Genesis of Genius Sheds Light on Ornette Coleman's Ineffable Muse

A new reissue of the free-jazz pioneer’s first two albums reminds us that he was always highly mindful of form

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<i>Genesis of Genius</i> Sheds Light on Ornette Coleman's Ineffable Muse

“What will be the most talked about, praised & damned jazz album of 1958?” The question was posed via a series of small block ads that ran in the back pages of DownBeat magazine from the fall of that year. Taken out by Contemporary Records, the ad was of course definitive in its answer, proposing that saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Something Else!!!!, his debut as a leader, would be that album. Either the label turned out to be right, or they they spoke it into existence. In any case, they calculated correctly. Coleman—widely credited as a key progenitor of free jazz along with Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy—did cause tremors, dividing critics and listeners alike when Something Else!!!! was released that November.

Writing in the Oct. 30 issue, DownBeat contributor/editor John Tynan chided Coleman for what Tynan described as his “sometimes inarticulate” alto-sax playing and a “desperate” desire to be a game-changer. In Tynan’s estimation, Coleman’s reach exceeded his grasp, noting that “there are times when he’s on one planet [while] the rhythm section [is] on another.” Tynan also wrote: “It’s easy to imagine listeners quickly taking sides for or against him.” More importantly, Coleman’s peers had already begun taking sides. As far back as when he was still playing in blues/R&B settings early in his career, Coleman turned heads. Upon taking his first solo on the tenor in guitarist Pee Wee Crayton’s touring band in 1950, for example, Crayton paid Coleman not to solo.

The likes of Charles Mingus and Leonard Bernstein would later applaud him, but Coleman was even beaten early on by a group of musicians outside a venue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The story may have taken on some apocryphal dimensions, with details changing slightly the more Coleman told it, but what we do know is that his horn didn’t survive the altercation. Hence his use of an alto made of plastic for the sessions that would yield Something Else!!!!, which has been re-packaged, along with Coleman’s sophomore effort, 1959’s Tomorrow Is The Question!, as the handsome double reissue Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Recordings.

Crucially, the material on this two-disc set comprises two of the four albums Coleman made while based in Los Angeles. (These two in particular, however, demarcate the period immediately preceding his foothold in New York, the epicenter of the jazz universe at the time.) With cool jazz on the ascent, Coleman must have appeared like some kind of alien visitor to the West Coast scene. Driven by a deeply philosophical outlook on music he would come to identify as “harmolodics,” Coleman spoke about his work in esoteric terms pretty much all the way up to his passing in 2015. He was convinced, for example, that every individual human being possesses a distinct tonal center and, thus, hears middle C in their own way—the musical equivalent of saying that everyone feels the effects of gravity and perceives “up” and “down” differently. (Hilariously, former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson once wrote about harmolodics in a way that helps illuminate what Coleman was getting at, even as Iverson admitted that he didn’t completely comprehend the idea.)

In the liner notes for the 1993 box set Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings, Yves Beauvais (then a staffer at Atlantic), wrote: “With post-punk, post-metal, post-minimalism, post-distortion, post-Metal Machine Music ears, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss was all about.” Actually, it isn’t very hard at all. For proof, look no further than 1961’s boundary-shattering LP Free Jazz. With its earth-defying improvisations that initially appear unbound by conventional notions of harmony, rhythm and—most notably—coherence, Free Jazz remains a challenging, even taxing listen today. That said, Beauvais’ assessment very much applies to the Genesis of Genius material.

Coleman’s third album The Shape of Jazz to Come was released later the same year as Tomorrow Is The Question!, but there’s a decisive jump between the two records, though they were recorded just weeks apart. From its opening notes, The Shape of Jazz to Come conveys the unmistakable self-assurance and hunger of a group of players about to blaze their own trail. On the other hand, despite the rumblings in DownBeat, both Something Else!!!! and Tomorrow Is The Question! capture Coleman working within a fairly straightforward framework—especially in comparison to the work that would soon follow. Here, though, “straightforward” doesn’t mean “unremarkable.”

