Sixty Years Later \\ Binker Golding on Ornette Coleman’s ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’

28th August 2019
Ben Noble confronts the legacy of Ornette Coleman’s classic 1959 album, with a little help from saxophonist Binker Golding

Words: Ben Noble

Imagine having the confidence to call your album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. Now imagine that you turned out to be right. That’s the story of Ornette Colemanthe man who would coin the phrase ‘Free Jazz’. His new ideas and combative, unapologetic approach polarised the Jazz community at the time, but ultimately he practised, predicted and inspired the trajectory of Jazz in the 1960s through to the present day. No other artist created such turmoil, nor was so totally vindicated with the passage of time.

When you compare Coleman’s music with his contemporaries, the lack of a chordal instrument like a piano or guitar is immediately striking. From this simple but ground-breaking change comes his skeletal arrangements which leave soloists free to improvise, unanchored by any of the harmonies within chords. Coleman effectively ignored chords’ traditional role in structuring a song, instead having the soloist lead the band with no harmonic improvisation at all. It was “the official arrival of Free Jazz as a concept” says MOBO award-winning saxophonist Binker Golding. “I’ve always seen this as another shade within the palette of Jazz”.

By centring the soloist, Coleman pioneered a new collective improvisation, where players’ intuition and inter-communication allowed them to reach unexplored heights. Having said that, he still engaged with the traditions, being grounded in bebop, blues and swing, cutting his teeth playing with Charlie Parker. You can hear Parker’s influence in the walking bassline of ‘Peace’, as mellow and bluesy as Coleman could ever be, and the erratic swing of ‘Congeniality’, a classic foot-tapper. And while the chord structures were gone, songs followed the traditional head-solo-head structure, as in ‘Lonely Woman’. 

There was another thing that made Coleman different though – his unprecedented approach to playing the saxophone. He’s described how as a young child, he saw the saxophone as a toy first, an instrument second, a relationship he obviously maintained with his sound-over-theory style. “I learned a lot about expression through the tone of the saxophone from this record”, says Golding. Hear the wonky, discordant emotion of Coleman’s solos in ‘Lonely Woman’, or the laughing, screaming sounds he pulls out of his sax on ‘Eventually’. These solos’ atonality and lack of structure were intensely unique, new and rebellious, a sign that he approached improvisation not only from a different perspective, but from different first principles. 

‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ was anathema for many. Right after the album’s release, Coleman and his band started a two week residency at Five Spots, New York’s Jazz hub. Extended to two and a half months, fans and musicians flocked to hear the provocateur play, and Coleman was by turns celebrated as a genius and derided as a fraud. The drummer Max Roach was said to be so incensed that he found Coleman after the show and punched him in the mouth – but whatever they thought, they all came to listen. 

Over time, ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ was recognised as the prelude to his album ‘Free Jazz’, which would coin the term and birth a genre, changing the face of Jazz forever. In short, it’s a progressive classic whose effects are still being felt. “I don’t think music that was once deemed truly classic can become irrelevant” says Golding. “If music is well constructed and thought out, well crafted and virtuous in every facet of the art-form, it will always be so. This album is, and therefore will always be so”. As for any remaining detractors? Now, just as in New York in 1959, “the album & Ornette’s work overall is objectively artistically correct. People’s changing moods, opinions, thoughts and fashions are what’s irrelevant.”

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