventually" -- Coleman had a ton of great originals. And also a killer quartet, which included trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins (whose swinging talents were used in many, more traditional-sounding hard-bop groups).

Aside from that great run of Atlantic offerings, though – Change of the Century, This Is Our Music and more -- Coleman proved a restless innovator even outside his first established lane of small-group adventurism. He helped kick off the "free jazz" era with the large-ensemble session titled, well, Free Jazz. And lest anyone think him uninterested in composition, he began his long-term engagement with classical music, which first manifested itself in the string quartet piece "Dedication to Poets and Writers." That piece premiered at New York's Town Hall in 1962, along with a new trio that Blue Note would record later in the decade, on At the Golden Circle, Stockholm Volume 1 and Volume 2. Check out all of these highlights from Ornette's first, trailblazing decade in the appended playlist.

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