Live at the Hillcrest Club
Inner City 1007
Ornette Coleman / alto saxophone, Paul Bley / piano, Don Cherry / trumpet, Charlie Haden / bass, Billy Higgins / drums.
Tracks: 1. Klactoveesedstene (C.Parker) 11:45 2. I Remember Harlem (R.Eldridge) 4:50 3. The Blessing (O.Coleman) 10:30 4. Free (O.Coleman) 5:30 Recording concert live at “Hillcrest Club,”, Los Angeles, October, 1958.
What about Coleman’s music made it revolutionary? Why, with its strong connection to Charlie Parker’s work, was it not only able to escape the conventions of bop but to open the way to the greatest period of emancipation jazz has ever known? Most obviously, Coleman freed the music from its reliance on fixed “changes,” making possible a chromatic rather than diatonic harmony, with considerably greater tonal (in the sense of resolution) flexibility. Connected to this was Coleman’s rhythmic sense which, though in a certain way less “complex” than Parker’s, was more sophisticated in terms of accent and could be so with greater assurance in that it could float freer over a more indeterminate harmonic base.
And these in turn suggested new textural and temporal possibilities. (In his Story of Jazz, Oxford University Press, page 232, Marshall Stearns relates, in fact, the manner in which bop harmony had opened up so many (diatonic) possibilities that they came to enforce a limit on the rhythmic/textural scope of the music: “The harmonies in bop became so complicated – relatively – that the three instruments in the rhythm section that might carry a tune, the guitar, piano, and string-bass, could never agree on the same ‘crazy’ passing or substitute chord at the same time while improvising. There were too many choices in ‘far-out’ harmony; it was too easy to cross each other and, especially, the soloist up. So it became customary to play less when not soloing, ‘comping’ or punctuating with occasional chords, much like the bass drum.”)
It can be seen too, in retrospect, that the “modal” approach to improvisation (the building of tunes on scales rather than on a series of chord changes), taken up around this time by Miles Davis and later by John Coltrane – existed as something of a “conservative” alternative to the innovations proposed by Coleman. For though this approach freed the music melodically and rhythmically within its own special discipline, it was still limited harmonically and, so, in terms of its overall (vertical) shape.
And in the case of Coltrane, it can be seen that his music only became truly “avant-garde” to the extent that it transcended its more narrowly confined harmonic base; in this regard, McCoy Tyner can generally be heard using chords which imply no particular “key” and which can thus be resolved at more than one point in a tune’s harmonic structure. (In the reference from Marshall Stearns above, Stearns goes on to relate how this was also a device used by bop bass players, in their choice of intervals used, to keep “dissonance” at a minimum.)
This gave Coltrane’s music a harmonic “familiarity” which Coleman’s did not have, and it contributed in good part to the (highly charismatic) essence of his work – i.e. in the tension created between a polytonal substructure and the more freed explorations of Coltrane himself. Coleman’s music, though, was freer internally and did not necessitate the kind of extrapolation of extremes that Coltrane’s did. Thus, Coltrane’s aesthetic, even in its greatest moments of freedom (and despite its incredible catharsis) could not help tending to turn back on itself while Coleman’s only suggested the development of a more complex infrastructure: a challenge taken up later by Albert Ayler, the short-lived New York Art Quartet, and a few others, and the implications of which extend all the way to the most advanced improvisational music now being played. (It should be said too, incidentally, that Coleman’s innovations were not solely his domain.
They were equally present in the work of Cecil Taylor, as early as Taylor’s 1955 Transition date – In Transition (Blue Note LA453-H2) with an obvious structural difference being that Taylor’s music was more inherently percussive, Coleman’s more “melodic.”)
The Hillcrest Club date, from which this record comes, occured between Coleman’s two recording sessions for Contemporary. The quintet was led by Paul Bley, though two of the record’s four tunes are by Coleman. Another tune, “Klactoveedsedstene” by Charlie Parker, seems particularly amenable to Coleman’s innovations. It is one of Parker’s more angularly shaped melodies that finds him on the first Dial recording of it taking a quite uncharacteristic and non-linearly conceived solo. So it seems likely that Coleman may have found it of special interest.
In any case, this is almost entirely Coleman’s record and features some extraordinarily exuberant playing from him, some of the best from this early period of his music, and in the most sympathetic group context of any prior to the first Atlantic album. It is difficult to say whether Bley might have been included had it not been for the club date being his. But he proves a more appropriate accompanist than Walter Norris on the initial Contemporary session and, more than anyone else after Coleman himself, seems to grasp the broader structural implications of the music. His work is outgoing, eccentric, well removed from bop harmony, and moves easily between conceptual and stylistic options. His solos, in fact, can almost stand by themselves, but while this is indicative of their originality, it also indicates their non-essentiality to the overall construct. And, as it was, this was one of the last times Coleman would work alongside a pianist.
