Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz
Ever think you’ve read a book or heard a record, then discover you haven’t? Years ago that happened to me with James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son; having read his other nonfiction, I somehow assumed I had read that one, too — maybe because it’s so famous — only to find out otherwise. (It was a little embarrassing. Here I was, known among my friends as this big Baldwin nut, but . . .)
I didn’t know what a double quartet was before I checked out this record, but it’s pretty much what it says: play Free Jazz on your iPod and you’ve got one quartet coming in your left ear and another, playing (almost) the same instruments, in your right. So, blowing, plucking, and banging simultaneously with very little thought of unison, you’ve got Coleman and Eric Dolphy on woodwinds; on bass, Charlie Haden and the beastly Scott LaFaro (see my post “A Confession About Jazz” from May 2009); Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums; and, on trumpet, Coleman’s regular partner, Don Cherry, and the great, recently deceased Freddie Hubbard, who played on just about every jazz record made in the 1960s, if my collection is at all representative. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and it’s wonderful.
Certain people have described jazz — over and over again — as being a metaphor for democracy: everybody has a say, etc., etc. A lot of jazz may symbolize what democracy is like in theory, but Free Jazz comes close to representing how it works in practice: so many people making so much noise at the same time that the result is near-chaos. In the two pieces that make up the album — one 37 minutes long, the other 17 — the closest thing to a refrain is a seven-note sequence, played less in harmony than in disharmony. Somehow it works. Somehow the country works. Go figure.