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3 May 2011

Ornette Coleman - 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' (Atlantic)

The sleeve boasts of a full dynamic-frequency spectrum, and it's true that this erupts in blistering mono, on the great Atlantic Recording Corporation of 1841 Broadway NYC, and you know, The Shape of Jazz to Come isn't a completely inaccurate title! Wanky wannabe-Stanley Crouches can argue til blue in the face about what was the first "free jazz" record, throwing up this one vs Cecil's first, as if it really matters who came before whom. (I'd put my money on Lennie Tristano anyway, if I cared about this debate). To my ears, The Shape of Jazz to Come sounds a lot less like Ascension than you might think, given its reputation. In fact, it starts out sneaky, with 'Lonely Woman' staking out a mellow, creeping blues that is radical only in its loss of centre. Donald Cherry is the cornetist and he's given pretty much equal time with Coleman's alto; there's not much low end apart from Charlie Haden so the whole record has a light lift to it. Cherry's technique is impeccable if not yet the original world-pulse freakbeat he would cultivate 12-15 years later. But the real "crazyness" begins on track 2, 'Eventually', which I would imagine at the time just sounded like two endless solos on top of each other. What glues it all together is Haden and Billy Higgins; while now we might see this rhythm section as holding things back from complete collective improvisation, I appreciate the grounding. I mean, there are riffs throughout, distinct chordal patterns composed by Coleman and adhered to despite the openness. 'Chronology', the closing cut, is certainly related to the hard bop at the time, though more exploratory and bright. In a jazz fantasy, Sonny Rollins could step right in here, and I wish he did at points because a fifth member could push things into a really high gear. 'Focus on Sanity' (a great title particularly when sandwiched between 'Peace' and 'Congeniality') is maybe the most discordant, but in some ways it feels reductive to only view this record by placing it in some quantifiable measure of innovation. Of course, with a bold title like that, I guess you're asking for it. One of the reasons this is a pure pleasure to listen to is the fidelity - I love the way these records sound, a blast from sixty years ago but sounding as true as today. Kudos to Bones Howe for his production techniques, however minimal they might be. Of course the title of this record has become legendary, parodied by Refused in their Shape of Punk to Come (a record that I missed out on but keep intending to go back and discover) and especially by the long-forgotten midwestern avant/punk band, the New Magnificent Cumshots, whose demo cassette The Shape of Jizz To Come (boasting the identical cover to this apart from the word 'jizz' pasted over 'jazz') never actually saw the light of day.

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