This is also a period of transition in the group’s playing as a whole. Cherry’s work is strong and interesting, though not as overtly self-assured as Ornette’s. Haden’s work, as A.B. Spellman relates (Black Music: Four Lives, Schocken, page 123) was growing by leaps and bounds at this time, but his lines are not as evolved as they were by the time of the first Atlantic album.
Higgins playing, too, is more to the point rhythmically than on the first Contemporary date, and he in fact transcends any bop frame of reference entirely on “Free,” but he seems only beginning to be aware of the fuller temporal and textural possibilities of his work.
Without question, though, this is the most revealing record of Coleman’s music from the pre-Atlantic period. It indicates too that, though the Atlantic records feature Coleman only in studio sessions, we were more than likely hearing music which, while not always as “loose” as the playing here, was very close to the essence of Coleman’s work.
Henry Kuntz, 1976
selected Ornette Coleman recordings
Ornette Coleman biography:
Ornette Coleman (born March 9, 1930) is an American saxophonist and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s.
Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, where he began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone. He later switched to alto, which has remained his primary instrument. Coleman’s timbre is easily recognized: his keening, crying sound draws heavily on blues music. Part of the uniqueness of his sound came from his use of a plastic saxophone on his classic early recordings (Coleman claimed that it sounded drier, without the pinging sound of metal), though in more recent years he has played a metal saxophone. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music. Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while pursuing his musical career.
Even from the beginning of Coleman’s career, his music and playing were, in many ways rather unorthodox: Coleman was more concerned with relative pitch than with “proper” equal temperament; his sense of harmony and chord progression are not as rigid as most swing music or bebop performers’, and were easily changed and often implied. Many Los Angeles jazz musicians regarded Coleman’s playing as out-of-tune, and he sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter.
In 1958 Coleman led his first recording session for Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano.
1959 found Coleman very busy: He abandoned the piano entirely for Tomorrow is the Question! a quartet featuring Shelly Manne on drums. Coleman encountered double bassist Charlie Haden – perhaps his most important collaborator – and formed a regular group with him, Cherry, and Higgins. They were an unlikely-looking fellowship – Coleman with his plastic alto saxophone, Cherry playing the pint-sized pocket trumpet, Haden honing his technique via his Missouri family’s hill-billy band. This quartet recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, with Atlantic Records, who had signed Coleman to a multi-album contract.
The Shape of Jazz to Come was, according to critic Steve Huey, “a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.” While definitely – if somewhat loosely – blues-based and often quite melodic, the album’s songs were harmonically unusual and unpredictable. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as a talentless hack; others regarded him as a genius.
Coleman’s quartet received a lengthy – and sometimes controversial – engagement at New York City’s famed Five Spot jazz club. Such notable figures as The Modern Jazz Quartet, Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton were favorably impressed, and offered encouragement. (Hampton was so impressed he reportedly asked to perform with the quartet; Bernstein later helped Haden obtain a composition grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.) Opinion was, however, divided: trumpeter Miles Davis famously declared Coleman was “all screwed up inside,” and Roy Eldridge stated, “I’d listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving baby.”
On his best-known early recordings for the Atlantic Records, Coleman led a piano-less quartet with Cherry on trumpet, usually Charlie Haden, but sometimes Scott LaFaro on double bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums. These recordings are collected in a boxed set, Beauty is a Rare Thing.
In 1960, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a double quartet, including Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Haden and LaFaro on bass, and both Higgins and Blackwell on drums. The record was recorded in stereo, with a reed/brass/bass/drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest jazz recording to date, and was instantly one of Coleman’s most controversial albums. The music features a regular but complex pulse, one drummer playing “straight” while the other played double-time; the thematic material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares; as is conventional in jazz, there are a series of solos features for each member of the band, but the other soloists are free to chime in as they wish, producing some extraordinary passages of collective improvisation by the full octet.
Coleman intended “Free Jazz” simply to be the album title, but his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term.
Among the reasons Coleman may not have entirely approved of the term free jazz is that his music contains a considerable amount of composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, strongly recalls the melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over standard harmonies, and in general the music is closer to the bebop that came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. (Several early tunes of his, for instance, are clearly based on favorite bop chord changes like “Out of Nowhere” and “I Got Rhythm.”) Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seems to be an endless flow. There are exceptions, though, including a classic reading (virtually a recomposition) of “Embraceable You” for Atlantic, and an improvisation on Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross” recorded with Gunther Schuller.
After the Atlantic period and into the early part of the 1970s, Coleman’s music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde which had developed in part around Coleman’s innovations.
