Not only did Ornette revolutionise jazz, by taking away the chords and thereby inventing free jazz, but he was also one of its most brilliant improvisers and original composers. And he never stayed still; as soon as the critics started liking one of his bands he would disband it and try something new. His interest in philosophy provided my first exposure to the discipline: Ornette said he liked the philosophy of Buckminster Fuller, I couldn’t find any Fuller in my local library, so I read some Plato.
The Shape of Jazz to Come
This would just be one of many brilliant early Ornette albums if it were not for the inclusion of ‘Lonely Woman’. This disturbing masterpiece is best heard in the pitch dark, preferably with a slight chill in the air.
One of the best all-round Ornette albums, with brilliant tunes and inspired soloing throughout. It is straight-ahead free jazz of the highest quality, except for First Take, which is a shorter, alternative take of the fascinating double-quartet experiment that resulted in the Free Jazz album (which isn’t as good): the set-up is Ornette on alto and Don Cherry on trumpet in one quartet, and Eric Dolphy on alto and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet in the other.
The Great London Concert
Who would have thought that such landmark music would be played in Croydon! ‘Doughnuts’ is the highlight: you hang on every note of Ornette’s long, intense solo, and the whole band swings like mad. There is also an episode worth reporting on Silence, a track which alternates group improvisation with long silences. In one of the silences, a heckler in the audience shouts out ‘Now play Cherokee’: you have to turn the volume up to maximum to hear this. It’s supposed to be funny: the track stops and starts, the heckler thinks this is ridiculous, and the joke is that the last tune has finished so now he wants to hear ‘Cherokee’ (an old jazz standard, and not something a free jazz radical like Ornette would ever play). Ornette responds by playing oblique lines over the harmony of ‘Cherokee’, thereby demonstrating his mastery of more traditional kinds of jazz. But it’s not clear the audience gets it, so he explicitly states the theme of ‘Cherokee’, and then the crowd really roars. Over the cheering Ornette starts playing a descending phrase that sounds like laughter: is he laughing with derision at the heckler, or is it good-natured laughter?
Friends and Neighbours
Later mid-period, hard-hitting Ornette album, with raw and emotional tenor playing from Dewey Redman, and some memorable chanting on the title track: ‘Friends and neighbours, that’s where it’s at! Friends and neighbours, that’s a fact! Hand in hand, saxophone! Hand in hand, saxophone! All of the world: stoned, stoned, stoned!’
Opening the Caravan of Dreams
The best offering from Prime Time, Ornette’s free funk ensemble, with guitars and bass guitars clashing all over the place, while Ornette floats over the top of it all (and occasionally sinks too). The band sounds much more raw and edgy on this album than they usually do, and Ornette is in top form.
This 1985 masterpiece resulted when guitarist Pat Metheny finally got to play with his long-time hero Ornette. Metheny has done lots of different things, including his own brand of commercial pop music, but even on his most impressive, hard-core jazz outings, he never sounded as inspired as he does here. Ornette wrote some of his best tunes for this session, including ‘Video Games’, which successfully imitates Space Invaders, Pacman, and the like, and Metheny uses his guitar-synth to maximum effect throughout. The rest of the band, which includes two drummers and bassist Charlie Haden, is perfect.