Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman: Analysis of Jazz Covers

Cover photo of Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come album

Elegiac and raw, playfully deconstructed, or re-imagined with lush harmonies – Ornette Coleman‘s “Lonely Woman” has proven remarkably resilient.

This iconic composition invites exploration, offering a canvas for each artist to express their own unique sound.

In this analysis, we’ll journey through a spectrum of “Lonely Woman” covers, uncovering hidden connections, innovations, and the enduring appeal of this jazz standard.

Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Ornette Coleman‘s “Lonely Woman” opens his revolutionary 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come on a hauntingly beautiful note. More than just a great jazz standard, this composition embodies Coleman’s unique approach to melody and improvisation, setting the tone for the groundbreaking music to follow.

  • Melodic Simplicity, Emotional Depth: “Lonely Woman” possesses a deceptively simple folk-like melody. Yet, its melancholic beauty holds a depth of emotion that belies its surface structure. Coleman’s alto saxophone cries with a raw expressiveness, hinting at the freer improvisations that would reshape jazz vocabulary.
  • Harmolodics in Action: This piece showcases Coleman’s concept of “harmolodics”, where melody, harmony, and rhythm are treated with equal importance. The implied harmonies and shifting time signatures create a sense of fluid freedom, pushing against traditional song structures.
  • Breaking the Mold: While “Lonely Woman” has a recognizable verse-chorus form, its unconventional harmonic progressions and free-flowing solos mark a departure from the chord-based improvisation common in jazz at the time. This opened up vast new territory for musicians to explore.
  • Historical Impact: “Lonely Woman” and The Shape of Jazz to Come were met with both controversy and acclaim upon release. The album’s radical break with tradition sparked fierce debate but ultimately cemented Ornette Coleman’s place as a visionary figure in jazz history.

Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Lonely Woman”, Lonely Woman (1962)

Where Ornette Coleman‘s original “Lonely Woman” blazed a trail of free expression and raw emotionality, the Modern Jazz Quartet‘s 1962 interpretation on their album Lonely Woman offers a strikingly different take. The MJQ, known for their polished sound, intricate arrangements, and blend of classical and jazz sensibilities, recast Coleman’s composition with their own distinctive touch.

  • Formal Elegance: The Modern Jazz Quartet’s rendition maintains the melancholic core of Coleman’s melody but reimagines it with a chamber music sensibility. Milt Jackson‘s vibraphone takes the melodic lead, its shimmering tones adding a sense of refinement. John Lewis‘ piano playing is precise and harmonically rich, bringing a sense of structure to Coleman’s open-ended composition.
  • Restrained Passion: While the MJQ’s “Lonely Woman” is expressive, it emphasizes controlled interplay rather than the explosive solos of Coleman’s version. The solos showcase the individual brilliance of each musician, but always within a balanced ensemble sound.
  • Counterpoint Conversations: The MJQ weaves contrapuntal lines and playful call-and-response sections into their arrangement, adding complexity and a sense of internal dialogue within the piece.
  • Tribute vs. Transformation: The Modern Jazz Quartet’s interpretation stands as a respectful homage to Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking work, yet it transforms “Lonely Woman” into a piece firmly within their own artistic territory. It demonstrates the adaptability of Coleman’s composition and the fascinating dialogue that can happen between jazz innovators.

Charlie Haden & Paul Motian feat. Geri Allen’s “Lonely Woman”, Etudes (1988)

Bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Paul Motian, and pianist Geri Allen create a deeply affecting reimagining of “Lonely Woman” on their 1988 album Etudes. Known for their introspective and spacious approach to jazz, this trio stretches Coleman’s composition into a moving exploration of longing and introspection.

  • Spacious and Haunting: Haden’s bass sets the stage with resonant open notes, creating a vast sonic landscape. Motian’s brushwork on the drums and cymbals is delicate and atmospheric, providing a subtly shifting pulse. Allen’s piano enters with sparse, poignant chords, her touch both tender and searching.
  • Melodic Expansion: While respectful of the core melody, this version expands upon it. Allen’s playing stretches the theme, adding bluesy inflections and moments of dissonance that highlight the underlying yearning within the piece. Haden’s mournful bass lines act like counter-melodies, intertwining with the piano in a poignant dialogue.
  • Focus on Interplay: The trio’s collective improvisation emphasizes sensitive listening and spontaneous interaction. There’s a sense of whispered conversation rather than showy solos, with each musician responding and building upon the other’s contributions.
  • Emotional Resonance: While Coleman’s original has a raw beauty and the MJQ’s version possesses formal elegance, Haden, Motian, and Allen’s rendition taps into a deep well of melancholy and unresolved longing. This “Lonely Woman” feels timeless and achingly personal.

