ornette coleman | the innovator


Although Lennie Tristano made the first “free jazz” record in 1949, titled “Intuition,” the earliest and most influential expression of the ideas from which non-idiomatic free improvisation arises comes from the liner notes to an album called Change of the Century (Atlantic 1327): “When our group plays, before we start out to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be…We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve… The musicians have complete freedom…” The album was, of course, the fourth release by Ornette Coleman, issued in June 1960.

There seem to be two ways of approaching Ornette: historically, in terms of the actual playing on his records, or contemporaneously, since the implications of Ornette’s ideas form the basis for much of the important music being made presently and to come imminently. The paradox of Ornette is that his music has never sounded as radically revolutionary as the ideas he expressed in explaining it, and it is the ideas, rather than the playing, which are exerting the most contemporary influence. But in truly creative music, it is a previous creator’s ideas and example rather than actual playing that will be apparent as most useful.

As an example of this Coleman paradox, we can examine Ornette’s tune “Free” from the aforementioned album. In the notes, Ornette says, “Our free group improvising is well demonstrated here. Each member goes his own way and still adds tellingly to the group endeavour. There was no predetermined chordal or time pattern. I think we got a spontaneous, free-wheeling thing going here.”

That description could apply to much of the recent music at San Francisco’s Free Music Festival, or to sounds being made now in London or Toronto, but seems ridiculous when applied to the music Ornette’s group was making in New York almost two decades ago. The tune is written and rehearsed, and the harmonic base, which is explicitly stated throughout, is derived from the tune and centers around F, with less modulation than common in jazz since the Thirties. The metric pulse, though varied in terms of patterns used by drummer Billy Higgins to state it, is the kind of undeviating 4/4 that John Cage and Pierre Boulez were deriding as jazz’ fundamental weakness in the Fifties.

“Free” features only a brief exchange of phrases between Ornette and pocket trumpeter Don Cherry as a bow to the concept of group improvising – throughout the rest of the piece the conventional hierarchy of horns alternating solos with rhythm section accompaniment is maintained. This in spite of Ornette’s repudiation of such practice in the notes: “Today, still, the individual is either swallowed up in a group situation, or else he is out front soloing, with none of the other horns doing anything but calmly awaiting their turn for their solos.” True to form, Coleman and Cherry play simultaneously only on the composed line.

Of the members of Coleman’s quartet, bassist Charlie Haden has, as in conventional practice, the least opportunity to “go his own way.” His main deviation from mainstream practice is, with Higgins, to cut out periodically and to play consistently fewer notes in his accompaniments than he would have been called upon to play with more “conventional” groups of the time. Even on tunes on the album in which he plays a more prominent role, such as “The Face of the Bass” and “Una Muy Bonita,” his playing with the other horns is limited to vamps of a harmonic-rhythmic function.

It was left to Ornette’s successors to carry out the implications of his ideas, and particularly in the last few years have occurred many and ever-increasing instances of truly free group improvising – non-preconceived, simultaneous, and non-hierarchical. “Rhythm section” instruments are now integrated into free improvising groups as a matter of course.

“It’s the hidden things, the subconscious that lies in the body and lets you know: you feel this, you play this.” Ornette Coleman

Another contemporaneous idea of Ornette’s which still has not come fully into its own is the concept of non-virtuosity taken to the point of overt amateurishness. As an altoist, Coleman is a distinguished member of a line of innovators who forged individual styles without the advantage of the kind of instrumental virtuosity which the Olympic-marathon mentality all too present in jazz thrives on, and who consequently have been falsely and perniciously accused of ineptitude – Lester Young, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk are prominent examples. Critics throughout most of the Sixties spent most of their energies refuting claims that Ornette couldn’t play his alto, in the process stressing the conventional aspects of his playing and downplaying the revolutionary implications of his ideas.

Coleman could play the alto, all right, but his approach was a definite turn away from the lickety-split pyrotechnics of the Charlie Parker school of playing, as Don Cherry’ s erratic fumblings and short cadences were a continuation of Miles’ rejection of the long, note-filled lines of Gillespie. Such commentators as Joachim-Ernst Berendt have pointed out that whenever a jazz style becomes extremely complex, new stylists arise to simplify it while taking it in another direction – this tends to be true in all media.

The anomalous and potentially revolutionary contribution of Coleman to instrumental technique was his emergence, after a two-year withdrawal from public appearances (the first of many such withdrawals) with two new instruments in his arsenal, instruments which he could barely play at all by professional standards. These new instruments were not simply the “doubles” that reed players add within the reed family – these instruments, the violin and trumpet, were radically unrelated to the saxophone, and Ornette’s use of them was a radical departure from his use of the alto.

