Over the past three months, The New York Times has asked musicians, writers and scholars to share the favorites that would make a friend fall in love with jazz — starting with Duke Ellington, then moving on to Alice Coltrane and bebop.
This month, we focus on Ornette Coleman, the iconoclastic saxophonist and bandleader whose style prioritized atonal chords over traditional rhythm and harmony, which helped establish the subgenre of free jazz in the late 1950s. Though the rules of what jazz entailed would soften a decade later, as musicians like Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis began mixing the genre with elements of funk and rock, Coleman’s approach was controversial at first, leading to ridicule or even violence. Davis once said that Coleman was “all screwed up inside.” In 1959, the drummer Max Roach punched him in the mouth after hearing him play. “In New York, I’m telling you, guys literally would say, ‘I’m going to kill you. You can’t play that way,’” Coleman once said.
Yet you don’t become legendary by doing the same old thing, and Coleman was confident and fearless in his artistry. Through albums like “Something Else!!!!,” “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Free Jazz,” Coleman stuck to his vision and earned respect in the long run. In 2007, his album “Sound Grammar” won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Coleman is now considered a pioneer in avant-garde jazz.
Enjoy listening to excerpts from these tracks selected by a range of musicians, writers and critics. You can find a playlist with full-length songs at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own Coleman favorites in the comments.
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Nubya Garcia, musician
I felt a true sense of freedom when I first listened to the album “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” This was my first experience with free jazz; the tracks “Peace” and “Lonely Woman” truly resonated with me. The title of the album was also incredibly bold and decisive — this really pulled me in and I was pretty intrigued. I’d never heard anything like it before!
What struck me on “Peace” was the clear, incredibly melodic theme. In each listen I kept hearing things I hadn’t before: the hookup between the horns and rhythm section, the intricacies throughout; the rhythmic motifs in Ornette’s solo; the bebop language; his instantly recognizable sound and tone, with melodic lines full of questions and answers. The driving groove and walking bass line keeps you locked in and wondering where it’s going to go. Both Coleman and Don Cherry just soar through the tune.
I am so grateful to have seen Ornette play when I was very young, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It’s pretty crazy to think I’ve been listening to this record on and off for almost 20 years!
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James Brandon Lewis, musician
The first time I listened to Ornette Coleman as a young person I was like, what’s the problem? Like really, what’s the controversy? I honestly don’t get it. Of course this could have been my own nature relating to his vibe or my naïveté according to my own taught understanding concerning the way jazz is “supposed to be played,” but the way he played it sounded natural, organic and of the earth and womb.
“Broken Shadows” is a composition of Coleman’s I often play in his memory and that of a fellow jazz great, the bassist Charlie Haden, his dear friend, collaborator and my teacher while I was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. Haden, upon showing us this tune, would describe meeting Ornette at his house and depicting a scene so vividly, saying music literally covered everything — the floors, the walls, the doors. As a young student this was inspiring. Like most Ornette Coleman tunes, “Broken Shadows” is lyrical, speech-like and hymn-like in nature, as well as melodically sophisticated. I would hear “Broken Shadows” not on the record with that name but on the album “The Complete Science Fiction Sessions,” which features a whole host of amazing musicians and another influence of mine, Dewey Redman.
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Piotr Orlov, writer
Ornette Coleman’s influence over the American century is as much philosophic as it is musical — and on occasion his worldview was central to the fabric of a recording. The Double Quartet of “Free Jazz” was one occasion; and “Friends and Neighbors,” a distinctive recording in Ornette’s catalog, is another. It’s a mass singalong (there’s also an instrumental version) performed by a crowd gathered in the building he co-owned at 131 Prince Street in SoHo (soon to become known as Artist House, helping initiate Manhattan’s loft jazz era), accompanied by the bassist Charlie Haden and the drummer Ed Blackwell leading a funky swing, the tenor Dewey Redman’s sweet melody and Coleman on violin, thrashing about noisily. “Friends and neighbors/that’s where it’s at,” the choir intones, its living intentions represented by the ditty and its lo-fi recording — four minutes of almost punk simplicity. Recorded on Feb. 14, 1970, it was also synchronized with the universal aspirations of two other musical events taking place in Lower Manhattan that night: Six blocks away, at 647 Broadway, David Mancuso was hosting his own initial loft gathering, a dance party called Love Saves the Day, which went on to define the fellowship potential of D.J. culture. And the Grateful Dead, who adapted Ornette’s free jazz lessons for the psychedelic rock crowd, was at the Fillmore East, engaged in a historic New York City stand.
