Jazz’s influence on music has been monumental, with this being especially true for metal. The musicianship and improvisation of jazz has informed much of the more technical aspects of metal (Atheist being a prime example), while numerous progressive metal bands have incorporated elements of jazz within their compositions. Due to both this and the affinity for jazz among several members of our staff, we decided to implement a new segment titled “The Jazz Club,” where a few of us will gather around with cigars and whiskey and discuss a current jazz band/artist, album and/or event that we believe is an essential point of interest for jazz fans.
For this installment, we decided not to discuss an album, but rather the legacy of saxophone legend Ornette Coleman, who passed away on June 11th at age 85. A recipient of numerous accolades for his contribution to jazz, Coleman provided the impetus for the emergence of avant-garde jazz, particularly with albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1961), the latter of which spawned an entire subgenre of jazz bearing the same name. Editors Scott Murphy & Nick Cusworth and staff members Simon Handmaker & Ahmed Hasan sat down recently to discuss Coleman’s immense impact, touching down upon his convention smashing style, how his passing will affect the state of jazz and the parallels between his playing and the realm of metal.
Scott Murphy: So in preparation for this discussion, I checked out some books that discussed Coleman and jazz in general, and found a particularly moving quote from jazz critic Stanley Crouch’s 2006 book Considering Genius – Writings on Jazz:
“Ornette Coleman is that magical combination of the primitive, the great thinker, the virtuoso and the brave singer of songs. We are lucky to have him among us.”
Ahmed Hasan: It’s particularly sad how the second half of it no longer holds true. The thought of his passing lingered in my mind as well as I discovered his music for the first time over this past week.
SM: Completely agree; while this quote came from piece written in 2002, it had me thinking how Coleman was one of the last “great” jazz musicians from the genre’s golden age. Furthermore, his acclaim was no relegated to the past, as his album Sound Grammar won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007. Admittedly, this is also a bit dated, but considering that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, etc. all passed long before, it just seems to me like a huge blow to the genre. No lie, I was genuinely wondering just days before he passed whether or not he would be putting out a new album anytime soon, as it was a distinct possibility.
Simon Handmaker: I think that quotation is an excellent summation of what his music is. I’m currently listening to The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which I had on earlier to prep myself, but decided to spin again, and what continues to strike me is how much he managed to combine virtuoso-level playing with a genuine sense of emotion and energy.
Nick Cusworth: That quote is important because Ornette really was the connective tissue through so much of jazz history. When talking about Ornette and his importance to the genre, you kinda have to first understand how much of a seismic sonic shift this was for the entire genre. The time that The Shape of Jazz to Come came out (1959) falls right around when so many of the jazz greats were starting to move away from traditional bebop into other forms. Miles and others were working out the modal stuff, and Ornette was leading the charge of evolving the strict formats and constrictions of bebop while maintaining that virtuosic playing and feel in the form of free jazz.
AH: I also recall reading about Miles’ initial disapproval of Ornette’s style of jazz. Calling an album The Shape of Jazz to Come is very, very bold in retrospect, and it’s interesting to imagine how the reactions from the rest of the community played out.
SH: Yeah, I was actually about to bring that up. An album this outlandish in style especially at that time with that title is really ballsy.
NC: I didn’t actually know that Miles felt that way, but it makes sense. Though it’s telling that he eventually dabbled in similar kinds of free jazz and other experimentations later on.
SM: Miles eventually came around and endorsed Coleman, though, but he was definitely not alone with his initial reaction. A lot of people thought Coleman was perverting Jazz and had no concept of form (which, in all fairness, is somewhat true, in the sense that he rejected form, not that he was unaware of it). For example, after one show, he was beat up outside of the club and the crowd threw his sax away.
SH: I mean, this is a perversion of form in a lot of ways. I’m actually reminded of the new Mastery album, VALIS, when I pay attention to the structuring of this album.
AH: Listening to the record for the first time, however, I could very much feel where the detractors were coming from. Even as big stylistic changes go, this was a particularly radical shift.
NC: To be fair, many people said the same thing about Miles and others when they were at the forefront of bebop a decade earlier. Jazz history is pretty much a history of people (often critics) being upset that musicians would dare to experiment and change things, when really that’s jazz’s primary defining feature: that willingness to explore and evolve the way we hear and think about music.
