The world of music lost a visionary icon when composer, saxophonist, violinist and trumpeter Ornette Coleman died last week at the age of 85. For over fifty years, Coleman has been one of the most original voices in jazz music, or music of any sort, that anyone has ever heard. He was recorded infrequently, but some of his albums are essential listening for any fan of the music. Coleman’s performances were not always well received, and even other musicians often thought he was jivin’ everyone. I will admit that his albums have been an acquired taste for my ears, but one that has been well worth the time. Ornette Coleman possessed a virtuosic technique on the saxophone, owned the pitch space between the notes, and above all valued improvisation with complete freedom of imagination.
Coleman’s very first album, the 1958 release, Something Else!!!, was already ruffling feathers and creating controversy in the world of jazz. Looking back, this is a bit ironic, as Something Else!!! is one of the more conventional recordings in Ornette’s discography. He uses the standard jazz quintet instrumentation of piano, bass, drums, saxophone and trumpet. Coleman rarely recorded with a piano in the rhythm section, preferring the freedom of only having to relate to the bass notes. Coleman can be heard on this album trying to break free of chord structures in his solos, but the other musicians were not always clear on where to follow. It is a remarkably original debut album from the then 27 year old Coleman.
Coleman’s albums always seem to have lofty titles. Tomorrow is the Question, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, are but three examples. His tunes were presented with an established melody, then solos in free improvisation not tied to chord structures, and ended with a repeat of the melody. He almost never used a chordal instrument like the guitar or piano in his groups, not wanting to be tied down to the chords those instruments would add. He coined the term “harmolodic” to describe his approach to playing, stressing the importance of melodic freedom over harmony. In his early years, he played on a white plastic alto saxophone that became his trademark, and contributed to his excessively bright tone. Later in his career, he would use a different instrument, but lacquered white to retain his image.
Of all the recordings by Coleman over the years, the one which he is most known for is the double quartet album Free Jazz. This album coined the phrase “free jazz” by which the avant-garde of the 1960’s would be known. It was a true collective improvisation, a landmark in the history of recorded music, and a cacophony of sound. It is a stereo recording, with the left channel containing the playing of Coleman on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Scott LaFaro on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. The right channel contains the playing of Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. The entire 38 minute album is one continuous group improvisation. I remember the legendary recording engineer Tom Dowd telling a story about this recording session in a documentary. At the time, the recording session was started with a state of the art, four track recorder to capture the take. No one knew what was going to happen that day. These cats just kept going and going, without any indication when or where they were going to stop. One of the guys in the studio tapped Dowd on the elbow and told him they were going to run out of tape to record on in a couple of minutes. Quick thinking on Dowd’s part saved the day, when he had someone start up the older two-track recorder with fresh tape. In this way the end of the group improvisation was captured, and Dowd was able to splice it into the master without having the musicians pause and lose the moment.
The world’s ears must have eventually caught up with Coleman’s playing. In time, he was revered as a master of the music, and in 1994 was awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. His 2005 album Sound Grammar won a Pulitzer Prize. It was his first recording in ten years, and featured a group of players including his son Denardo Coleman on drums and two different bass players. Denardo Coleman first recorded with his father when he was only ten years old (!), something that also created a bit of a stir at the time. It actually makes sense to me, as Denardo had already been playing for long enough to have some technique, but was young enough to have a completely open mind about his approach to music. For most of Sound Grammar, one bass plays with a bow, the other plucking with fingers, and Ornette solos on alto sax, trumpet and violin. My favorite track from Sound Grammar is “Sleep Talking”, which includes a very prominent quote from the bassoon solo opening Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
Ornette Coleman died on June 11, 2015 of cardiac arrest. I can hardly name an artist who had followed their own vision and original voice more than Mr. Coleman. He blazed his own trails, and ultimately overcame rejection and was rewarded with recognition for his genius. He had the skills and technique to easily pursue music that would have been immediately popular, but he stayed true to himself and his own musical voice. We are all fortunate that he did.