Friday, September 02, 2005

Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet

I bought this 1961 masterpiece on vinyl a few weeks ago and again yesterday on CD. I figured I need it in a portable version. Still, the album sounds better, much richer and deeper, although that could have something to do with the quality of equipment: of hearing it on a decent stereo over hearing it on a Discman on its last leg. Anyway, still a great wild noisy album that goes every direction at once, guided by the collective senses of the players, which besides Coleman on alto sax includes the multi-instrumental heroic genius Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, two bassists -- Charlie Haden and the late Scott LaFaro -- two drummers, Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, and two trumpet soloists, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard. (Coleman, Haden, Cherry and Blackwell were the more or less standard quartet in the early years.)

The record is impossible to describe. I showed it to a work associate this morning and she said she hated free jazz, to which I could only reply that this CD would not change her mind -- because it defined what free jazz is, and it represents it in its purest form. The very genre was named after this disc.

Coleman said somewhere that he was aiming to do with jazz what Jackson Pollock did with paint, and it has the same shocking directness and energy of Pollock's explosions of color. I'm sure by now there's a documentary somewhere of Pollock painting while Coleman plays on the soundtrack. Action music, you might say.

Listening to it yesterday, I kept thinking of Godard's traffic sequence in "Weekend" -- all those honking horns, which to Pauline Kael sounded like Purcell. Was Godard actually trying to achieve a free jazz feel in audio terms in that film? All I can say is Coleman gives me less of a migraine than Godard did. He achieves a real density of improvisation. In the usual jazz performances, a tune is tossed from one soloists to the next while the other players recede slightly, but here they don't as much; there's a soloist vamping wildly while the others crowd in against him, creating a thick impasto of jagged sound.

It aims for pure abstraction and pure independence of spirit. It makes no concessions to anything, eith melody or the expectations of the audience. It conflicts with expectations. It's totally free.

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