At first glance, Coleman and his longtime trumpet player Don Cherry (an indispensable presence over the first 13 years of Coleman’s recorded output) don’t give the impression that they’re interested in deviating from standard bebop form. Closer inspection, however, reveals hints of their warped sensibility. As an initial clue, Something Else!!!! tunes like “Angel Voice,” “The Sphinx,” “The Disguise,” “Invisible” and “Chippie” are built on the accelerated swing grooves that were typical of bebop at the time, yet Coleman and Cherry don’t confine themselves to playing fast. Other than an occasional burst of notes, Coleman and Cherry often stick to compact melodic phrases that, oddly enough, are highly hummable, even childlike.

Alas, there’s a catch: The alto and trumpet lines tend to swerve over one another, almost as if the two players were mimicking the gait of two tipsy people walking side by side. And on the Latin-tinged “Jayne,” for example, Coleman and Cherry establish a slightly dissonant harmonic interval between their lines. To an uninitiated ear, the two instruments might sound out of tune, but the effect is clearly intentional. More importantly, though the main melodies never stray from a simplicity that you can hum out loud with ease, if you try to hum your way through an entire tune, a strange pattern emerges, as if Coleman had written out a melody from start to finish, but had then cut out certain sections—or rearranged the order—so as to create gaps on purpose.

In the end, what at first sound like straightforward, fluid melodies turn out to be fragments of melodies threaded together so that the seams are still visible. Zoom out and you get something akin to a pixelation effect. And, though subtle, Cherry and Coleman get more daring on the second of the two albums. Starting with the title track, it’s as if the pair were trying to induce a very slight sense of dizziness, only this time they lock in, nailing even more precise intervals between their notes, the two horns practically gelling into a single voice. On “Compassion,” something of a showcase for bassist Percy Heath and drummer Shelly Manne, the music offers perhaps the first true key to unlocking Coleman’s future direction.

Ostensibly built on a New Orleans-style street march, “Compassion” advances for just a few measures before shifting gears. This happens several times in succession, as if the band were alternating between three different tunes. Manne and Heath execute the changes smoothly, so the effect isn’t jarring. Listeners who can’t find their footing on material from Free Jazz can look to a tune like “Compassion” and see very clearly why Coleman saw himself not only as an extension of the bebop tradition and swing, but also of the blues. Conversely, fans drawn to the face-melting sensation of his more radical work will get a better understanding of how Coleman used traditional forms as building blocks.

To be sure, Coleman’s way of “building” entailed deconstructing foundations, rather than just stacking innovation on top of them. The term “free jazz,” however, has often connoted a sense of complete formlessness. Genesis of Genius shows us just how mindful of form Coleman actually was. Not long after Tomorrow Is The Question!, Coleman would sign with Atlantic Records, record with his iconic quartet including Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins (who, incidentally, gives Something Else!!!! a pronounced touch of swing), and touch down in Manhattan for the quartet’s legendary residence at The Five Spot. Genesis of Genius sets the stage for all that history.

It’s difficult to add perspective on a figure who’s been as extensively chronicled as Ornette Coleman has, but the new liner notes make a rather elegant coffee-table companion to the music, delving into Coleman’s backstory in his hometown of Ft. Worth, Texas. Still “talked about, praised and damned” more than 60 years after Something Else!!!!, it turns out that the old DownBeat ad proved to be more prophetic than the folks at Contemporary Records could have foreseen, even if the hyperbole doesn’t quite hold up as well for the album itself—and that’s actually part of the appeal here. For its relative accessibility, and as a document of an unprecedented musical phenomenon taking shape in real time, Genesis of Genius provides a most fitting entry (and re-entry) point to one of the most impactful creative figures of the last century.

In order to be fully understood, Ornette Coleman’s contributions to jazz must be viewed not just as a force of radical change, but as an organic outgrowth of what came before. Even for longtime fans, then, Genesis of Genius is worth revisiting for its revelations about Coleman’s ineffable muse. Lest we forget, his music was always charged with an element of mystery, even when he played it “straight.”

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com