In 1959 the Ornette Coleman quartet released one of the true masterpieces of jazz – The Shape of Jazz to Come. But it wasn’t his first recording – nor his second, for that matter. Much attention has been given to ‘Shape’ – as it deserves – but this year Concord Records has been releasing ‘Original Jazz Classics Remasters’, and this week we got Ornette’s first release ‘Something Else!!!’.
Summary: Every artist starts somewhere, and while many seem to think that Ornette simply emerged from obscurity fully formed as part of the East-Coast jazz scene with the Atlantic Records release The Shape of Jazz to Come, his early session work with others and as a solo artist happened in California on a different label. His first record was made in early 1958, at a time when Miles Davis was still finishing work with his ‘first great quintet’ featuring John Coltrane, who had yet to make a splash as a solo artist. In fact, at the same time as this record was made Miles was working as a sideman on Cannonball Adderly’s record of the same name, featuring a sublime version of the standard Autumn Leaves. We hadn’t heard the fully formed Charles Mingus yet and Dave Brubeck’s time signature experiments were still two years off, and Sonny Rollins was still developing the style that would carry him from the following year until … well, he is still going strong.
So into this very traditional time period Ornette dropped a record called ‘Something Else’. At the time the expression had two meanings – it was a superlative of the highest level, but at the same time it also meant something apart from the expected. It was quite a statement to make for a debut solo record by a saxophone player who had a hard time finding work because his style and harmonic approach was unfathomable to most bandleaders.
Something Else features some of his classic group – Don Cherry is on trumpet and Billy Higgins is on drums. Don Payne on bass, who would be replaced by Charlie Haden by ‘Shape’. And on this recording Walter Norris is on piano, an instrument that is very rare on an Ornette session. It is interesting to me listening more than 53 years later that what stands out is NOT Ornette or Cherry using non-standard tonality or playing against the chord progression, but rather the impact of the piano inserted into the proceedings. While I could easily do without the piano here, having it puts Coleman’s non-piano work in sharp contrast with this session.
The compositions here feature the angular structures, the gorgeous long-form melodies, and the tremendous use of space that marks all of Ornette Coleman’s best music. The structure of each tune has a fairly standard head-solos-head progression, yet harmonically Coleman in particular is much less concerned with maintaining tonality than he is with exploring the evolving harmonic space created by the interplay of the band. Yet it all happens in a format that is much less ‘out there’ or ‘free’ then anything else he ever recorded.
There are songs here that have become classics – Dave Liebman recorded ‘The Blessing’ on his Turnaround CD last year – and all are solid. The playing is excellent, but at this stage Ornette is operating on a different plane than everyone else, with only Cherry showing signs that he ‘gets it’. The newly remastered tunes sound better than ever – I own this on LP, but never got the CD. I bought the new release on iTunes, and was stunned at how they have brought everything to the fore without sacrificing the dynamics or balance of the interplay.
Choice Track (and why): ‘The Blessing’ – Ornette composes a tune that feels like hard-bop in some ways but is also an evolutionary blues tune, in this case a 17-bar blues progression, much less common than the 12-bar blues used widely in rock music.
You Might Love This If: Some debut recordings or early works of great masters are good for archival purposes or to complete the collection of a fan … but this recording is at once modern and accessible. The dynamic language Ornette was developing is here to observe, but it isn’t as intimidating as trying to pick up ‘Free Jazz’.
Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $8.99
Here is a video of Ornette Coleman playing ‘Jayne':