Ornette Coleman’s first two albums resurface and reveal the “genesis of genius.”

Album review: Ornette Coleman, The Genesis of Genius: The Contemporary Albums (Contemporary)

Prepare to be haunted by a voice. Now, step inside the realm of Ornette Coleman. Few instrumental voices betray their player’s innards as deeply. The person inside that sound, strange to some, became fast friends with me when I first heard it. It’s a voice I’ve always felt close to, every time I hear it again. It tickles a brotherly bone in me, though we’ve never met personally.

That’s one of the rare qualities his saxophone playing evinces. And his mind and soul are on synchronistic display on his first two albums, finally re-issued as a box set on the Contemporary label. You readily hear and feel it all: a huge heart, a natural wit and strong empathy with his fellow players, his rhythm section as true fellows.

Trumpeter Don Cherry, at this juncture, almost as distinctive a voice, unlike any trumpeter you’ve heard. His trumpet tone splatters and smears at times. He sounds like a man talking and singing at once. Part of the singularity of both players was their unusual axes. Ornette’s white plastic alto sax and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet (see photo below).

Ornette Coleman (left) and Don Cherry. Courtesy Pinterest.

Ornette’s sound is conversational and declamatory, but was also controversial at the time, the ultra-avant-garde. Some conventional players thought he didn’t know how to. Yet, he swings marvelously, as do his bandmembers which belies why this sounded so alien to so many people back in the late 50s (or was it mainly certain critics?). Plus, bluesiness also permeates this music. helping immerse it in a grand jazz tradition even as he’s like nobody you’ve ever heard.

Ornette’s “Genesis of a Genius” re-issue box set is available in CD (upper left) or vinyl LP.

The music is artistically direct, but never simplistic. Coleman said “Let’s play the melody not the background,” suggesting his one big step beyond conventional chord changes (after the first album here, he jettisoned piano in his groups, though much later added electric guitar). However, pianist Walter Norris on the first album comps with suitable harmonic ambiguity and solos with boppish elan.

Drummer Shelly Manne, who plays on the first album, once said Ornette’s saxophone “is the sound of someone laughing and crying.” Ornette’s voice is also one of the most amiable I’ve heard on a horn in a long while and here the voice and style are fully formed on his first two albums.

The tune “Compassion” is reflective as much as an outpouring of feeling with a sense of wry irony within the sound of suffering. So he creates his own substantial “background” straight from his melodic soul.

This reissue is especially a find, a revelation, because these two were over-shadowed by his ensuing series of superb albums for Atlantic Records, now collected in a 6-CD box titled Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings. That collection reveals Ornette’s full flowering as a composer, with a number of now-classic tunes, including “Ramblin’,” “Lonely Woman,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Peace,” and the epic 37-minute “Free Jazz,” with a “double quartet” that included Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard.

If you love that stuff, or still tread through it with uncertainty or curiosity, you ought to hear where it comes from. That’s Genesis of Genius, this Contemporary set. The compositions are well-crafted but not as maturely as the Atlantics. And one technical complaint: Don Cherry’s trumpet is sometimes too low in the mix so it’s then difficult to hear his full phrasing on his solos. But his quite audible extended solo on “Angel Voice” is a buoyantly lesson in amiable, accomplished boppish storytelling.

“Lorraine,” on the second Contemporary album Tomorrow is the Question!, is a languid, yearning yet witty ballad that ought to be a classic. Akin to the soon-famous Atlantic ballad “Lonely Woman,” it’s titled for the late pianist Lorraine Geller, “because she was a wonderful piano player,” Ornette explains in the liber notes. Don Cherry notes correctly that drummer Shelly Manne’s all-brushes solo is “as musical as drum solo can be.”

Try this out:

As for “When Will the Blues Leave?” Answer: When the song is over. This catchy creation sounds like players blowing the blues away, with the resilience of their spirit and the wit of their musicality.

“Turnaround” has a sort of bluesy insouciance that makes you smile inside and out — you want to tuck it into your hip pocket as a tune, like a goodly handful in this compact box set, to scat-sing to yourself. Cherry’s solo is more audible here and delightful in its sly goofiness, yet very smart.

Vintage, seminal modern jazz, this set deserves a wide audience. This horn voice among jazzers, is right up there with Miles, Lester Young, Stan Getz, John Coltrane…


This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express, here: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/the-genesis-of-genius-the-contemporary-albums-by-ornette-col/


Whether Jazz, Hip-Hop or Electronic, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick rides the waves

Jazz artist Jamie Breiwick’s voice and vision have steadily grown, like rippling concentric circles, since he first caught the attention of fellow musicians, critics, and the public. The wind of his trumpet blowing plays a factor, but the wavelike depths arose from his extraordinary knowledge and honoring of the modern jazz tradition, while finding places in contemporary pop vernaculars for his voice, and realizing the wellsprings of his own creative identity.

