50th Anniversary: Ornette Coleman’s The Empty Foxhole

Revisiting the jazz innovator’s much overlooked minor classic
Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.
Ornette Coleman with his saxophone during a rehearsal for The Empty Foxhole, September 1966. Photograph: Francis Wolff.
Ornette Coleman‘s The Empty Foxhole was recorded at the Van Gelder studio 50 years ago today. It was his first studio recording for the Blue Note label, and the avant-garde composer wastes no time performing trumpet, violin, and his signature alto-saxophone. Longtime collaborator Charlie Haden (who followed this website before he passed away) appears on bass. But the personnel is perhaps most notable for the debut appearance of Coleman’s son, Denardo, on drums: he was just ten years old at the time.

Ornette Coleman, The Empty Foxhole (Blue Note, 1966). The abstract expressionist painting that comprises the cover art is by Coleman himself.

The album is often overlooked in favour of Coleman’s glory days with Atlantic Records, when The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) and Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960) pushed at the frontiers of what the music could achieve. It also seems to exist in the shade of his historic live recordings at Stockholm’s Golden Circle, released by Blue Note in an extraordinary two-volume edition in 1965. And yet, as Phil Freeman puts it over at the Blue Note website, ‘The Empty Foxhole is one of Ornette Coleman’s least-heard albums, but it’s also one of the most in need of reassessment’.

Listening today, The Empty Foxhole offers enough to make it more than a mere curiosity. There is the frantic, suppressed energy of ‘Sound Gravitation’; the exuberant movement of ‘Freeway Express’; the album’s closer, ‘Zig Zag’, is reminiscent of earlier Coleman work; and Coleman’s trumpet on the title track is not unlike Ascenseur pour l’échafaud-era Miles Davis. While The Empty Foxhole might not be the jazz innovator’s most significant record, it still has moments that shine. A minor classic.





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