People unfamiliar with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman often assume he's an East Coast figure who emerged on the free-jazz scene in 1960 just as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were going off in new directions. In fact, Coleman was a West Coaster who had lived and worked in Los Angeles since the early 1950s. What's more, his first album, Something Else!!!, was recorded for Lester Koenig's Contemporary label in Hollywood.
Something Else!!! has just been remastered and reissued by Concord. For those unfamiliar with Coleman and tend to write him off as too abstract or too harsh, this album would be a good place to start if you're interested in trying to understand his art. What's remarkable is that the album was recorded in February and March of 1958, at a time when the West Coast jazz recording scene was at full tilt.
For example, one of the recordings that preceded Something Else!!!'s February 1958 sessions at Contemporary was Hampton Hawes' easy-blend Four! with Barney Kessel, Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne. On the other end, Shelly Manne and His Men recorded The Gambit, a straightahead album with Stu Williamson, Charlie Mariano, Russ Freeman and Monty Budwig.
It's also important to remember that Coleman was way ahead of his contemporaries in recording this type of looser, edgier jazz. For comparison, in the spring of 1958, Miles Davis was about to cut Somethin' Else with Cannonball Adderley for Blue Note (interesting coincidence in titles), Coltrane was recording Soultrane with the Red Garland Trio for Prestige, Eric Dolphy was with Chico Hamilton, and Mingus was recording the soundtrack to John Cassavetes' film Shadows.
No one was playing or recording jazz in such an experimental fashion in early 1958, except Coleman's bandmate Don Cherry (also on the session were pianist Walter Norris, bassist Don Payne and drummer Billy Higgins). All nine tracks were by Coleman—and composed five years earlier.
What you will find most surprising about this album is that the material isn't really that far out. Edgy, yes. But immensely listenable even for those jazz fans accustomed to more straight-up jazz. Tracks like The Blessing and Angel Voice are fine examples. I don't want to mislead you. This material is sour-toned in places and highly expressionistic. But it's not without virtue or a powerful rebellious message. If ever there was a fox in Los Angeles' suburban henhouse in 1958, it's Something Else!!! [Pictured: Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry]
To quote from Nat Hentoff's original liner notes:
"Ornette went home to Fort Worth, Texas, toward the end of 1950, then joined Pee Wee Crayton's rhythm and blues band, which stranded him in Los Angeles. 'He didn't understand what I was trying to do, and it got so that he was paying me not to play,' said Ornette.
"After a couple of months of gigging in Los Angeles, Ornette became a house boy in early 1952, and continued as such for two years. He played sessions occasionally, 'but most musicians didn't take to me; they said I didn't know the changes and was out of tune.'
"He went back to Fort Worth doing more gigging from late 1952 to 1954, then returned to Los Angeles in 1954. Now married, he worked for two and a half years as an elevator operator at Bullock's Department Store. 'I got a chance to study that way. I used to go up to the 10th floor, park up there and read books on harmony.' Automation—the self-operating elevator—cost him his job. Musicians still didn't welcome him at sessions, and he mostly played at home and also wrote."
Coleman was an artistic outsider in a city that at the time was the epicenter of conformity and a place where sounding like everyone else was essential to survive and thrive as a musician. This is exciting, courageous music that remains vital today.
JazzWax tracks: The remastered version of The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!! (Concord) can be found at iTunes or here.