Branford Marsalis‘ “Lonely Woman”, Random Abstract (1987)

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis included a fiery take on “Lonely Woman” in his 1987 album Random Abstract. A leading figure in the ‘young lions’ movement that revitalized traditional jazz forms, Marsalis approaches Coleman’s composition with both reverence and a desire to reclaim it within a more hard-bop context.

  • Energetic Drive: Marsalis’s saxophone playing is powerful and assertive, imbuing the familiar melody with a renewed urgency. He reworks the theme with blues-inflected phrasing and dynamic contrasts, highlighting the emotional range within the composition.
  • Return to Roots: While acknowledging Coleman’s original innovations, Marsalis grounds his version in more traditional harmonic structures. This brings a sense of familiarity while showcasing the composition’s adaptability.
  • Band Interplay: Marsalis’ band, featuring his brother Wynton on trumpet, provides a rhythmic foundation rich with hard-bop energy. The solos from Marsalis and the other musicians are virtuosic, demonstrating their technical prowess while pushing the boundaries of the established theme.
  • Respect and Reinterpretation: Marsalis’ “Lonely Woman” stands as a tribute to Coleman’s groundbreaking work while also demonstrating the adaptability of the piece. He honors the original’s spirit of exploration while firmly planting it within his own stylistic lineage.

John Zorn‘s “Lonely Woman”, Naked City (1990)

John Zorn, notorious for his avant-garde and genre-bending compositions, offers a complete deconstruction of “Lonely Woman” on his 1990 album Naked City. Zorn’s version is a mere two minutes of sonic chaos, a far cry from the original’s melancholic beauty.

  • Shock and Awe: Zorn’s “Lonely Woman” begins with a blast of distorted guitar and pummeling drums. His own screeching alto saxophone cuts through the noise, playing fragments of Coleman’s melody in a frenetic, almost unrecognizable way.
  • Genre Mashup: This version explodes jazz conventions, throwing in elements of hardcore punk, speed metal, and jarring noise into the mix. Moments of near-silence are punctuated by bursts of sonic aggression.
  • Challenge to Tradition: Zorn’s treatment of “Lonely Woman” is less about interpretation and more about deliberate provocation. He challenges the listener’s expectations, pushing concepts of beauty and musicality to their limits.
  • Part of a Larger Tapestry: Naked City is known for its rapid-fire genre shifts and abrasive aesthetic. Zorn’s “Lonely Woman” exists within this context, a brief and brutal snapshot of his artistic philosophy.

Fred Hersch Trio’s “Lonely Woman / Nardis”, Evanessence (1990)

Pianist Fred Hersch‘s trio offers a stunning meditation on “Lonely Woman” that seamlessly blends it with Miles Davis‘ classic Nardis on their 1990 album Evanessence. This innovative approach weaves together two iconic jazz compositions, revealing hidden connections and creating a hauntingly beautiful musical tapestry.

  • Intertwined Melodies: Hersch begins with a sparse, ruminative rendition of “Lonely Woman,” subtly alluding to its inherent melancholy. Gradually, fragments of the “Nardis” melody emerge, intertwining with Coleman’s theme. The two melodies engage in a poignant conversation, sharing a common sense of yearning.
  • Harmonic Exploration: Hersch reimagines the harmonic underpinnings of both pieces. He uses “Nardis”‘ modal harmonies to infuse “Lonely Woman” with new depth, while Coleman’s open-ended harmonies give “Nardis” a touch of ambiguity.
  • Respectful Innovation: The trio honors the spirit of both compositions while boldly pushing them into new territory. Hersch’s delicate piano work, along with sensitive contributions from bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey, create a sense of spacious intimacy.
  • Evolving Mood: The medley moves through phases of introspection, building to an intense emotional climax before resolving into a quiet, almost questioning coda. This feels like an exploration of shared human emotions through the lens of two timeless compositions.

Joshua Redman Elastic Band‘s “Lonely Woman”, Momentum (2005)

Joshua Redman’s Elastic Band breathes vibrant new life into “Lonely Woman” on their 2005 album Momentum. Known for their blend of funk, soul, and contemporary jazz influences, the Elastic Band injects the piece with groove and rhythmic energy while respecting its emotional core.

