AFTER BIRD by Alan Purslow

  Having written in 2014 about alto saxophonists Lee Konitz, Paul Desmond and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley (“After Bird” – Jassman 2014) it seems logical to look at two more post-Parker alto players, Phil Woods and Ornette Coleman.  However, both have recently died so a more reflective mood prevails when considering their careers.

  It’s an indication of Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary approach to jazz that, even though the controversial recordings he made for Contemporary and Atlantic with trumpeter Don Cherry were as far back as 1959 and 1960, they divide opinion to this day. Miles Davis commented, “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.” and trumpeter Roy Eldridge was similarly bemused, saying, “I listened to Coleman high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.”  On the other hand, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet quickly recognised the merit in what Coleman was doing, commenting, “Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations of Parker, Gillespie and Monk” and then cemented his approval by recording Coleman’s haunting composition “Lonely Woman” and making that the title of an MJQ album.

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  I first heard Coleman’s records on The Voice of America Jazz Hour (hosted by Willis Conover and broadcast on the Short Wave). Never having heard the music before, I instinctively loved the sound of the quartet and, in particular, the unusual tone of Coleman’s plastic alto saxophone.  Before long I’d bought albums such as “Something Else”, “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Change of the Century” which I’m happy to say are now generally considered to be landmarks in the history of jazz and in some ways even a little conservative when compared with later jazz styles, including Ornette’s own work, that incorporate amplification, rock rhythms and funk. (Many of the tapes from those sessions were destroyed by a fire at Atlantic but those that survived can be heard on the box set of Coleman’s complete Atlantic recordings called “Beauty is a Rare Thing”).

  By the time Coleman visited the UK he had ditched his plastic alto and was the leading a trio consisting of himself on alto, violin and trumpet, David Izenzen on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. His alto playing on the album recorded at the Golden Circle, Stockholm, in 1965 is, to my mind, some of his finest work.  Later, his music embraced different cultures and moved a long way from the original down-home, funky style of the early quartets but his bands were always exciting and his legacy as a major figure in jazz history is secure. He died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-five and is survived by his son and frequent musical collaborator Denardo.

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