Review #417: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman

Karla Clifton
3 min readJul 14, 2023

#417: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Ornette Coleman

You know when jazz is above your paygrade? When the guy has been interviewed by Jacques Derrida. For those without an English lit degree, Derrida was a linguistic philosopher who came up with the concept of deconstruction, a concept so complicated that it’s pointless for me to try and remember what it is. The interview is full of questions only a philosopher would ask, but still occasionally offers revelations like the fact that he wrote the song “Lonely Woman” after seeing a painting of a “very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world. I had never been confronted with such solitude.”

The self-taught saxophonist pioneered freeform jazz in the fifties, breaking it open in 1959 with an album that was called a “watershed event in the genesis of avant garde jazz.” This is basically the jazz yo mama warned you about, the one that lacks any direction and is alllll improv. Derrida tried to ask about Coleman’s process, and Coleman called his songs “conversation[s] with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it.” I bet Derrida loved hearing that.

Nobody is trying to lead, per se, but the lead part inevitably changes, melodyless verses cutting between short riffs. Different people show off at different moments “Eventually” has Coleman playing his saxophone so amphetamaniacally fast that I can almost understand why someone threw it off a cliff. “Chronology” has horn stabs so sudden that I think genuinely startled the girl sitting next to me on the train. Lead riffs change hands quickest on “Focus On Sanity,” which is a bit of a taunt as the bass, sax, and drum parts try and rip it away from us. And fittingly, after taking the backseat the whole song, the bass finally breaks into a low, sawing solo at the end of “Peace.”

Coleman was not universally beloved. Audiences didn’t always respond to him. Miles Davis didn’t like him. (Though Leonard Bernstein did.) But I think that “Congeniality” would get even Coleman’s harshest critic’s head bobbing — it’s downright approachable, melodic, even.

It seems that Coleman was comfortable with being a little misunderstood. As the Derrida interview wraps up, Derrida asks Coleman, “How do you understand or interpret your own verbal statements? Are they something important to you?” (Imagine Buzzfeed asking someone that question.)

Coleman replies: “It interests me more to have a human relationship with you than a musical relationship. … At the same time, I would like to be able to speak of the relationship between two talents, between two doings. For me, the human relationship is much more beautiful, because it allows you to gain the freedom that you desire, for yourself and for the other.”

It’s weirdly charming, this jazz guy and this philosopher getting so cerebral, trying to convince one another that they’re human.

Fun Fact: Derrida was my hardest assignment in my hardest class of undergrad and I hated him.

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