It is a truism that change is hard for most folks. The first time you taste asparagus: blech. Down the line, it’s as delicious as caramel. And in music it’s true, too. Stravinsky was unlistenable in 1913, but by the 1950s, he was a concert staple. Elvis was sexual dynamite in 1955 and unhip pap by the early ‘70s. Perceptions change, but so do artists.
Something Else is the remarkable 1958 debut recording by the alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. Coleman was from Texas, but he was in Los Angeles when he got his big break from Lester Koenig at Contemporary Records. Coleman had begun to play with Don Cherry, who would begin recording on the “pocket trumpet” and the great drummer Billy Higgins. For this first set of nine tunes, Coleman also worked with pianist Walter Norris and bassist Don Payne. Well, if you were a jazz fan in 1958, you might have thought that this Coleman kid had taken a poop in his horn and then lit it afire. Such was the reaction of many to this crazy music. Fifty-three years later, the music sounds positively tame—well within the conventions of bebop that ruled the time.
So, what set people off, and how does the music itself hold up over time?
First, there is no doubt that Coleman himself plays with an unconventional tone, a purposefully hazy intonation, and with limited relation to the apparent chord changes of the tunes. Second, the (mostly) unison ensemble playing between Coleman and Cherry has a buzzing quality that is microtonally “off”. And finally, the tunes themselves can lurch and skitter in ways that surely seemed peculiar in 1958—the horns seem to rush ahead in spots (“Chippie”) or to play patterns or rhythms that are close to convention but then not within convention—too different to be comforting but not different enough to reform the ear (“The Disguise”).
With the exception of Coleman’s improvising, these oddities melt away in the ear of a 2011 jazz fan. Within just one year, Coleman would be recording without the harmonic sugar of a piano, and his whole band and concept would seem notably more “free”. Coleman himself, in the original liner notes, states: “I think that one day music will be a lot freer”. Even the artist did not think it was there yet.
Of course, Norris and Payne are simply playing bebop—just listen to their solos on “Angel Voice” and you will hear utterly conventional bop playing of the late ‘50s. And Higgins’ drumming, while fluid and simpatico with Coleman in every moment, swings in conventional time. It is notably less “out” than the work of, say, Max Roach or Art Blakey from the same era.
Cherry is also playing bebop, but he is closer to Coleman in concept. His long solo on “Alpha” is a clear balance. On the one hand, Cherry crackles with licks that run across the harmonies, just as if he were Kenny Dorham. On the other hand, there is a raggedness to his tone in places, and he has developing a way of abstracting the harmonies without really playing “wrong” notes.
The leader, however, is already free on his solos. Not only does Coleman use an off-putting and highly vocalized tone, but he tends to play flat in ways that makes all his notes sounds like blues tones. Then, when actually selecting notes and building phrases, he does not necessarily follow the chord patterns that Norris and Payne are playing. On “The Blessing”, which is a wonderful and attractive theme over the “I’ve Got Rhythm” chord changes, Coleman’s line is significantly in conflict with the first pattern. On “Alpha”, Coleman sounds a good bit like Eric Dolphy in the way he follows his own sense of vocal patterns down interesting melodic allies.
In many ways, Coleman’s most interesting innovations here are in how he structures his composition. Though these tunes are relatively conventional compared to the songs that were to come in the years ahead, the bracing originality of a tune like “The Sphinx” is a cold slap to your ears. The opening fanfare jabs and thrusts over irregular rhythmic punches, and then the tune moves into a rubato middle section. Without a standard pattern against which to be measured, this tune produces the most original effect in the ear—and from the soloists.
In Coleman’s next Contemporary recording and then his remarkable run of albums for Atlantic and Blue Note in the 1960s, the piano would be jettisoned and the band would make a remarkable leap toward greater freedom. But, despite the cries of “madness!” that came from many listeners and critics, even these more radical ventures had much in common with Something Else.
Coleman carried that bebop phrasing and sense of joy with him in all his playing. Throughout his joyous, daring career, Coleman has used his sound to bring a more natural cry to jazz—a blues aesthetic that was as much traditional as it was radical. And he’s still at it. But it started here.