That analogy seems apt as his seminal inspiration was Miles Davis, who shaped the tides of jazz time for decades, with an uncanny, lyrical and impressionistic sensibility, even as funky as he could get. “I had a Miles t-shirt in high school that I wore constantly,” Breiwick recalls. “The breadth of music he made is really staggering, whether bebop, free, rock, fusion, electronic, experimental, pop, hip-hop. He really blazed a lot of trails and left us with a lifetime of inspiration.”

Right now, Breiwick ranks among the four or five most important jazz musicians in Wisconsin and, among them, the youngest one on a still-rising arc of creative possibility. His prolific recorded output includes with De La Buena, and the influential 25-year band Clamnation. The pandemic threw many artists askew, but Breiwick pressed full-speed ahead, with voluminous recording and releasing on his own B-Side Recordings label.

The group KASE: Jamie Breiwick, trumpet and electronics; John Christensen, bass; knowsthetime, turntables and electronics. 

Breiwick’s graphic design talents sped this output. He creates all his own album covers (and those of others) with an imaginative but clean, post-1960s Blue Note Records compositional style. He just published a book of his jazz cover designs concurrently with an emblematic album, KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House. His jazz-hip-hop-electronics trio, with bassist John Christensen and turntablist Jordan Lee, joined Klassik, perhaps the region’s most musically gifted improv hip-hop singer-song maker, who also plays keyboards and saxophone. KASE logically expands Breiwick’s creative ripples into exploring “sonic landscapes” – Miles ahead, atmospheric, wonder-inducing.

The cassette cover of “KASE + Klassik Live at the Opera House,” designed by Jamie Breiwick. Courtesy B-Side Graphics

Breiwick’s recorded and group projects have probed ground-breaking jazzers, including Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and world-music traveler Don Cherry. He’s also played and recorded transcribed Davis solos for two Hal Leonard play-along books, among six various he’s recorded.  He values innovative contemporaries like Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire and Nicholas Payton, “an incredible trumpet player and musical conceptualist,” and “a thought leader and outspoken BAM (Black American Music) advocate.” He also teaches music at Prairie School, near Racine. How good is Breiwick teaching music? In 2013, he was nominated for the first-ever Grammy Music Educator Award, selected as one of 200 semi-finalists among over 30,000 nominees.

The cover of The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet.

Shortly before the pandemic, Breiwick recorded The Jewel: Live at the Dead Poet, a New York trio recording on the leading independent label Ropeadope, with internationally acclaimed drummer-bandleader Matt Wilson, thus extending his national modern-jazz bona fides.

Breiwick plays a live date (here and in photo at top) with renowned drummer Matt Wilson and bassist John Tate.

Breiwick leaves popular success largely to his evolution and artistic authenticity.

“I think it is all in the delivery – people can tell if you are sincere or not. I try to create music and art that I would like myself and try not to be too corny or contrived, while at the same time recognizing my influences. What did Coltrane say? ‘You can play a shoestring if you are sincere,’ I think that is perfect.”

But he knows jazz musicians always need help in America’s capitalist society. Today they can increasingly help each other with online resources. In 2010, Breiwick co-founded Milwaukee Jazz Vision, an online organization that promotes jazz and its community in the Milwaukee area.

His visual-designer talents suggest deeper creative destinations. “It is a similar path of discovery. Visual art and music relate in so many ways – texture, structure, organization, color, tone. Five or six of my favorite designers are also musicians. There’s some sort of elemental connection between the two disciplines…Miles Davis was an incredible painter. Jean-Michel Basquiat deeply loved music and often used musical imagery or references such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in his works.”

Perhaps his most daring recent recording is Solve for X, duets with a longtime collaborator. Guitarist-synthesist Jay Mollerskov took samples of Breiwick’s own trumpet solos, to create sonic counterpoints and textural backdrops for Breiwick to play against. It works like a musical mosaic – outward refracting, rather than narcissistic. That’s because Breiwick knows of whence he came, as a trumpeter and creator.

“I’m inspired by a lot of things, all sorts of music, visual art, architecture, history, stories, traveling,” he says. “I am just trying to better find out who I am, and ultimately just trying to keep moving forward.”

“Like (trumpeter) Clark Terry said, ‘Emulate, assimilate, innovate.’”

So, Breiwick’s self-discovery proceeds. As to forward progress, only time, his seemingly ever-expanding wave, will tell.


This article was originally published in slightly shorter form in the May 2022 print magazine edition of The Shepherd Express, available free at many locations around Milwaukee County.