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Lonely Woman: A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Ornette Coleman is a tough one for me: I really like the philosophy behind his music and the freedom he gives his group, but I don’t usually find myself gravitating toward his music. One exception to that is “Lonely Woman,” Coleman’s most-covered tune and one of his most melodic. (Quick aside for the beat-heads back from the Flying Lotus piece: yes, Mumbles flipped “Lonely Woman” for ”Human Language”... in fact, that whole album is an encyclopedia of stuff to check out.) The opening track to Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, the original version of “Lonely Woman” features Coleman on sax along with Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. This starts with Higgins and Haden opening things up before Coleman and Cherry come in (Coleman panned hard left, Cherry hard right). This is great, the horns not quite in perfect unison to give it just a bit of a sloppy feel. Around 1:10 they play the ascending “Lonely Woman” theme. The opening of this song is great, pretty much completely composed until about 1:45 or so when Coleman takes a sax solo. Higgins and Haden just completely killing it behind Coleman and when Cherry plays his ascending lines behind Coleman around 2:20, it’s chills down the spine. Coleman’s playing in his solo is definitive blues, no need to worry about his theories about harmolodics. That lovely ascending line comes back around 3:45, then Coleman and Cherry trade a couple of phrases. The horns drop out just after 4:30 for Higgins and especially Haden to shine here. They break it down until Haden just plays a single note over the triplet cymbals. This is music that sounds like it’s been plucked out of the air. It’s amazing how much of this song’s melody is composed - just a short sax solo in the middle there, but it’s loose enough that it feels like the whole thing is improvised.

In 1962 (just 3 years after The Shape of Jazz to Come was released), the Modern Jazz Quartet (John Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Connie Kaye on drums) did a version of “Lonely Woman” on their album of the same name. This version starts with ruminative low notes from the piano and vibes and bowed bass before Lewis plays the melody, joined by Jackson on vibes. Some cymbals from Kaye starting around 0:50 as the drums gradually build up behind the piano, vibes, and bass. Around 1:20 or 1:25, Jackson steps to the front for a solo, apparently, but around 2:00, this moves back to the “Lonely Woman” melody. Around 2:30, this moves into a new arrangement of “Lonely Woman” by the Modern Jazz Quartet, very different from Ornette Coleman’s version. Over Jackson’s vamp on the vibes, Lewis adds some ornamentation… around 3:30, Heath takes a bass solo that is accompanied by some rolls on the toms… Jackson’s vibes re-join around 4:15 for a solo. Milt Jackson sounds great as always here. At 5:00, the melody returns, played by Lewis on piano over the bowed bass and low notes from the vibes. The melody is played through to the end of the song, similar to the way they took this on at the beginning. They end with a brief composed part similar to the added middle section around 2:30 in this version. This is good, but lacks the forward momentum from the original version of “Lonely Woman.” Everyone plays very well on this, but the whole thing never quite gels for my taste.

Geri Allen, Paul Motian, and Charlie Haden did a piano trio version of “Lonely Woman” on their Etudes album from 1987 (almost 30 years after the original was released). To get this out of the way right up front: this is awesome. Geri Allen’s mysterious-sounding piano playing and Paul Motian’s drumming style is perfect for this song, and the more up-front recording of Charlie Haden (as compared with the version on The Shape of Jazz to Come) sounds great. The trio interacts with each other perfectly, this whole thing just clicks for me. This version starts with Haden unaccompanied before Motian, then Allen joins in. A mysterious feel for the intro here, with everyone feeling out the tune around 1:00 or so… around 1:30 Geri Allen’s piano settles into the composed part of “Lonely Woman,” with Haden’s bass adding some nice ornamentation to this. Great piano line between about 2:00 and 2:10 or so. Motian’s driving drums behind all this are amazing, while Allen and Haden float up here. Breakdown around 2:50, then everything re-coalesces around 3:10, with Allen playing the theme pretty heavy on the sustain pedal. Around 3:50 this moves into a piano solo… Geri Allen! Yesyesyesyesyes. Listen to this middle section closely; I don’t have much of anything to add in writing here… melodic and dissonant as this tune really calls for, just amazing. Listen to Allen’s playing just before 6:00 and the return of the “Lonely Woman” theme! Haden’s bass comes to the front around 6:40 for a solo over Motian’s driving drums. It’s a very melodic bass solo, great to hear Haden’s take on the “Lonely Woman” melody here almost 30 years after he appeared on the original. The piano returns around 8:45 after Haden re-states the theme. Things start to dissolve around 9:30 or so, sustained floating piano notes as the drums fade and (as on the original) this ends with a single bass note from Haden. This is a great version of “Lonely Woman". Allen’s piano playing is a revelation, and Motian’s drums don’t let up for an instant through this tune. Haden, back from the original version on The Shape of Jazz to Come, holds this down and has a great bass solo here. Very highly recommended.

