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Jazz legend Ornette Coleman has died. These 4 songs show why he mattered.

Ornette Coleman (center stage, between drummers) performs on Saturday Night Live in 1979.
Ornette Coleman (center stage, between drummers) performs on Saturday Night Live in 1979.
NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

The legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died on Thursday at 85, pioneered and personified a style that is not regarded as especially accessible. Free jazz is highly experimental even for jazz, chaotic and often dissonant by design, rejecting traditional boundaries of tonality and rhythm. It can come across as more art movement than musical style, and thus as opaque and self-serious — as work.

But free jazz can also be fun. It can make you tap your foot and hum along. Coleman, in classic 1959 albums like The Shape of Jazz to Come, found a style that was artistically significant as well as — despite common misconception to the contrary — enjoyable to listen to. If you like jazz even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to overcome any preconceived notions you have about Coleman and give him a listen.

Whether you're a Coleman fan who wants to remember why you love him or a neophyte curious about whether you'll like his music, these following tracks are worth a listen. They help convey why the shows during his heyday were said to have been such raucous fun, as well as why Coleman's artistic contribution was such that, as the New York Times put it in its Coleman obituary, he "symbolized the American independent will as effectively as any artist of the last century."

1) "Ramblin" from Change of the Century (1960)

This is a great place to start: it's bluesy, with a catchy and accessible melody, but still unmistakably Coleman in its oddball pitches and rhythms.

2) "Chronology" from The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Coleman's unusual sound, at first jarring, becomes a little less alien if you think of it as sort of like singing — it's been compared to the wail of a blues singer. Where this really gets unconventional is after the band gets through the chorus and start improvising. The first solo on this track, from trumpeter Don Cherry, begins as straightforward and takes progressively more liberties with melody, key, and rhythm. But the Coleman solo that follows deviates from the standard conventions even more — which is exactly what makes it such a blast to hear.

3) "Law Years" from Science Fiction (1971)

Coleman's output is as much celebrated for Coleman's playing as it is for that of bassist Charlie Haden, who died last year. Shy in person but spectacularly bold on stage, he was considered one of the great jazz bassists of the era, and that comes through here.

4) "Faces and Places" from At the Golden Circle Stockholm (1965)

Coleman, in a trio rather than a quartet and in a live setting rather than a studio, unspools a bit more here. It's not always as easy to follow, but his creativity and adventurousness are undeniable.