Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), 8/10

The second you put on The Shape of Jazz to Come, it sounds like a set of jazz compositions out of time and place, simply transcending anything else you would hear at the time and much of what we hear now. Although a controversial recording at release, especially vocally hated by Miles Davis, the record signaled a leap forward in the avant-garde, freedom in performance and in jazz composers' use of harmonic structure. Unlike many of his later recordings, here as early as his third studio album, Ornette Coleman's quartet simultaneously creates beautiful melodies while reaching out into the unknown, beautifully unfettered realm of free improvisation. The most immediately individualizing characteristic of the record is its lack of chord structures typically provided by a pianist. Rather than relying on this inherent chordal structure, the band must provide their motif themselves in the form of horn-driven melody and theme; this is most explicitly displayed on the opener “Lonely Woman” and would be expanded upon in the years to come on other essential jazz albums such as Ayler’s sovereign statement that is Spiritual Unity. You can also visually see a defining characteristic of the record’s sound in Coleman’s plastic Grafton saxophone, the same he is holding on the cover, that resulted in a coarse sound in comparison to the traditional brass construction. This harsh sound combined with the non-traditional performance styles, the uncommon arrangement of the quartet, and the early free jazz leanings and seminal improvisation techniques make it the divisive record that it was at the time and has continued to be. There is a greater sense of structure here than on something like the also individually distinguished Ornette Coleman records Free Jazz and Chappaqua Suite, and this elevates The Shape of Jazz to Come to stand on its own as one of the most enjoyably innovative, boundary-pushing jazz releases. Of course, Ornette Coleman is an outstanding saxophonist regardless of what he is playing, and he is joined by a group of musicians not only more talented than his previous co-contributors but also more open to his style of composition and improvisation, which is essential and vital to the music’s success. Don Cherry was an equally gifted mind and horn player, and Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins hold together their far-reaching genius while occasionally providing unconventional bass techniques that actively participate in each movement and perfectly shifting percussion with freedom in time while maintaining a pleasurable swing. The performances themselves are so detailed and intentional, showing not only the individual virtuosity of the band but also accentuating the inventiveness contained within each composition and improvisational phrase. What makes this record stand out against the countless great jazz and free improvisation based albums that are available now is its raw, pure sensual beauty, skirting the harsh experimental sensibilities of later works and maintaining the passionate, honed-in playing of its predecessors in bebop. You can feel a direct connection with the band, emanating a feeling of charged, authentic passion. Coleman's affinity for the blues and its simple and powerful delivery show in compositions like "Peace" and "Focus on Sanity", a simple aesthetic that add to the charm and intimacy of such a powerfully novel statement. Every note played on this album carries an intentional and powerful message, and the album itself deserves the immortality it has been awarded by jazz lovers, not only from its inherent listenability and quality of music, but also its status as the grandfather of modern jazz and the free jazz movement.