ornette coleman | performance of september 4-15, 1974 at keystone korner, san francisco

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PERFORMANCE OF SEPTEMBER 4-15, 1974 at Keystone Korner, San Francisco

Ornette Coleman / alto saxophone, electric violin, trumpet, James Ulmer / hollow-bodied electric guitar; David Williams / electric and acoustic bass, Billy Higgins / drums.

It is now exactly fifteen years since Ornette Coleman’s historic appearance at the Five Spot Cafe in New York City, and he is still busy expanding his musical perspective. With his current quartet, Coleman has surrounded himself with a more complex harmonic/rhythmic environment than previously and has produced a sound that is both a departure from and an extension of that of his former bands. The introduction of a conventional chord producing instrument into his music – in this case, the guitar – has made it possible for virtually the first time in one of his small groups to hear something of his music’s full harmonic implications.

Guitarist James Ulmer has a style particularly suited to this purpose: definitely jazz-rooted, but considerably open and free; but not free, say, in the sense of an energy-conscious Sonny Sharrock, nor like the more wide-ranging electronic/rhythmic creations of Derek Bailey. Ulmer’s “free” is, like Coleman’s, more melodic and dissecting, more concerned with the basic “stuff” of which the song is made.

Accompanying Coleman, he plays thick-toned and dissonant sounding chords, based on small clusters of notes, which he strings together in fairly chromatic progressions. But the added dimension is that he and Coleman, while having similar melodic approaches, often proceed together in contrasting musical space. Sometimes, it seems as if they are in totally different, though related, tonal areas; or Ulmer will play in a minor mode while Coleman is in a major one; or, particularly during the statement of the theme, Ulmer will play deliberately “out of tune.” Frequently, he will play “out of tempo,” backing Coleman’s long, quick lines with slow, strung out chords that allow Coleman’s phrases to dangle momentarily in space. Or he will take Coleman at his own pace, but lag just enough behind or dart just enough ahead to keep the sound fluid and off balance.

colemanposterkeystone.jpgThe actual effect that this has on Coleman’s music is to add a nagging element of uncertainty – and simultaneously, a greater depth. Ulmer’s shadings bring a darker, somewhat cryptic quality to Coleman’s music which, while it does not obfuscate Ornette’s own normally exuberant utterances, does cause them to be heard in a quite different frame of reference.

It should be pointed out too that Coleman’s playing itself, despite its inner rhythmic propulsion, has never really been entirely linear in character. His solos are always made up of any number of slightly different (though connected) expositions of a particular musical idea, each in itself linear, but taken together, asserting a quite multi-dimensional view of the world. It is as if Coleman, realizing that there are several dozen different ways of expanding any single musical theme, finds himself in each solo attempting to present all several dozen at once.

In this sense, Ulmer’s contributions, contrasting as they do with Coleman’s, are only a vertical extension of Ornette’s basic musical approach. The uncertainty which Ulmer’s playing hangs over the music is due in large part to the increased harmonic space that he opens up. It is also due to the polyrhythmic textures he helps to create – along with Billy Higgins. Higgins’ rolling, march-like beats are constantly shifting and changing directions and, more importantly, are changing the dynamic/dramatic sense of the music. Coleman’s intention, it seems, was to create an extremely fluid and multi-layered musical environment, with momentum enough to support the song but with enough textural and tonal variance to keep the song’s “meaning” open.

Certainly no small contribution to this was Ornette’s violin playing which he is doing more and more of these days and which has reached fantastic new heights. There is still that “country-ish” flavor to his use of the instrument but, perhaps due to its electronic amplification (the volume alone is physically assaulting), there is a much increased harshness. It seems too that Ornette may have been listening some to Leroy Jenkins recently, for occasionally there pops up a bit of that romantic/folkish quality that is one of Jenkins’ trademarks.

If there was anything lacking, it was perhaps only Charlie Haden’s big-toned bass and the sophisticated underpinnings he might have provided. But bassist Williams, though not as self-assured, did add to the textural mix.

Undoubtedly, this current Coleman quartet has a great potential for widening the aesthetic sense and feeling of Ornette’s music. It is not now as “together” as previous Coleman groups (one indication of this may have been that most of the songs played were older Coleman compositions – “Trouble In East,” “New York,” “Comme Il Faute,” “The Good Life,” “Long Time, No See,” etc.), but there were moments when all of the potential shone through and, at those times, one felt that this might be Coleman’s most mature musical expression to date.

Henry Kuntz, 1974

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Keystone Korner web page

Ornette Coleman biography:

Ornette Coleman (born March 9, 1930) is an American saxophonist and composer. He was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s.

