A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Track #24 on Thommy Ford’s Playlist
There is a persistent notion of the avant-garde jazz musician as a solitary maverick, squealing away in a closed-off world of personal expression. A cursory glance at the cover of Ornette Coleman’s breakthrough album The Shape of Jazz to Come wouldn’t dispel that notion. First there’s the title, which still seems brash now, but was downright arch when Coleman was a lesser known jazz outsider from the West Coast. Plus, Coleman is alone on the cover looking a strange mix of daring and introverted. His face seems friendly enough, it’s almost a smile, but his chin is resting on his mouthpiece in a deliberate pose, and the way he hugs that horn seems a bit defensive. We’re probably in for something self-indulgent is the gist of it.
But nothing could be less stereo-typically avant-garde than the album’s opening track “Lonely Woman.” It’s a simple, short, melancholy song, not some sprawling piece of impassioned self-expression. There’s a quiet Charlie Haden bass solo to open it and another to close it out. In between Coleman only takes two quick solos, one so short it’s really just a fill, and the other a heartrendingly beautiful bit of blues playing that barely lasts a minute. Everything else is pure melody.
Now granted, there are certainly some strange twists and turns in those melodies. They’re still rooted in blues tonality though, and have the feel of something traditional. Also granted, Coleman’s alto saxophone and Don Cherry’s trumpet are deliberately out of tune with each other, making the melodies they play something more like whining, crying harmonies. Not to mention the slightly sparse sound of mixing Coleman entirely in the left channel and Cherry entirely in the right. But Haden and drummer Billy Higgins are such a perfect accompaniment—keeping a solid, somewhat leisurely pace—that despite the dissonance and stereo isolation of its leads, the track still achieves the feeling of a close-knit group. And it ends up being such a thrilling performance largely because that group seems to be teetering on the edge of something, just about to fall into directionless chaos.
It’s not surprising that this song has become Coleman’s contribution to the cozy world of jazz standards. It cleans up easy, and is often made into something a little friendlier, if still a bit sad in mood. But I can’t really bear to think of that. It’s such an astounding performance as Coleman recorded it, and such a brave and surprising way to kick off one the most contentious albums in jazz.
Review by Matthew