His quartet dissolved, and Coleman formed a new trio with David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman began to extend the sound-range of his music, introducing accompanying string players (though far from the territory of “Parker With Strings”) and playing trumpet and violin himself; he initially had little conventional technique, and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced Coleman’s development on trumpet and violin. (Haden would later sometimes join this trio to form a two-bass quartet.)
Between 1965 and 1967 Coleman signed with legendary jazz record label Blue Note Records and released a number of recordings starting with the influential recordings of the trio At the Golden Circle Stockholm.
In 1966, Coleman was criticised for recording The Empty Foxhole, a trio with Haden, and Coleman’s son Denardo Coleman – who was ten years old. Some regarded this as perhaps an ill-advised publicity ploy on Coleman’s part, and judged the move as a misstep. Others, however, noted that despite his youth, Denardo had studied drumming for several years, his technique – which, though unrefined, was respectable and enthusiastic – owed more to pulse-oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray than to bebop drumming. Denardo has matured into a respected musician, and has been his father’s primary drummer since the late 1970s.
Coleman formed another quartet. A number of bassists and drummers (including Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) appeared, and Dewey Redman joined the group, usually on tenor saxophone.
He also continued to explore his interest in string textures – from the Town Hall concert in 1962, culminating in Skies of America in 1972. (Sometimes this had a practical value, as it facilitated his group’s appearance in the UK in 1965, where jazz musicians were under a quota arrangement but classical performers were exempt.)
Later, however, Coleman, like Miles Davis before him, took to playing with electrified instruments. Albums like Virgin Beauty and Of Human Feelings used rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk. On the face of it, this could seem to be an adoption of the jazz fusion mode fashionable at the time, but Ornette’s first record with the group, which later became known as Prime Time (the 1976 Dancing in Your Head), was sufficiently different to have considerable shock value. Electric guitars were prominent, but the music was, at heart, rather similar to his earlier work. These performances have the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations – what Joe Zawinul referred to as “nobody solos, everybody solos” and what Coleman calls harmolodics—and although the nature of the pulse has altered, Coleman’s own rhythmic approach has not.
Some critics have suggested Coleman’s frequent use of the vaguely-defined term harmolodics is a musical MacGuffin: a red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics over-focused on Coleman’s sometimes unorthodox compositional style. Jerry Garcia played guitar on three tracks from Coleman’s Virgin Beauty (1988) – “Three Wishes,” “Singing In The Shower,” and “Desert Players.” Twice in 1993, Coleman joined the Grateful Dead on stage playing the band’s “The Other One,” “Wharf Rat,” “Stella Blue,” and covering Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” among others. Another unexpected association was with guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom Coleman recorded Song X (1985); though released under Metheny’s name Coleman was essentially co-leader (contributing all the compositions).
In 1991, Coleman played on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch; the orchestra was conducted by Howard Shore. It is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard: Thelonious Monk’s blues line “Misterioso.”
The mid-1990s saw a flurry of activity from Coleman: He released four records between 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in many years, Coleman worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn).
Coleman has rarely performed on other musicians’ records. Exceptions include extensive performances on albums by Jackie McLean in 1967 (Old and New Gospel, on which Coleman played trumpet), and James Blood Ulmer in 1978, and cameo appearances on Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band album (1970), Joe Henry’s Scar (2001) and Lou Reed’s The Raven (2003).
In September 2006 he released a live album titled Sound Grammar with his newest quartet (Denardo drumming and two bassists, Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga). This is his first album of new material in ten years, and was recorded in Germany in 2005. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Although now an elder statesman of jazz, Coleman continues to push himself into unusual playing situations, often with much younger musicians or musicians from radically different musical cultures, and continues to perform regularly. An increasing number of his compositions, while not ubiquitous, have become minor jazz standards, including “Lonely Woman,” “Peace,” “Turnaround,” “When Will the Blues Leave?” “The Blessing,” and “Law Years,” among others. He has influenced virtually every saxophonist of a modern disposition, and nearly every such jazz musician, of the generation that followed him. His songs have proven endlessly malleable: pianists such as Paul Bley and Paul Plimley have managed to turn them to their purposes; John Zorn recorded Spy Vs Spy (1989), an album of radical thrash-metal versions of Coleman songs; and there have even been country-music versions of Coleman tunes (by Richard Greene). Coleman’s playing has profoundly influenced, directly or otherwise, countless musicians trying as he has for five decades to understand and discover the shape of not just jazz, but all music to come.
On February 11, 2007, Ornette Coleman was honored with a Grammy award for lifetime achievement, in recognition of this legacy. The ceremony’s closing act, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, accordingly paid tribute to Coleman by displaying a sign reading, “Love to Ornette Coleman” during their performance.
more on Ornette Coleman’s web page here…