Coleman was born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, where he began performing R&B and bebop initially on tenor saxophone. He later switched to alto, which has remained his primary instrument. Coleman’s timbre is easily recognized: his keening, crying sound draws heavily on blues music. Part of the uniqueness of his sound came from his use of a plastic saxophone on his classic early recordings (Coleman claimed that it sounded drier, without the pinging sound of metal), though in more recent years he has played a metal saxophone. His album Sound Grammar received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music. Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s. He worked at various jobs, including as an elevator operator, while pursuing his musical career.

Even from the beginning of Coleman’s career, his music and playing were, in many ways rather unorthodox: Coleman was more concerned with relative pitch than with “proper” equal temperament; his sense of harmony and chord progression are not as rigid as most swing music or bebop performers’, and were easily changed and often implied. Many Los Angeles jazz musicians regarded Coleman’s playing as out-of-tune, and he sometimes had difficulty finding like-minded musicians with whom to perform. Pianist Paul Bley was an early supporter.

In 1958 Coleman led his first recording session for Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman. The session also featured trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and Walter Norris on piano.

1959 found Coleman very busy: He abandoned the piano entirely for Tomorrow is the Question! a quartet featuring Shelly Manne on drums. Coleman encountered double bassist Charlie Haden – perhaps his most important collaborator – and formed a regular group with him, Cherry, and Higgins. They were an unlikely-looking fellowship – Coleman with his plastic alto saxophone, Cherry playing the pint-sized pocket trumpet, Haden honing his technique via his Missouri family’s hill-billy band. This quartet recorded The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959, with Atlantic Records, who had signed Coleman to a multi-album contract.

The Shape of Jazz to Come was, according to critic Steve Huey, “a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven’t come to grips with.” While definitely – if somewhat loosely – blues-based and often quite melodic, the album’s songs were harmonically unusual and unpredictable. Some musicians and critics saw Coleman as a talentless hack; others regarded him as a genius.

Coleman’s quartet received a lengthy – and sometimes controversial – engagement at New York City’s famed Five Spot jazz club. Such notable figures as The Modern Jazz Quartet, Leonard Bernstein and Lionel Hampton were favorably impressed, and offered encouragement. (Hampton was so impressed he reportedly asked to perform with the quartet; Bernstein later helped Haden obtain a composition grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.) Opinion was, however, divided: trumpeter Miles Davis famously declared Coleman was “all screwed up inside,” and Roy Eldridge stated, “I’d listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving baby.”

On his best-known early recordings for the Atlantic Records, Coleman led a piano-less quartet with Cherry on trumpet, usually Charlie Haden, but sometimes Scott LaFaro on double bass and either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums. These recordings are collected in a boxed set, Beauty is a Rare Thing.

In 1960, Coleman recorded Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which featured a double quartet, including Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Haden and LaFaro on bass, and both Higgins and Blackwell on drums. The record was recorded in stereo, with a reed/brass/bass/drums quartet isolated in each stereo channel. Free Jazz was, at nearly 40 minutes, the lengthiest jazz recording to date, and was instantly one of Coleman’s most controversial albums. The music features a regular but complex pulse, one drummer playing “straight” while the other played double-time; the thematic material is a series of brief, dissonant fanfares; as is conventional in jazz, there are a series of solos features for each member of the band, but the other soloists are free to chime in as they wish, producing some extraordinary passages of collective improvisation by the full octet.

Coleman intended “Free Jazz” simply to be the album title, but his growing reputation placed him at the forefront of jazz innovation, and free jazz was soon considered a new genre, though Coleman has expressed discomfort with the term.

Among the reasons Coleman may not have entirely approved of the term free jazz is that his music contains a considerable amount of composition. His melodic material, although skeletal, strongly recalls the melodies that Charlie Parker wrote over standard harmonies, and in general the music is closer to the bebop that came before it than is sometimes popularly imagined. (Several early tunes of his, for instance, are clearly based on favorite bop chord changes like “Out of Nowhere” and “I Got Rhythm.”) Coleman very rarely played standards, concentrating on his own compositions, of which there seems to be an endless flow. There are exceptions, though, including a classic reading (virtually a recomposition) of “Embraceable You” for Atlantic, and an improvisation on Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross” recorded with Gunther Schuller.

After the Atlantic period and into the early part of the 1970s, Coleman’s music became more angular and engaged fully with the jazz avant-garde which had developed in part around Coleman’s innovations.

His quartet dissolved, and Coleman formed a new trio with David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffett on drums. Coleman began to extend the sound-range of his music, introducing accompanying string players (though far from the territory of “Parker With Strings”) and playing trumpet and violin himself; he initially had little conventional technique, and used the instruments to make large, unrestrained gestures. His friendship with Albert Ayler influenced Coleman’s development on trumpet and violin. (Haden would later sometimes join this trio to form a two-bass quartet.)