SM: For sure, it is telling how history eventually wrote itself. But I still feel that free jazz has not rid itself of controversy. I recently saw a comment directed at The Shape of Jazz to Come that called the album “nigger noise.”
SM: Given the nature of the internet, this was most likely trolling, but still, when I talk to most people I know about jazz, they mention how much they love Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, not their admiration for Coleman or free jazz.
SH: Just like how a lot of rap fans profess their love for Macklemore and Eminem, I guess.
SM: This is not a critique, necessarily. Like Ahmed said, it is not hard to see why people have a hard time getting into free jazz at first…or ever.
NC: Unlike other records from around the same time that are kind of your standard “entryways” for people to get into jazz (Kind of Blue, Maiden Voyage, etc.), this is pretty much an album to immediately ensure someone will be intimidated, confused, or made angry by jazz because it’s “incomprehensible noise.” When you’re pushing outside of people’s comfort zones and what they come to expect, you’re going to get pushback.
AH: “Incomprehensible noise” is a good way to describe the expected initial perception of it, and I found it interesting how it took reading the story behind ‘Lonely Woman’ for me to well and truly enjoy the song.
NC: The truth is that I still can’t say I “love” the music of Ornette Coleman, but I sure as hell am glad that it exists.
SH: Free Jazz didn’t grab my attention nearly as much as TSOJTC, but I’ve been loving both of them. It really does remind me of my childhood in St. Louis, and while I didn’t have as fond of an appreciation for it then, this jazz is a lot of the stuff I heard in my earlier years as a wee little lad.
NC: That’s the thing though. If you’re expecting “form” in the traditional sense of jazz, which often means specific chord progressions and traditional 8, 12, or however many bar structures, then this is going to give you very little to hold onto. Most people cannot find a thing to “hold” onto here because of it. It sounds like being lost in the wilderness musically, even though there are distinct melodies present.
SM: I guess that that is another thing I like about Free Jazz – the lack of something to “hold” onto. I have listened to the album numerous times, but I still pull something new from it each times due to how much it defies expectation. What Coleman plays makes sense after the notes have rung, but during the experience, it feels very unpredictable, fresh and invigorating.
SH: Yeah, its very existence is a process of discovery.
AH: As I made my way through TSOJTC, I increasingly noticed how Ornette’s sax mingling with Don Cherry‘s trumpet often seemed to hint towards underlying progressions that just, well, weren’t there; though instead of perceiving the songs as the musical conversations they are, I occasionally found myself mentally filling in potential progressions to match the music, which made for a very new listening experience.
NC: You’re definitely right about the progressions that aren’t there, Ahmed, and I think much of that comes from a more traditional bop style of playing and basically lifting it and placing it into a different musical environment.
SM: Beyond just bending typical measure structures, another key component of Coleman’s style was his affinity for blues vocals, something that truly enhances the idea of jazz playing as story telling. What draws me so much to free jazz playing is how conversational, emotional and earnest it feels. It is much easier for me to decipher words from his seemingly “meaningless” honks and screeches.
NC: Yeah, if you listen to Free Jazz that’s pretty much what you’re listening to: a musical conversation, which is ideally what the best of any jazz should be.
SM: Him playing a white plastic sax is also something that interests me; I am not ware of any other “great” jazz musician that relied on plastic so heavily. I also think that it looks wicked sick.
SH: Do you think that “perversion” of the traditional instrument played into his experimentation at all and his reputation as sort of a rogue character in the scene around the time The Shape Of Jazz To Come was released?
AH: That’s interesting, Simon. I get the feeling he likely had a very distinct persona to match his musical exploits.
SM: If I remember correctly, his reason for using a plastic sax was initially financial (cheaper option), but he kept it due to some advice from a fellow musician and his affinity for the unique timbre is gave his playing.
AH: I recall reading something about Don Cherry’s choice of trumpet also being rather intriguing?
SM: Mhm, he used a pocket trumpet, which Miles Davis also bashed at first, interestingly enough, but he later praised him.
SH: Listening to so much jazz has forced me to go back and check out Beyond Creation‘s release from last year, Earthborn Evolution.