  • Funky Reimagining: Redman’s saxophone cuts a bold path, reworking the melody with bluesy inflections and a playful swagger. The band establishes a driving groove with a tight interplay between keyboards, bass, and drums. This rhythmic foundation gives their interpretation a propulsive energy.
  • Exploring Nuances: While Ornette Coleman’s original has a raw quality, Redman and his band uncover a soulful expressiveness within the piece. Each solo builds on the theme, adding layers of melodic and rhythmic complexity.
  • Conversational Solos: Redman’s Elastic Band features a lineup of virtuosic musicians. Their solos, while showcasing individual brilliance, feel like a dynamic conversation with the main melody and each other. This creates a sense of spontaneity and excitement.
  • Tradition and Innovation: Redman and the Elastic Band pay homage to Coleman’s pioneering spirit while crafting a distinctly contemporary take on “Lonely Woman”. It’s a testament to the enduring power of the composition and the versatility of jazz as a living art form.

Brad Mehldau & Kevin Hays‘ “Lonely Woman”, Modern Music (2011)

Pianists Brad Mehldau and Kevin Hays offer an intimate and subtly subversive take on “Lonely Woman” on their 2011 collaborative album Modern Music. This duo format highlights the piece’s inherent beauty and leaves space for intricate interactions between the two musicians.

  • Interwoven Voices: Mehldau and Hays approach the melody with a delicate touch, their interwoven lines creating a haunting, almost hymn-like atmosphere. Their shared understanding of the piece allows for moments of playful counterpoint and subtle harmonic shifts.
  • Focus on Space and Silence: Unlike some versions of “Lonely Woman” that emphasize virtuosity or rhythmic drive, Mehldau and Hays embrace the power of silence and sparse phrasing. They let the melody breathe, highlighting its plaintive quality.
  • Improvisational Dialogue: Their improvisations feel like a continuation of the melancholic theme, with each pianist responding to the other’s ideas. There’s a sense of searching and unresolved yearning throughout.
  • Beyond Homage: Mehldau and Hays clearly revere Coleman’s composition, but their interpretation feels deeply personal. They bring their own emotional vocabulary to the piece, creating a uniquely introspective version.

Dave King‘s “Lonely Woman”, I’ve Been Ringing You (2012)

Drummer Dave King, best known for his work in The Bad Plus, puts a unique spin on “Lonely Woman” as part of his 2012 album I’ve Been Ringing You, featuring pianist Bill Carrothers and bassist Billy Peterson. This trio setting casts the familiar melody in a new light, emphasizing space, introspection, and the interplay between musicians.

  • Melodic Focus: Carrothers takes the lead with the melody, his piano playing both lyrical and understated. His phrasing highlights the song’s yearning quality, providing a strong foundation for the arrangement.
  • Rhythmic Subtlety: King departs from bombastic drumming for a more nuanced rhythmic approach. His brushwork on the drums and use of space underscores the melancholic mood, with gentle cymbal washes adding texture rather than driving energy.
  • Collective Improvisation: The trio engages in a sensitive exploration of the melodic and harmonic possibilities of “Lonely Woman”. Their interplay feels fluid and organic, with each musician adding their voice to a shared musical conversation.
  • Respectful Reinterpretation: King’s rendition honors the original’s emotional depth while showcasing the adaptability of a classic. It’s a testament to the power of Ornette Coleman’s writing that it can be reinterpreted in such a personal way.


From the Modern Jazz Quartet‘s formal elegance to Joshua Redman‘s soulful funk, each “Lonely Woman” cover offers a glimpse into the vast territory opened up by Ornette Coleman‘s innovation.

These interpretations aren’t mere copies, but a vibrant conversation with a master.

They demonstrate the enduring power of a single piece of music to inspire, challenge, and ultimately transform the landscape of jazz.

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How was Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman influencial?

“Lonely Woman” is one of Ornette Coleman’s most covered by other jazz musicians. The song was the opening track for Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, released on Atlantic Records and featured Coleman’s piano-less quartet of cornetist Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden.

What traditional jazz instrument has been omitted from Lonely Woman?

“Lonely Woman” was the opening track for Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come which featured Coleman on saxophone in a piano-less quartet format rounded out by cornetist Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden.

Who was in the song Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman?

“Lonely Woman” first recorded on Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come featured Coleman on saxophone, Don Cherry on cornet, Billy Higgins on drums, and Charlie Haden on bass.