Published on June 15th, 2015 | by Graylien0
Remembering Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman will always be championed as the man who brought life to the academic avant-garde and freed musicians from structure and chords.
His debut album Something Else!!!! hinted at a new form of musical expression while adhering to the standard jazz template of the time.
The album’s opener Invisible has the standard trappings of a west coast jazz group, yet there is an unmistakable chatty and almost vocal-like rhythm that flows from each player.
The melody playfully ascends and descends the scales, with the drummer turning the group around at the drop of a hat. While some of the music is still largely conventional, many of his peers in the LA jazz scene regarded his playing as “out of tune”.
In 1959 he released Tomorrow is the Question! which featured a piano-less quintet and intertwining horn conversations between himself and trumpeter Don Cherry. The new quintet had a much more dense and fluid sound that allowed Ornette to explore the new musical territory and plot his escape from the clutches of chords and structure.
Ornette brought double-bassist Charlie Haden into the group along with drummer Billy Higgins to create a solid musical backdrop for him and Don Cherry blast alto sax and cornet conversations into the ether.
From the wailing melody that paces in Lonely Woman to the rapid-fire bursts of musical acrobatics on Focus on Sanity and the disjointed, fractured structure of Congeniality, it was clear that the entire quintet was developing a new musical language to communicate with.
The album turned many heads and eventually the group was invited to a residency at New York’s infamous jazz club, Five Spot.
Miles Davis claimed he was “all screwed up inside”
In New York, he received mixed reviews, with Miles Davis claiming he was “all screwed up inside” and Roy Elderidge stating, “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.”
However, other notable figures such as Leonard Bernstein, Lionel Hampton, and the Modern Jazz Quartet had favorable opinions and offered encouragement to the group.
Coleman started to expand the group into a double quartet with the addition of drummer Ed Blackwell, bassist Scott La Faro, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and bass-clarinet from Eric Dolphy.
The double quintet recorded 1960’s groundbreaking Free Jazz, a collective improvisation recorded in stereo. The left and right channels both contained a quartet of drums/bass/trumpet/reed, with one drummer playing a straight rhythm while the other played in double time.
Clocking in around 40 minutes, the music was both exhilarating and exhausting with the members of the octet taking traditional solos, while the rest of the group chimes in freely to help narrate the soloist’s monologue.
The album was unlike anything previously heard before and the term “free jazz” started to emerge. Coleman was reluctant to coin the term as much of the music was still largely compositional on the album.
The group eventually dissolved with Ornette forming a new trio comprising himself along with David Izan on double bass and Charles Moffet on drums.
The group had a playful feel combined with a raw sense of rhythm that was well documented on the 1965 album At the ‘Golden Circle’ Stockholm, with tracks like Dee Dee, Faces and Places, and Doughnuts showcasing the group’s super-human musical talent in an effortless manner. Ornette is seen playing a violin during portions of concerts, hinting at his interest in stringed instruments that he was soon to embrace.
In 1972, Ornette was seen exploring string textures, culminating in an hour-long classical composition titled Skies of America.
Columbia Records then released an album featuring Ornette Coleman and the London Symphony Orchestra. Originally conceived to be a concert between his jazz group and the orchestra, contractual disagreements prevented the band from appearing on the album.
Columbia required Ornette to name the different movements and split the album into more digestible portions in order to attract radio airplay. The music was dense, atmospheric, and violent, calling to mind shades of Stravinsky in certain passages while maintaining a unique take on orchestral dynamics.
In 1977, Coleman went “electric” with his band Prime Time on the album Dancing in Your Head. Prominently featuring electric guitars, critics began to pass around the term “free funk” to describe the new direction Coleman’s music shifted towards.
Dense, repetitive, and funky, the album contains sublime renditions of previous work as well as improvisations with the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Much of this collaboration was featured in the film Naked Lunch as author William S. Burroughs was present at the recording sessions for the track Midnight Sunrise. The otherworldly tones create a nice backdrop for the seedy streets of Interzone.
With his new electric band, Coleman began to solidify an idea he called “harmolodics”. He defined it as “the use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group”.
harmony, melody, speed, texture, and phrasing are all equally important when performing with a group
Essentially, he stated that harmony, melody, speed, texture, and phrasing are all equally important when performing with a group. Coleman vaguely expanded on this idea in his article Prime Time for Harmolodics in 1983.
Furthering his marriage of jazz structure and rock instrumentation, Coleman invited Jerry Garcia to appear on his 1988 album Virgin Beauty, playing guitar on three tracks. Garcia later invited Coleman onstage to perform with the Grateful Dead in 1993 at Oakland Collesium Arena in Oakland, California.
The 1990s also saw Ornette Coleman doing film soundtrack work, most notably in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.
Coleman released his first music in 10 years in 2006 with Sound Grammar, which won a Pulitzer Prize, one of the few ever awarded to a jazz musician.
With nearly 86 releases credited to his name, Ornette Coleman constructed a new musical vocabulary for generations of musicians to come. Expanding the idea of sonic communication and the possibilities of group improvisation, Coleman led by example as a band leader, a composer, and a philosopher that challenged the very core of jazz and music at large.
He will be sorely missed from the music world, though his ideas have permeated the globe and will live on forever.