Between 1965 and 1967 Coleman signed with legendary jazz record label Blue Note Records and released a number of recordings starting with the influential recordings of the trio At the Golden Circle Stockholm.

In 1966, Coleman was criticised for recording The Empty Foxhole, a trio with Haden, and Coleman’s son Denardo Coleman – who was ten years old. Some regarded this as perhaps an ill-advised publicity ploy on Coleman’s part, and judged the move as a misstep. Others, however, noted that despite his youth, Denardo had studied drumming for several years, his technique – which, though unrefined, was respectable and enthusiastic – owed more to pulse-oriented free jazz drummers like Sunny Murray than to bebop drumming. Denardo has matured into a respected musician, and has been his father’s primary drummer since the late 1970s.

Coleman formed another quartet. A number of bassists and drummers (including Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones) appeared, and Dewey Redman joined the group, usually on tenor saxophone.

He also continued to explore his interest in string textures – from the Town Hall concert in 1962, culminating in Skies of America in 1972. (Sometimes this had a practical value, as it facilitated his group’s appearance in the UK in 1965, where jazz musicians were under a quota arrangement but classical performers were exempt.)

Later, however, Coleman, like Miles Davis before him, took to playing with electrified instruments. Albums like Virgin Beauty and Of Human Feelings used rock and funk rhythms, sometimes called free funk. On the face of it, this could seem to be an adoption of the jazz fusion mode fashionable at the time, but Ornette’s first record with the group, which later became known as Prime Time (the 1976 Dancing in Your Head), was sufficiently different to have considerable shock value. Electric guitars were prominent, but the music was, at heart, rather similar to his earlier work. These performances have the same angular melodies and simultaneous group improvisations – what Joe Zawinul referred to as “nobody solos, everybody solos” and what Coleman calls harmolodics—and although the nature of the pulse has altered, Coleman’s own rhythmic approach has not.

Some critics have suggested Coleman’s frequent use of the vaguely-defined term harmolodics is a musical MacGuffin: a red herring of sorts designed to occupy critics over-focused on Coleman’s sometimes unorthodox compositional style. Jerry Garcia played guitar on three tracks from Coleman’s Virgin Beauty (1988) – “Three Wishes,” “Singing In The Shower,” and “Desert Players.” Twice in 1993, Coleman joined the Grateful Dead on stage playing the band’s “The Other One,” “Wharf Rat,” “Stella Blue,” and covering Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Lovelight,” among others. Another unexpected association was with guitarist Pat Metheny, with whom Coleman recorded Song X (1985); though released under Metheny’s name Coleman was essentially co-leader (contributing all the compositions).

In 1991, Coleman played on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch; the orchestra was conducted by Howard Shore. It is notable among other things for including a rare sighting of Coleman playing a jazz standard: Thelonious Monk’s blues line “Misterioso.”

The mid-1990s saw a flurry of activity from Coleman: He released four records between 1995 and 1996, and for the first time in many years, Coleman worked regularly with piano players (either Geri Allen or Joachim Kühn).

Coleman has rarely performed on other musicians’ records. Exceptions include extensive performances on albums by Jackie McLean in 1967 (Old and New Gospel, on which Coleman played trumpet), and James Blood Ulmer in 1978, and cameo appearances on Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band album (1970), Joe Henry’s Scar (2001) and Lou Reed’s The Raven (2003).

In September 2006 he released a live album titled Sound Grammar with his newest quartet (Denardo drumming and two bassists, Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga). This is his first album of new material in ten years, and was recorded in Germany in 2005. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Although now an elder statesman of jazz, Coleman continues to push himself into unusual playing situations, often with much younger musicians or musicians from radically different musical cultures, and continues to perform regularly. An increasing number of his compositions, while not ubiquitous, have become minor jazz standards, including “Lonely Woman,” “Peace,” “Turnaround,” “When Will the Blues Leave?” “The Blessing,” and “Law Years,” among others. He has influenced virtually every saxophonist of a modern disposition, and nearly every such jazz musician, of the generation that followed him. His songs have proven endlessly malleable: pianists such as Paul Bley and Paul Plimley have managed to turn them to their purposes; John Zorn recorded Spy Vs Spy (1989), an album of radical thrash-metal versions of Coleman songs; and there have even been country-music versions of Coleman tunes (by Richard Greene). Coleman’s playing has profoundly influenced, directly or otherwise, countless musicians trying as he has for five decades to understand and discover the shape of not just jazz, but all music to come.

On February 11, 2007, Ornette Coleman was honored with a Grammy award for lifetime achievement, in recognition of this legacy. The ceremony’s closing act, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, accordingly paid tribute to Coleman by displaying a sign reading, “Love to Ornette Coleman” during their performance.

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more on Ornette Coleman’s web page here…

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