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Idris Ackamoor, musician
The jazz outlaw dancing, weaving, bopping, singing with alto plastic full of human feeling, full breath-propelled runs: a serenade for “a very pretty girl.” The jazz outsider scorned by the insiders as he blows a change of the century in 4/4 time. When walls come tumbling down, earth-shattering notes explode and blast the unbelievers with his “outsider” gang. Cherry playing barrages of spit-induced embraces, sun-drenched round sounds from the depths of Haden’s repetitive pizzicato — dum did di dum da di dum di dum — announcing “Una Muy Bonita,” as Billy the Kid’s rat-ta-tat-ta drum rolls on the swinging saloon gate announce the change of the century north and south of the border, way down Mexicali way, escaping the jazz establishment — the jazz Ayatollahs who say “no dogs or cats or outlaw music allowed in this cantina.”
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Shannon J. Effinger, writer
“Lonely Woman” was never one of my favorites among Ornette Coleman’s prolific output. Much to my chagrin, I didn’t give it a real chance. Back in college, I felt its title alone had trivialized and belittled one’s experience based on gender.
Then one day, while at a cafe in the Village, I heard this incredible piece of music, brimming with fervor and tension. That moment made me a lifelong fan of the Modern Jazz Quartet and convinced me to give Coleman’s composition a good, honest listen. Having lived with this tune, and its many renditions, for some time now, I am finally beholden to its archetype. The impetus for “Lonely Woman” reportedly came from a portrait of a wealthy white woman. What struck Coleman most was how withdrawn she looked, despite her affluence.
As the drummer Billy Higgins maintains a calm, steady ride pattern, Charlie Haden sets the mood with an elegiac bass line, denoting a harrowing turn. More than 60 years later, the lamenting cries of Coleman’s alto sax and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet, in unison, are an allegory for the disillusionment we all feel.
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David Hajdu, writer
Yes, there is chaos in this world, and it’s hard to process, this song reminds us. But listen: There is also beauty, and the two things can coexist in exquisitely clashing equilibrium. A rare vocal composition with words and music by Ornette, “What Reason Could I Give” was the first track on “Science Fiction,” the 1972 album that marked its creator’s new phase as an unfettered musical-spiritual hybridist. A quartet of free-jazz virtuosos (Dewey Redman, Carmine Fornarotto, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, along with Ornette) howls and squeals in deranged fury while Asha Puthli, an Indian vocalist making her jazz debut, sings a languid melody in ethereal tones. “What reason could I give to live,” she asks, answering, “Only that I love you.” And what explanation could Ornette offer for this music? Only that he loves it.
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Kamasi Washington, musician
The way the super haunting strings bending their notes interact with Ornette Coleman’s tone on “Sadness” is so beautiful to me. Ornette always creates the most interesting and beautiful colors with his music, and this piece is such an amazing example of that. It feels really sad, but somehow also comforting, like the moment when you learn how to cope with a great loss. He is such a master at creating music that is able to express complex ideas and feelings with sound. It’s like the strings represent the pain that we all experience in life and his alto saxophone is the resilience of the human heart. Because some pains never go away, we just have to become strong enough to carry them.
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Mark Richardson, writer
The magic of Ornette Coleman’s music lies in his mix of the familiar and the strange. He was steeped in music history and his work was fundamentally grounded in blues, but Ornette often put himself in situations where he had to come up with new solutions to thorny problems. In almost all his music, there’s a feeling of risk: This could go wrong. On the title track from the 1966 LP “The Empty Foxhole,” he’s working with two potentially worrying limitations: One, he’s on trumpet, an instrument he’d only started studying in the past few years. And two, the other member of his trio, along with his frequent collaborator, the bassist Charlie Haden, is his 10-year-old son, Denardo. But everything comes together beautifully on this mournful cut, which is drenched in blues and oozes feeling. It’s brief, mysterious and deeply moving, and once again Ornette’s fearless desire to put himself in a tough spot led to brilliance.
