Thursday, May 19, 2011

May 19: Ornette Coleman, "Lonely Woman"

Artist: Ornette Coleman
Song: "Lonely Woman"
Album: The Shape Of Jazz To Come
Year: 1959

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While every genre has its changes and sub-genres that occur over time, there is no other style of music that saw as many groundbreaking changes in as short an amount of time as one sees within jazz music.  When one looks at the history of the genre, for almost three decades, it seemed that every year or two, an entirely new school of jazz was rising, and one cannot overstate just how much impact this had on the entire world of music.  Similarly, the number of artists who helped to create all of these changes is quite long, and yet there are a few names that rise above the others.  Though many of these elite performers brought with them amazing back-stories, there were few that seemed as unlikely to become legendary than the great Ornette Coleman, who burst into the world of jazz in the late 1950's.  The odd thing about this was that unlike nearly every other jazz icon, Coleman was virtually unheard of before his first released, as he did not hone his craft in the same style as most other jazz greats.  This is one of the many reasons that his 1959 album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, is such a stunning and mind-blowing musical achievement, and it remains one of the most important and influential records in all of music history.  Largely regarded as the beginning of the "free jazz" movement, one can quickly understand why both the album and Ornette Coleman are held in such esteem by hearing the albums' extraordinary opening track, "Lonely Woman."

Almost from the moment that the song begins, there is a spirited tension that dominates the mood of "Lonely Woman," and it is set into place by bassist Charlie Haden.  Though there is nothing overly complex about his opening notes, it is the tone and echo he brings that makes it so unique.  As the song progresses, he digs in deeper, establishing the swaying groove that has a slightly Middle-Eastern feel to the sound.  The way in which he manages to simultaneously compliment and contrast the playing of drummer Billy Higgins is equally impressive, and the two quickly make their case as one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz history.  Yet it is the rhythm itself that stands out more than almost anything else on "Lonely Woman," as each of the four musicians seems to be working within their own time signature.  Though there are periods on the song where they are all locked into the same tempo, a majority of the progressions exemplify the "free jazz" style in that they are often playing in double or half time when compared to one another.  It is the way in which all of these tempos lock in so perfectly with one another that makes the track such an amazing musical experience, and it is further highlighted by the fact that the quartet almost completely ignores any need for chords within their playing.  The combination of these two elements is what would define the "free jazz" sound, and "Lonely Woman" also displays the power that can be achieved within only the rhythm section.

However, the fact that chords are so purposefully ignored is without question the most significant aspect of "Lonely Woman," and one can pick up on this difference within the other half of the instrumentation.  Instead of the more traditional trumpet or piano, "Lonely Woman" features cornet player Don Cherry working alongside the bands' leader, and it is the way in which he matches, the veers away from the saxophone line that sets this song apart from the rest of the Coleman catalog.  Throughout his playing, one can sense the freedom of his improvisations, and even when they return to the songs' theme, there is an open, almost wild feel to his performance.  Yet it is the way in which Cherry is able to help frame and spotlight the saxophone playing of Ornette Coleman that proves to be the finest point of this song, as Coleman re-writes the books on what is possible within the jazz world with every note he plays.  Completely throwing all previous "rules" to the wayside, this is without question the finest moment of Coleman's entire career, and there are moments where he seems to have completely flown out of control with his playing.  Yet the fact that he is always able to bring his solos back to the central theme proves his unparalleled mastery of jazz, and while many have tried to copy his style, none have been able to bring all of the elements together in the manner that one can experience on "Lonely Woman."

In retrospect, one might not see "Lonely Woman" as that "far out" a performance, as the music that would appear in the years that followed certainly put it into a greater perspective.  However, when one considers what had been recorded previous to this point, it is easy to understand why so many performers and critics were polarized by the sound found here.  Easily living up to its name, The Shape Of Jazz To Come completely blew open a new avenue for jazz musicians, and one can cite the album as the reason that so many of the tonal and modal experiments occurred in the years that followed.  Furthermore, the fact that the instrumentation was so non-traditional also enabled other artists to test new formations within the lineup of a jazz outfit, and this again shows just how pivotal a release one can see in this record.  However, even with all of these far-reaching realities, at its core, "Lonely Woman," as well as the album as a whole, presents the finest jazz work one could want, and it leaves little question that Ornette Coleman belongs among the jazz elite.  Clearly interpreting music and mood in a way unlike any of his peers, the meandering progressions he plays are able to provide a brilliant contrast to the shrieks and squelches that seamlessly work their way into the arrangement.  It is the way in which he is able to play such wild sounds, yet never lose sight of the melody that enables Ornette Coleman's 1959 recording, "Lonely Woman" to achieve the status that it has, and there are few jazz songs that have proven to be as stunning or as massively influential.

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