1987 also saw the release of Branford Marsalis’ take on “Lonely Woman",on his Random Abstract album. Marsalis on sax is joined by Kenny Kirkland on piano, Delbert Felix on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. This version starts with Kirkland’s beautiful solo piano intro. He’s joined by a few bass notes and cymbals, along with Marsalis’ sax, sounding almost like a violin on this. The melody starts around 1:15, veeeery relaxed in here, over Kirkland’s low rumblings on the piano (also adding some ornamentation to this with his right hand) and Nash’s toms. A second run through the melody starts around 2:40, just beautiful sax from Marsalis with Kirkland supporting throughout. Just after 4:00 or so Marsalis’ tone gets a little smooth (for my taste), but the melody is re-stated around 4:30… Around 5:45 there are some soaring notes from Marsalis… by the middle of this version, things have opened up a bit for Marsalis to take a sax solo; around 9:15, Nash increases his intensity on the drums. Around 10:30, Kirkland takes a piano solo… beautiful stuff, Kirkland plays with the “Lonely Woman” melody, but never plays it straight through. Some big right-hand runs starting around 12:30… Marsalis’ sax returns just before 14:00, and the “Lonely Woman” melody starts again around 14:20. Very triumphant sounding around 15:15 or 15:30… This version ends with Marsalis repeating a phrase from the melody a few times on his sax, then Kirkland taking it out on the piano. The playing from everyone on this version is beautiful, but I couldn’t help but wish that it would gel a little more and pick up some momentum - the forward momentum on Ornette Coleman’s original version and the version above from Geri Allen, Paul Motian, and Charlie Haden really get the job done for me. This had the feel of a very long introduction - it almost sounds like something from Coltrane’s A Love Supreme could break out of the playing on this version.

Lonely Woman by Branford Marsalis on Grooveshark

John Zorn’s Naked City, released in 1990, included his take on “Lonely Woman.” Zorn’s band included Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass, and Joey Baron on drums in addition to Zorn on the sax. This version comes out swinging with rock drums and a heavy bassline while Zorn plays the “Lonely Woman” melody, Horvitz adds some organ chord stabs, and Frisell’s guitar howls along. A big squeal from Zorn’s sax around 0:50 sounds like it could have come straight out of Coleman’s sax on the original. Around 1:30, Frith’s bass is playing “Pretty Woman” - ha. The band continues to groove along hard while Zorn’s sax squeals and Frisell and Horvitz add dissonant backing. Short and sweet, it’s over after just 2:44. Zorn’s sax definitely sounds heavily indebted to Coleman on this version, even if this version sounds very different because of Baron’s rock drums.

In a different frame of mind, but also released in 1990, Fred Hersch did a version of “Lonely Woman” coupled with Miles Davis’ “Nardis” on his Evanessence album. Hersch at the piano is joined on this version by Michael Formanek on bass and Jeff Hirshfield on the drums. This starts with a snare drum and some spare bass notes before Hersch plays the “Lonely Woman” beautifully as a ballad. This continues over the pulsing bass until about 1:30, when Formanek takes a bass solo. This moves into a single-note bass pulse in a lower register than at the start of the tune, and then Hersch plays the “Nardis” melody and the band moves into that tune. Beautiful piano soloing in here, certainly influenced by Bill Evans when the “Nardis” melody comes in initially, but Hersch very much finds his own voice in here and by 4:30 or so, the trio is interacting perfectly with each other. Shortly after that, Hersch returns to the “Nardis” melody. Hersch’s piano whirls into its upper register around 6:00, then Formanek takes another bass solo. Bringing it way down to a quiet simmer just before 7:00, Hersch returns to the “Lonely Woman” melody over Formanek’s bass pulse. They play once through the melody at the end here. This is a beautiful piano trio and a very original take on “Lonely Woman” (though the bulk of this tune in the middle section is “Nardis”). A very different take on the tune from the original version on The Shape of Jazz to Come and also from the other piano trio version mentioned above, from Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian. It’s a complete success to my ears. I’ll also mention a couple of more recent versions of Hersch’s arrangement of “Lonely Woman/Nardis.” He included this tune on 2012’s Alive at the Vanguard and also played it live in another trio set at the Village Vanguard that was recorded by NPR and is available to stream.

Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band included “Lonely Woman” on their 2005 album, Momentum. Redman on sax is joined on this version by Sam Yahel on keyboards, Jeff Balllard on drums, and Stefon Harris on vibes. This version starts with some ambient electronic sounds of some sort - I assume this is from Yahel’s keyboards here. Ballard adds a few drums starting around 0:25 or so and Yahel adds some keyboard bass tones around the same time. Around 0:45, Redman’s horn plays some spooky, heavily reverbed lines and Harris adds some vibes in the background here. The “Lonely Woman” melody starts around 1:15 over a keyboard bass drone and Ballard’s jittery, drum-and-bass style drums. Harris’ vibes add accents in between Redman’s phrases here. There’s a short break with jittery bass around 2:00 and shortly after that before the melody returns, again over a bass drone. Ascending sax lines just before 3:00 with Harris in a high register on the vibes. Breakdown around 3:15, then sax, synth, and vibes trade some phrases over the ambient electronics before the melody returns at 3:45. Harris plays some really cool staccato stuff on the vibes starting around 4:10 or 4:15, joined shortly after by Redman’s sax with a bit of a delay on it. After 5:00 or so, Redman’s sax gets the big reverb it had at the start of the tune and the whole song gets a more ambient feel as it dissolves. By 5:50, it’s down to just the electronics that have been going underneath this tune the whole time. Definitely an interesting take on this tune - no real soloing to speak of, just some short breaks in between the melody statements where Harris in particular gets in a few phrases. Ballard’s drums on this probably either work really well for you or don’t do much at all - maybe it will depend on your mood. I’m not sure this is one of my favorite versions of “Lonely Woman,” but it’s some of the best electronica-tinged jazz I know of.

In 2011, Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays’ piano-duet version of “Lonely Woman” was released on Modern Music (I can’t help but think that the title of this album works well with The Shape of Jazz to Come). On this version, Mehldau’s piano is in the right channel and Hays in the left. They start with Mehldau playing the melody straight out of the gate over some moody-sounding, low piano notes from Hays and some melodic dissonance from both players. After Mehldau plays the melody, Hays takes it next (starting around 1:00) in a lower register. Around 1:30, Mehldau drops out and Hays plays the melody in a low register, followed by playing some muted strings low on the piano, getting a sound that closely mimics an acoustic bass here. Mehldau solos over this bass drone - this is really beautiful just before 3:00 or so, and this continues to some amazing piano around 3:30, while the bass drone grows in volume. Around 4:00, Mehldau plays a repeating figure up high while Hays takes a solo lower on his piano, sticking fairly close to the melody. Very cool how Hays played a single bass note through Mehldau’s solo, while Mehldau sticks to his repeated figure throughout Hays’ solo. Just before 6:00, the two pianists re-join for the song’s melody, similar to the way they played it at the intro. They don’t play this the whole way through, just a fragment of the melody at the end. Beautiful stuff, not a real swinging version of “Lonely Woman,” but both Mehldau and Hays play some beautiful piano lines and interact great with each other on this version.

Lonely Woman by Brad Mehldau, Kevin Hays & Patrick Zimmerli on Grooveshark

When Dave King (that Dave King) included a version of “Lonely Woman” on his trio album with Bill Carrothers on piano and Billy Peterson on bass, I’ve Been Ringing You. This version starts with King’s cymbals, echoing back to Billy Higgins’ drums on the version from The Shape of Jazz to Come, followed quickly by Carrothers’ piano with lots of sustain, then some deep bass notes from Peterson. The melody starts just after 0:30, still heavy on the sustain pedal. There’s a cool tension here between King’s frantic cymbals and the super-relaxed piano and bass. Carrothers sticks fairly close to the melody here until just before 2:30, where he starts a solo and King adds some great drums behind him. Just before 3:00, Carrothers returns to the melody while King works his drum set hard… great build around 3:40 or 3:45 from the trio. They start to dissolve a bit around 4:15, playing through the melody and ending with King’s cymbals. An excellent version of the tune, King’s drums in particular really shine on this. The recording also sounds great, Peterson’s deep bass notes are perfect in this though I didn’t really comment on his playing in the tune. Also well worth hearing, when the trio came to the Village Vanguard in September, 2013, they opened with a piano trio version of “Lonely Woman.” The set was recorded by NPR and can be streamed there - this is a very different version from what was included on the album and well worth your ears.

This isn’t meant to be encyclopedic and is already getting pretty long - there are more versions of “Lonely Woman” out there that can easily be found through some searches on YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, etc. It seems like covers of this tune generally fall into one of two camps: (1) fairly ragged-sounding, but original, takes on Coleman’s version. The versions from Geri Allen, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian, John Zorn, and Dave King would fall into this category. Or (2) versions that take the beautiful “Lonely Woman” melody into something a bit more stately-sounding. Modern Jazz Quartet, Fred Hersch, Kevin Hays and Brad Mehldau, and Branford Marsalis would fall into this category. Joshua Redman is a bit of an outlier here, and as I said, there are many more versions of this tune out there that take different approaches, but very broadly speaking, it seems like those are the two approaches that artists have taken in covering this tune. More than fifty years after its first release on The Shape of Jazz to Come, this tune has been re-shaped into some amazing and very different arrangements, and is no doubt being re-imagined by other artists now. Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.