The Avant-Garde is an album credited to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry that was released in 1966 by Atlantic Records. It features Coltrane playing several compositions by Ornette Coleman accompanied by the members of Coleman’s quartet: Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell. The album was assembled from two unissued recording sessions at Atlantic Studios in New York City in 1960.
Ornette Coleman attended the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959 with Don Cherry as his private instructor. His education was sponsored by Atlantic Records. Coleman had a revolutionary sound that deviated from conventional jazz (apparent by the lack of harmonies). Despite his deviations, Coleman retained the basic key and common time of traditional jazz. In 1953, he met drummer Ed Blackwell, who is featured on the album.
John Coltrane studied with Coleman, and they frequently played together but never made an album together. The Avant-Garde is a result of their mutual respect and friendship. Coltrane, Coleman, and Cherry played together in ensembles as they explored new ways of playing jazz. With this album Coltrane contributed to the formation of free jazz through his “modal school of improvisation”. “The Blessing” is the first time he recorded on soprano saxophone.
“Focus on Sanity” was recorded in Los Angeles, California, on May 2, 1959. “Cherryco” was recorded in 1960 under the title “Untitled Opus #1”. The title was considered a play on words with the name “Cherokee”, though the style of the song has nothing to do with the name. Some of the tapes are missing from the song and “are presumed lost”.
“The Invisible” was performed and recorded for Coleman’s album Something Else!!!! which was released in 1958. According to Claire O’Neal, author of Ornette Coleman, this song “pokes fun at traditional musical structure, featuring a tonal center that hides from the listener”. The first song on the album, it lets the audience know that Coleman was ready to “leave musical concepts of keys, chords and melodies behind.”
“The Blessing” was another piece that appeared on Something Else!!!!. John Litweiler, author of Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life, mentions Don Cherry’s comments about the “plastic alto” and how it has a “warmer, drier sound than a metal alto” and with this it makes Coleman’s “bent notes so effective”.
Reviewer Chris Kesley calls Coltrane’s approach to the tune “restrained”.
The Avant-Garde is one of seven albums that Coltrane recorded for Atlantic between 1959 and 1962. The free jazz style of the album was considered controversial and “lacking the necessary discipline to represent America’s art form.”
This new jazz composition by Coleman features surprising rhythmic accents, asymmetrical melodic phrases, and the incorporation of brass instruments and drums into the melody of the song. A unique feature of this album is its lack of pianist and usage of brass instruments to carry each piece. Also, Cherry and Coltrane complement each other with contrasting sound as Coltrane “leaps into [the music] like a man possessed, while Cherry answers with a feathery tone.” (Larkin)
This album is rightfully co-credited to Don Cherry (trumpet), who ably trades blows with John Coltrane (tenor/soprano sax) throughout. The Avant-Garde also boasts the debut studio recording of Coltrane playing soprano sax — on “The Blessing” — in addition to his continuing advancements on tenor. Although these tracks were recorded during the summer of 1960, they remained shelved for nearly six years. Joining Coltrane and Cherry are essentially the rest of the members of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, Ed Blackwell (drums) and Charlie Haden (bass) on “Cherryco” and “The Blessing,” as well as Percy Heath (bass) on the remaining three selections. This is fitting, as over half of the album consists of early Coleman compositions. Coltrane’s integration into this band works with some extraordinarily fresh results. Neither Cherry nor Coltrane makes any radical departures on this album; however, it’s the ability of each to complement the other both in terms of modal style and — perhaps more importantly — texture that lends heavily to the success of these sides. Cherry’s brisk and somewhat nasal intonations on “The Blessing” mimic those of Miles Davis, albeit with shorter flourishes and heavily improvised lines. When combined with Coltrane’s well-placed — if not somewhat reserved — solos, the mutual value of both is dramatically increased. Blackwell — the only other musician besides Cherry and Coltrane to be featured on every track — provides some non-conventional percussive accompaniment. His contributions to “The Blessing” and workout on the aptly titled “Focus on Sanity” are primal. (by Lindsay Planer)
Ed Blackwell (drums)
Don Cherry (cornet)
John Coltrane (saxophone)
Percy Heath (bass)
Charlie Haden (bass on 01. + 03.)
01. Cherryco (Cherry) 6.48
02. Focus On Sanity (Coleman) 12.14
03. The Blessing (Coleman) 7.52
04. The Invisible (Coleman) 4.11
05. Bemsha Swing (Monk/Best) 5.03
taken from the original liner notes