In his Black Music: Four Lives (Shocken, page 146), A.B. Spellman states that when Ornette played his new instruments in public for the first time, at the Village Vanguard in January 1965, he “sounded amazingly like himself on both instruments,” A scrutiny of the two albums on which his first plays these instruments.” The Great London Concert (Arista-Freedom 1900) and At The Golden Circle Volume 2 (Blue Note 84225), both cut later in 1965, reveals how wrong Spellman was. Coleman’s alto still reveals the characteristics for which it was always controversial – a cavalier approach to intonation coupled with an apparent tendency to ignore the tempo, in other words a “loose” approach to jazz convention.

Ornette’s violin and trumpet, on the other hand, are explosively alternative to jazz practice. The question of intonation is moot in these recordings (“Falling Stars” on the Arista and “Snowflakes and Sunshine” on Blue Note), since pitch is glossed over in favour of glissandos covering wide areas of sound, in clusters of simultaneous pitches on violin and flurries of slurred smears on trumpet. Coleman switches between the two instruments on each piece, but the only difference is timbral – the sound-aggregate and intensity, both absent from his alto playing, are used with both of the new instruments.

ornette_geige.jpgDan Morgenstern’s description of Ornette’s violin playing at the Village Vanguard gig is instructive here: “His playing cannot be judged in terms of conventional violin technique. For one thing, he plays the instrument left-handed – but without reversing the order of the strings” (a practice which Jimi Hendrix was at the same time developing on guitar). “For another his bowing technique is unorthodox – a rapid, circular arm motion that almost enables him to touch all four strings simultaneously.

“Coleman rarely plays one string at a time. He produces a cascade of sounds – sometimes surprisingly pleasing to the ear, sometimes almost abrasive, but never with the scratchy uncertainty characteristic of incompetent violinists. He seems to have tuned the instrument in his own manner, but it is, so to speak, in tune with itself.” (Down Beat, February 25, 1965)

Morgenstern’s enthusiasm for Ornette’s violin playing did not extend to his trumpet, however: “His trumpet playing, on the other hand, left this listener a bit cold. For the most part, he stays in the upper range of the horn, which gives his playing a high-pitched quality that is not aided by his uncertain articulation, possibly caused by mouthpiece problems.” Morgenstern doesn’t see that this “uncertain articulation” is the conscious omission of the kind of hard tongueing that trumpet players are taught to develop – that this is the equivalent of the unorthodoxy he manifested simultaneously on violin, to the same end result. Morgenstern was apparently more ready for innovation in violin than in trumpet.

Ornette’s violin playing remained unchanged into the Seventies, and when I heard him play it at Keystone Korner in 1974, his approach had changed only to the extent that the instrument was excruciatingly electrified. His trumpet playing, on the other hand, which is exploited to a greater extent on records, seems to have diminished in ambition as Ornette’s technique improved, his conception being sacrificed to facility, which suggests that the conception may have been born of necessity.

new_and_old_gospel_ornette_.jpgOn March 24, 1967, Ornette made his only record date as a sideman, New and Old Gospel (Blue Note 84262) with Jackie McLean. McLean, a Charlie Parker protégé and mainstream virtuoso on alto, had begun leaning toward the avant-garde in the early Sixties, presumably under Ornette’s influence, and as he put it in the album’s notes, “I felt it was inevitable I should record with Ornette Coleman sometime.” Ornette’s two compositions made up the second side of the album, and Billy Higgins was the date’s drummer.

But McLean used his regular pianist, Lamont Johnson, the first pianist Coleman had recorded with since 1959, and his attitude toward Ornette’s contribution is summed up in his comment that Ornette “was never as far out as he first appeared to be to some.”

Coleman’s playing on the record presents a provocative fluctuation between the arrhythmic and timbral rather than pitch-oriented trumpet approach and the comparatively archaic rhythmic-timbral straightjacket of McLean’s rhythm section. Ornette comes out sounding inept, but this is because the subtleties of his approach are overwhelmed, by the mechanistic juggernaut of the mainstream jazz rhythm section, a situation which Free Music partisans still encounter with frustrating frequency. The puzzlement is why the prestigious Coleman would place himself in such a destructive environment, and the results by him perhaps suggest a lack of understanding by him of his contributions on violin and trumpet.

friends_and_neighbours_orne.jpgThe radical elements of Ornette’s trumpet approach are completely missing from his playing on the 1970 release Friends and Neighbors in which on “Let’s Play”, he plays conventional pitches in an extremely unambitious, though still intense, way. Ornette has gone a different direction now, first pointed to in his dismaying Dancing In Your Head (Horizon 21). But the message of his violin and trumpet playing on the 1965 records still stands: gripping, liberating dancing_in_your_head.jpgresults can be achieved through the freeing challenge of confronting the unknown by improvising, in performance situations, on instruments approached without the acquisition of all the trappings of traditional approaches.

The traditional road to innovation has consisted of mastering and then transcending tradition, but Ornette proved it is possible to sidestep the burdens of convention by ignoring tradition and technique, toward the end of pure, committed discovery.

Loren Means, 1979

Loren Means

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.


more on Ornette Coleman web page here…

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