Ornette Coleman Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums


Jeff Tamarkin on April 21, 2022

Ornette Coleman Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums

Ornette Coleman’s music baffled even the hippest jazz critics and many of his fellow musicians when the alto saxophonist emerged in the late 1950s. Eschewing conventions of traditional melody and harmony, Coleman’s music was often called cacophonous, as his proto-free jazz was likened to the chaotic, randomly splashed paintings of Jackson Pollock. Even contemporaries like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were said to have been ultra-critical, with the latter reportedly remarking, “Anybody can do that.” It wasn’t until much later in his career that Coleman’s deconstruction of jazz norms came to be appreciated. He was an envelope pusher, both as composer and player, so he shrugged off the harsh criticism lobbed his way and continued on his own chosen path as the years went by. The two albums reproduced in this boxed set, Something Else!!!! (1958) and Tomorrow is the Question! (1959)— both released on Contemporary Records—introduced Coleman to the jazz audience. That both album titles include exclamation points wasn’t a coincidence: This was bold music that made its presence known with a splash; it didn’t ask to be loved, just heard. Working with trumpeter Don Cherry, pianist Walter Norris, bassist Don Payne and drummer Billy Higgins on the debut, Coleman was in a rush to get someplace, no roadmap needed. On the opening track, “Invisible,” his notes peel out in torrents and the band members are not so concerned with keeping up or following his lead as charting their own course. That there wasn’t a discernible melody in sight is quickly disproven on tracks like “The Blessing” and the closing tune “The Sphinx”—and the Texan’s roots in the blues are never far from the top. The sophomore set retains Cherry and replaces the others with alternating bassists Percy Heath and Red Mitchell, as well as drummer Shelly Manne. The results are not dissimilar—it would be another year or two before Coleman truly went for the stratosphere—although tracks like “Lorraine” and “Compassion” are already hinting at the shape of jazz to come.

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