NC: I’m kind of glad you brought that up, because I’d like to bring this back into the realm of metal and the other music we spend so much time talking about. It’s clear that Ornette played an incredibly important role in pushing jazz forward into what we consider “modern” jazz. I really think every genre of music needs that person or people to push the genre out of people’s comfort zones and in the process get them (listeners and other musicians) to see sonic possibilities they might be overlooking. What may seem “avant-garde” at the time may be significantly less so later on. Do you all think there’s anyone really in metal, either older or more modern, who has been able to serve a similar role?
SH: Dan Swano (ex-Edge of Sanity) and Dominic LaPointe (ex-Beyond Creation) come to mind, but they’re also the first jazzy musicians I think of in the metal scene, so that could be why. I don’t remember his name, but the guy who’s behind Ephel Duath is an incredible avant-garde musician in the metal scene. He constantly seems to be pushing one boundary or another.
AH: The one band that immediately springs to mind is Swans – their later work in particular – though I’m not sure they really fit the metal label.
SH: I would say Gorguts also comes to mind, and, although their sound is fairly standard, The Zenith Passage
If I had to pick a single figure in the modern metal scene, though, who I thought was a Coleman-esque figure in their presence, I would probably have to pick Christian Muenzner (ex-Necrophagist, Spawn of Posession, Alkaloid).
AH: Gorguts for sure. Lots of their material is very non-standard, even for tech death. Despite Obscura being hailed by a lot of the community as a masterpiece, I’ve also seen some pretty harsh criticisms of it.
SM: Personally, that artist for me is Deathspell Omega. They started out as a standard black metal band, and then flirted with a much vaster, chaotic style with Si monvmentvm reqvires, circvmspice. But the first time that I heard Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum, the concept of what black metal could be was completely blown away for me. BM – like jazz – has such a universal, stanard core that can be experimented with endlessly to produce vastly different results.
SH: I would say that metal is an incredibly similar genre to jazz in quite a lot of ways, not only in terms of virtuosity but in terms of the lines of thinking that drive the artists to write what they do and be who they are.
AH: And also in terms of how big shifts in sound are often met with plenty of derision, though it speaks to the two genres’ similarities in that metal also allows for this level of experimentation.
SM: What mainly drove Coleman was a desire to portray an eclectic range of emotions in a genuine way, something that I feel metal does extremely well across its multiple subgenres.
SH: Yeah, different forms of metal, especially the farther away you get from standard heavy metal, are really good at portraying a wide and varied range of emotions.
AH: In addition, metal as a genre also tends to favour musical motifs over lyrical ones when portraying emotion.
SH: I’m still listening to Beyond Creation and the more I delve into this post-jazz-listening, the more I find this to show itself as a conversation between the instruments in the way Nick and Scott brought up earlier
NC: I think part of what helps connect the two genres as well is the fact that, as time has gone on, it’s become increasingly difficult to commercialize and monetize them. Like jazz, relatively few metal musicians these days get into the game with the thought they’re going to hit it big and make a ton of money. In a way, that option not even being realistic offers a kind of freedom to explore and experiment.
AH: That’s a great point, Nick, and brings to mind the Alkaloid record that was released earlier this year. No label wanted to pick up the band’s debut because of its highly experimental and ambitious nature, and they had to crowdfund the record’s recording and release. And yet it received rave reviews, and I would argue metal as a genre is better off for such a forward-thinking album’s existence.
SM: I think what Nick said is part of what made me so sad to see Coleman die. Jazz legends like him who are still alive and making music have a much easier time getting their music heard and appreciated, whereas lesser known artists do not have nearly as much name recognition. This not only affects individual bands/artists, but the genre as a whole.
SH: The flipside of that is that as the greats leave us, it leaves the genre ripe for a resurgence of young talent.
NC: The more I think about it, the more I’m honestly amazed that labels were so willing to put out Ornette’s music to begin with. Because you’re right, Scott. I really can’t imagine anyone doing something that ballsy now in jazz being able to get signed to anything whatsoever.
SM: And it affects it in the sense that its potential for coverage diminishes, despite the fact that a number of great jazz artists exist today, who typically receive coverage as an anomaly while the genre as a whole does not receive nearly as much attention as other genres…which is kind of exactly the problem that metal has. Other than Deafheaven, Pallbearer, Mastodon, Baroness and a few others, not a lot of metal acts receive crossover recognition in the critical conversation. They may appear on a “Best of Metal” list, but not an overall “Best Albums” list, again, a problem that jazz has as well.
