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Ornette Coleman's Best Albums by Decade: 'Shape of Jazz To Come,' 'Free Jazz' and More

by Ryan Book   Jun 11, 2015 16:38 PM EDT

Ornette Coleman, one of the most innovative and influential figures in the history of jazz, died today of cardiac arrest and Music Times wants to revisit his catalogue across six decades and throw out the best of the bunch for those who haven't checked out his catalogue yet, including smashes such as The Shape of Jazz To Come and Free Jazz.

The '50s: The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959)

Coleman's recording career during the '50s was short, consisting of a mere three albums with Atlantic, but it only took one to make his career legendary. His second album was titled The Question Is Tomorrow! and the saxophonist anticipated titling his third set Focus on Sanity. That wasn't good enough for producer Nesuhi Ertegun, who heard the future in Coleman's off-the-wall improvisations, and he pushed the star to consider the title The Sound of Jazz to Come, a statement answering the "question" posed by the title of the previous work. It was a bold title, and one that proved true. The album created an uproar in the industry, with both critics and performers either praising or lambasting the release with no middle ground. Among the most vocal critics was Miles Davis, who had recently released his iconic Kind of Blue album. Yet Coleman's sound pushed the jazz scene in such a direction that Davis formed his second quintet to reflect the sound pioneered by Coleman and Davis' former trainee, John Coltrane. The sound would make waves from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians to the West Coast and continues to shape jazz today...just as it predicted.

The '60s: Free Jazz (1961)

You've just gotten done turning the jazz world upside down, so what do you do now? The rapid rate at which jazz artists and rock 'n' rollers turned out new LPs back in the day is quite mind-boggling now. After he released the masterful My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy during 2010, we understood that Kanye West deserved a few create the different sound palette of Yeezus. Coleman didn't have that luxury, returning to the studio to turn out two more records during 1960 (the similarly brilliant Change of The Century and This Is Our Music) before releasing his second most popular album, Free Jazz, during 1961. Many have noted that "free jazz" was never so much an independent movement than a new way of performing other jazz subgenres, such as hard bop and post-bop, yet the styles innovated by Coleman have often been classified by the title of album Free Jazz. It pushed the conceptual element of the form, with two totally separate quartets performing independently, and then combining the tracks into one by way of lest-and-right stereo channels. It could have been a disaster but wouldn't you know it? The product was incredible.

The '70s: Soapsuds, Soapsuds (1977)

After listening to the aforementioned two albums, a more timid listener might assume that Coleman played with huge groups to generate such a sound. He didn't, but he had no issue playing with even smaller setups than his usual quartet. Many of the jazz greats have been noted for special recording relationships, and for serving as a launching pad for other jazz icons. No name stands out more from Coleman's career than Charlie Haden, a bassist who would perform regularly with the horn-man. Soapsuds, Soapsuds is a notable album from Coleman's career because it features him in a duo with his most constant collaborator, riffing over Haden's bass for five numbers, including a play on the theme to the television show Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann. Haden would die less than a year prior to Coleman.

The '80s: Of Human Feelings (1982)

Coleman was far from the first to incorporate "foreign" instruments such as guitar into his jazz...jazz fusion had been riling up the establishment for years by the time he released Of Human Feelings in 1982. One would think that the swirling polyphony that he had carried in his music for nearly 25 years would have made him immune to criticisms of "selling out." Nope. It's ironic to consider the same voices that shook their fists at his groundbreaking music during the '60s for being too radical were coming back to lambast the performer for going too mainstream. Don't think that the emergence of occasional dance beats in his music make this an easy listen however. This is still a maddening leap away from what Herbie Hancock was doing with Head Hunters a decade before.

The '90s: Tone Dialing (1995)

Okay, maybe it was possible for even Coleman to go too far, such as the inclusion of a rap on "Search for Life" during the 1995 album Tone Dialing (although we'll take it over Geddy Lee of Rush experimenting with hip-hop during the same timeframe). No, the genre that Coleman experiments with much more successfully during his later career is funk. Despite being a genre that thrives on riffs and continuity more so than most, Coleman manages to temporarily jump out of loop on his saxophone and trumpet and get right back into the groove, providing diversions that are eye-catching without disrupting. His interpretation of Bach's Prelude demonstrates that the most experimental musicians, such as himself and Wendy Carlos, can make something grand out of one of the Baroque era's more conservative composers.

The '00s: Sound Grammar (2006)

This was the only LP of original material that Coleman released during the new millennium (a recent lawsuit has demonstrated that he didn't wish himself affiliated with 2014's New Vocabulary) but that doesn't mean that we selected this release with any doubts in our mind. Even more than a decade removed from his last body of original work, Coleman's talents for quoting the work of masters such as Stravinsky within his own playing continued to serve him well. Although it didn't win Coleman his first Grammy, it did land him an award perhaps more sacred to jazz musicians: The Pulitzer Prize.

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