#248: Ornette Coleman, "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959)

          In memory of Baltimore Greg Kaplan


Billy Higgins’s cymbal skips, followed by Charlie Haden’s bass shuffle, tracing the outlines of “Lonely Woman” and preparing the entrance of the unison plaintive howl of Don Cherry’s trumpet and Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, the latter of which then takes the lead. Ornette blows; someone in the studio yelps “Wooo!” He sinks back, he returns. The song ends with a return to the beginning, a repeating pluck at the bass, the cymbal underneath.

Bart’s CD Cellar on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado was where my jazz education began. First Miles and ‘Trane, Mingus. Then Dolphy, Pharaoh, Ornette. Onward to the likes of Zorn, Mitchell. Greg K. introduced me to Ornette Coleman, or maybe it was another guy at Bart’s—I can’t remember his name. I’ll give the credit to Greg.

Greg introduced me to Ornette Coleman, but as I recall I ended up liking Ornette more than he did. Greg couldn’t really enjoy it; for him it had become more of a theoretical exercise, whereas the seemingly random bleets and bloops fit right into me, wedging into the cracks and empty spaces of my aesthetic. I came to understand the freneticism though the likes of Aphex Twin, the Boredoms; my tastes got noisier and noisier.

Greg died from an overdose several years ago, leaving a wife and young daughter behind. The last time I spoke to Greg I was visiting Boulder for a few days; he heard I was in town and called, fuzzy and fucked up. He wasn’t making sense, losing his words, but he sounded happy to talk and wanted to see me. I blew him off, not wanting to manage his state. “Sure, just running around now, we’ll hook up later buddy, talk soon.” Click. That was our last conversation.

Greg was a mountain of a man, from Balmer (Baltimore); we shared the east coast and a childhood love of the Orioles, a disdain for Boulder, many things pop cultural. I remember a road trip to San Francisco from Colorado in a rented van: J. in a heroin nod in the backseat, listening to Allen Ginsberg recordings. Greg pissed me off about something and I called him Jabba the Hut and he was furious and chased me around a parking lot in Reno on his bad knees. I once said he looked like Black Francis. “Because I’m fat.” “Yeah, but he’s really cool.”

Playing bass in his cat-piss-smelling basement, he on guitar, he always accused me of noodling. “Just play rhythm fucker.” (Charlie Haden plays some mean slick bass on this record.) Greg with a Dr. Pepper in his hand. “You know they say the secret ingredient is prune juice?” “It’s a warrior’s drink!” we exclaim in unison. That’s Klingon Lieutenant Commander of the Starship Enterprise Worf’s line upon first tasting the octogenarian beverage. I was continents away at the time of Greg’s memorial service, but I sent along a Leonard Nimoy poem to be read in my stead, along with the above anecdote. Greg and I watched a lot of Star Trek. I got my Klingon tattoo at a headshop in Boulder.

I got fired from Bart’s CD Cellar because I slept through a staff meeting—I was perpetually late—what record store schedules a meeting for a weekend morning? (We had a new manager—she came from the Gap—Bart wanted to “professionalize.”) I moved to Rocky Mountain Records, some shitty chain store, sold a thousand copies of Celine Dion. It was my last record store job.

Ornette Coleman is good for your early twenties, esoteric and obtuse, annoying as fuck, but I’ve come back to it in the last few years. The benefit of age is authenticity; there’s no doubt I really like this stuff now; I’ve got no one I care to impress with my weird tastes. This record is even tame for Ornette, just the beginnings of where he would end up. “Focus on Sanity” is the roadmap.

I’ve been traveling in Thailand the last few weeks and I was walking through a park in Bangkok the other morning and for some reason remembered my first proper backpacking trip through Europe in my late teens….twenty years ago now. One of the coolest things was going to the record stores in London or Berlin and digging through bins and finding this super cool shit you’d never heard of. Pick up some flyers for shows, talk to the guys at the shop, get the lay of the land. I was thinking how sad it was that that doesn’t really exist anymore; look at some blogs on the couch, check Facebook, manifest Spotify algorithms. As I waded through my nostalgia like so many bargain bin Bee Gees records a thought occurred to me: there is a really kickass record label in Bangkok and I know (from Facebook) they have a storefront, so I garnered the coordinates from my pocket computer, hopped on the Skytrain, and went.

Just a few hours after visiting ZuDrangMa Records, courtesy of the Dutch guy behind the counter, I was one of about twenty people standing in a bar watching a 21st Century Molam show. To many, it’s probably about as grating as Ornette Coleman; I thought it was totally amazing. It’s also just the kind of shit Greg would have loved, experientially if not in fact. Miss you pal. LLAP.

—Erik Wennermark