SH: Yeah, the only places where jazz is actually received fully into a critical conversation is in places like theneedledrop or similar niche critics.
NC: I will say though that I’ve seen a lot more increased coverage of metal from sites that primarily cover “indie” stuff over the past few years. Pitchfork has hopped on the train, Stereogum absolutely has (our buddy Doug Moore with Pyrrhon is doing a great job there), Brooklyn Vegan covers a lot of metal these days. I don’t know if that’s an indication of the music gaining more popular acceptance or of “indie” culture simply trying to re-appropriate the “underground” nature of the music as they’ve seen indie turn into a commercial juggernaut in its own right.
SH: Pyrrhon is a perfect band to bring up in a conversation about pushing the limits of aural possibilities as well.
SM: Things are absolutely getting better, for sure. While the acclaim and accolades may not be at Sunbather level all the time, overall coverage has without a doubt been on an incline.
AH: I imagine the internet and comparative over-saturation of bands kind of makes today’s market harder to break into as well. Though this leaves me wondering how many potential jazz greats also lived around Ornette’s time and just weren’t able to get their music heard.
NC: It’s a double-edged sword. The problem is that at one point or another, both jazz and metal were considered “popular” music. That has not been the case for either for a long time now, and there’s inevitably going to be kind of a push-pull conflict between wanting to do more to gain more popular recognition but also not compromising on the things that the real fans of the genre love about it.
SM: That reminds me of an excellent quote from The Roots‘ Things Fall Apart:
SH: My personal thinking is that artists should, first and foremost, make themselves happy, but this isn’t the time for a discussion about economics.
NC: Ultimately they should make themselves happy. Most of the best music comes out of that.
AH: To steer this back to Ornette – it doesn’t take much to tell his music made him happy, or, at the very least, was a powerful emotional release. There is a very raw honesty about it both in terms of the music itself and the history surrounding it.
SH: Yeah, Ornette knew what was up. It really does feel like he’s not trying to really impress or call out towards any particular group. Which, again, is something extremely rare in that level of virtuoso playing.
SM: I wanted to wrap things up with another great quote, this time from an interview that Ben Ratliff conducted with Coleman in 2006 that was published in his 2008 book The Jazz Ear – Conversations Over Music:
“He told a childhood story about his mother…After he received his first saxophone, he would come to her after learning how to play something by ear. ‘I’d be saying. ‘listen to this!…You know what she’d tell me? ‘ Junior, I know who you are. You don’t have to tell me.”‘
I feel that this sums up his playing very well. For me, listening to a Coleman record is very much a means of having a conversation with him as a person.
AH: That is one powerful quote.
SH: Wow. That line really does an incredible job of encapsulating his essence as a musician into a small blurb.
SM: Coleman – and free jazz in general – speaks to me so greatly due its keen ability to say extemporaneously (cannot believe I spelled that correctly on my first go) what cannot be planned out. It is the epitome of improvisation that comes from an indescribable place. I am not a religious person, but for me, that is the closest definition to the soul that I can imagine existing: dialogue from within that reveals who one is.
AH: It’s interesting that you described it as ‘having a conversation’ with him rather than just listening to what he had to say through his music, and I wholeheartedly agree. Despite the seemingly one sided relationship between musician and listener, his sax playing builds off the very emotions it induces.
NC: I feel the same way about much of Coltrane’s later output, which was undoubtedly influenced by Ornette. It’s pure emotion and passion speaking through and inviting you to listen and bring your own self into it.
AH: Exactly – it’s a conversation in a language that allows one to attach their own thoughts and feelings to what they’re hearing, and the end result is downright cathartic.
SH: I agree on all accounts. To sum up how I feel about Coleman, his musical genius comes from the fact that he is so able to express himself through his instrument. It takes a true musician, not just a player of an instrument, to be able to send a message through their music, and to be able to receive them back and build a dialogue is one of a kind. Ornette’s success comes from his ability to turn his saxophone into a set of plastic vocal chords.
-SM, NC, SH & AH