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Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writer
“Faces and Places” can be seen as Ornette Coleman’s exploratory mid-1960s in microcosm. Opening the first volume of “At the ‘Golden Circle’ Stockholm,” a live set recorded in December 1965 with the bassist David Izenzon and the drummer Charles Moffett, the song opens tentatively yet hungrily: there’s a yearning growl in Coleman’s tone, a nervous edge that focuses attention. As “Faces and Places” stretches out over the course of 11 minutes, the trio goes further afield, with Coleman and Moffett growing increasingly manic, cramming in notes into a short bar and, in Ornette’s case, pushing his saxophone into amelodic refrains. The momentum of the performance is the key: It’s the sound of the band gaining confidence, simultaneously discovering their shared strengths. Other Ornette music may be further out, but listening to this trio in the process of ascension is exhilarating.
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Shabaka Hutchings, musician
The language we decide to use collectively in relation to art can shape how we listen, teach and see its relevance to our culture as a complete cosmological structure. What is “free” jazz? In Ornette Coleman I hear a musician who understands that the musical idea isn’t to be limited by the notion that a song’s structural integrity is sacrosanct; freedom not as a fixed conceptual space, but as a term denoting actions relative to a pre-existing system which is limiting in some capacity. “Compassion” is set upon a somewhat conventional set of chord changes, so we are able to clearly see Ornette’s poetic and harmonic logic guide his melodic intent as it would throughout his career.
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Hank Shteamer, writer
Even for the listener fully indoctrinated into the revolutionary sounds of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s early work, the opening seconds of “Street Woman” — a standout of the 1971 studio sessions that reunited the saxophonist with the pocket-trumpeter Don Cherry, the bassist Charlie Haden and the drummer Billy Higgins — still have the power to startle and delight: the supercharged, Spanish-sounding theme that keeps rising to new peaks of urgency; Higgins’ furiously locomotive ride-cymbal barrage; Haden’s huge, elemental bass throb. It’s hardly surprising that when Coleman launches into his solo, with an extended wail that trails off into a series of clipped phrases, it plays like an eruption of joyous laughter. Or that Haden and Cherry sound like they’re swept up in ecstatic trances during their respective features. There’s a high-wire exhilaration that this group achieved in 1959, braiding together virtuosity and utter fearlessness, that was fully intact 12 years later — and again in 1987 when these players reconvened for Coleman’s half-acoustic, half-electric “In All Languages.”
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Phil Freeman, writer
Though it wasn’t released until 1982, “Of Human Feelings” was recorded live in the studio in April 1979, on a two-track Sony PCM-1600 with almost no production effects. Sharp-edged and thorny, it was the most clattering, urban-jungle-like album since Miles Davis’s “On the Corner.” The guitarists Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix were panned hard to left and right, with Denardo Coleman and G. Calvin Weston’s drums rattling along in loose unison; Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s thick, sproingy bass filled up the middle, and Coleman’s alto sax keened the earwormish melodies, his trademark exuberance newly streetwise and deeply funky. “Jump Street” has an almost disco beat at times, and Ornette, Tacuma and the guitarists are on fire throughout.
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Camae Ayewa, poet and musician
I cry writing this. Because I am so thankful for Ornette Coleman.
Just last week I was championing his masterful work “Science Fiction,” released in 1972, a brilliant expansive experience. Inspiring me to claim intergalactic space within the avant-garde, his symmetrical arrow of time created the conditions for Irreversible Entanglements to continue in his sonic tradition with improv. The art of improvisation laid down the foundation for us to stretch and create our own temporal conditions. A true African futurist, not Hollywood’s futurism or Bank of America corporate futurism. This is a futurism of heart and mind. A futurism that doesn’t rely on sight but only on feeling and knowing. A Black quantum futurism can be shared with your neighbors and friends, and the only requirement is a heart and a brain, and the only question is tomorrow, the shape of jazz to come.
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