Ornette Coleman – Love in a time of crisis

ORNETTE COLEMAN changed jazz forever by challenging the notion of what it is as music, and as life. At the age of 81, he spoke to KEVIN LE GENDRE about his musical philosophy and his restless search for new sounds

A copy of the American Bill Of Rights with its edge curled upwards by a creeping flame is an image that might raise an eyebrow among more than one elected official in governments on either side of the Atlantic. Torching the amendments that outlaw the abridging of free speech, allow the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, and, of course, bear arms, is a most molotov provocation.

Such is the sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album, Crisis. Even viewed through a pre-9/11 prism, the sight of the U.S. constitution blackened by fire is one of the most audacious statements one could make, stopping short of striking a match under the stars and stripes.

Yet although the combination of jacket and music conveyed profound dissent at western iniquity and imperialism, none more so than on a piece such as ‘Trouble In The East’, the album is essentially humanist, the work of a man who, beyond any facile flower child clichés, seemed genuinely beholden to the idea of pacifism and altruism. Just a few years before the release of Crisis, Coleman recorded Denardo At 12, the debut of his little drummer boy son in the company of seasoned men, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden.

On the back of the record he made this declaration, complete with little love for the conventions of syntax: “What? Is progress in a society of 200,000 people education wisdom health and wealth for all without any one person suffering from the evil of his neighbour.

“To achieve this blessing must be the goal – for such a life we must not use death as a weapon of destruction to attain these things. So the question is how when and what must the ‘I’ in society do to learn the way. Work give and pray that it is done with love.”


The recognition of the importance of his opinion-splitting oeuvre has resulted in adulation


That was in the late-1960s. Almost 50 years later, as the first decade of the second millennium drew to a close, in the era where the zeitgeist has added the word ‘mass’ to Coleman’s uncannily prescient construct “weapon of destruction”, those sentiments have been returned to its purveyor with a credit crunch defying interest. The recognition of the importance of his opinion-splitting oeuvre has resulted in adulation if not outright hero worship that few artists enjoy in their lifetime.

Ornette Coleman stood on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in the summer of 2009, looking decidedly humbled by the standing ovation as cries of “We love you!” rang out, and although that emotional discharge can often seem unnecessary if not trite, it would take the hardest of hearts to say that there wasn’t genuine cause for such adoration.

Ornette Coleman at the Meltdown Festival in 2009

The gig was part of the prestigious Meltdown festival curated by the saxophonist. This was not an honour to be taken lightly. This was an endorsement of Ornette Coleman’s place in the pantheon of modern music, irrespective of genre. This was notice that he had affected culture beyond the confines of jazz. His work has a universal reach.

Previous recipients of the Meltdown creation put this into context. Coleman joined the likes of David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Patti Smith and Ray Davies, all of whom are fêted for the fact that they have carved out an artistic vocabulary that has given several generations new ways of viewing all the possibilities of lyric and melody.

Coleman was one of the first improvising artists to receive a Meltdown curatorship, and it was a choice that made sense. Beyond the swathe of classic albums, of which 1961’s This Is Our Music is an obvious pick and 1988’s Virgin Beauty and 1997’s Colors less so, there is an echo of his work in that of others that stretches across the jazz spectrum. A very small sample of names that came to prominence between the 1960s and 80s and have drawn water from his creative well would include such as Carla Bley, Evan Parker, David Murray, John Zorn, Don Byron and Branford Marsalis. They more or less cover anything from mainstream to avant-garde.

Coleman thus stands as a binding force among disparate schools of jazz.

Even more obvious Ornettophiles were the wave of young American players who gathered loosely around the Fresh Sound New Talent label in the late-1990s – Seamus Blake, Chris Lightcap and Mark Zubek – and then the Brits who appeared a few years later, namely Polar Bear, Led Bib and The Blessing, who came complete with a name as OC song title.

What makes Coleman even more important is the fact that his work permeated the more open minds in the rock world that were drawn to sonic unorthodoxy and imaginative song form. Think Lou Reed, Yoko Ono, Jerry Garcia and Patti Smith, a self-confessed fan of 40 years who once performed with Coleman in Bologna, Italy and played again with him at Meltdown.

Asked why his father had impacted on the above, Denardo Coleman opined. “I think rock musicians like the electricity of his spirit, his unconventional attitude, and the uncompromising stance for his art.”

Electricity of spirit effectively nails it. There is a quality of hard thrash, nerve-ending jumpiness, a hot-wired impulsiveness that makes it credible if not logical that any pop group seeking intensity would relate. Rock loves Coleman for good reason. He can get wild and cerebral.

Although some of his best work is defined by deep seated tenderness and introspection, the highpoint of which is a piece such as ‘Lonely Woman’ or ‘Peace, the saxophonist has exhibited, going right back to early works such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, a kind of feverish, febrile energy both in his improvisations and compositions.

That meant blistering tempos, emphatically jockeying between double, treble time or higher tempi, bumper car stop time, and voluminous, note-heavy unison statements slammed into two or three bars that might break sharply from an established pulse. All were defined by an overriding sensation: violence. Coleman’s great sleight of hand is to leaven that aggression with focus and joy, as if a smart thug had ended up in a joker’s top hat, but the extreme energy, its explosive charge, is undeniable and wholly irresistible.

It’s there in ‘Focus On Sanity’. It’s there in ‘Kaleidoscope’. It’s there in ‘T&T’, which is especially compelling for the utterly subversive way that it fragments a New Orleans marching band groove, presenting percussion as a pulsating melodic voice, the impression being tthat Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Ed Blackwell are probing and pulling at but somehow not tearing form.

Explosions of notes, the showering of extra eighths and sixteenths at speed that imbued bebop with its vitality; the soaring flight of Charlie Parker over the contours of a melody; the overall rhythmic thrust and acceleration of this mid-1940s modernism in black music – Coleman’s early work often took that as a wheel and span it into a faster frenzy.

Denardo Coleman ascribes the rush of sounds in his father’s music to the sheer agility of his mind. “I don’t think Ornette thinks about the speed of the music as how really fast it is, but how instantly the ideas keep coming and that instant communication can happen in split seconds. For him it’s music in the moment fuelled by ideas.”

In the process, boundaries between genres can become wholly blurred. When Coleman made his debut in the late-1950s, jazz was at a conceptual crossroads. The pursuit of harmonic advance was making the music ever more urbane and nuanced, its embrace of impressionistic, Satie-derived voicings ushering it towards the finesse of classical music while the desire to dismantle structural certainties such as tempo, key and chord changes, to create a ‘free’ or new music was also gathering momentum. Both models seemed to be vastly removed from the simplicity of quintessential black pop such as blues.


“Robert Johnson? Mmm, yeah, it’s still real, that music’s still up there.” – Ornette Coleman


However, as astute artist-cultural critics such as Archie Shepp pointed out, early incarnations of that naïve, crude folk music were ‘free’ in that uneven numbers of bars and fluctuating meters often reined before counts of four, 8, 16 and 32 crystallised as the norm. If Coleman headed to the future of the avant-garde he tailed back to pop before anybody knew what to call it, and this time traveller’s paradox was sensational. From his early days in Fort Worth, Texas, he played blues and knew the aesthetic of that music well, its roughness, its rugged nature, its raucous energy, and as he shifted towards the jazz world, intrigued by the harmonic hurdles of complex forms such as bebop he didn’t reject the relative simplicity of the other idiom. The blues is still not something Coleman turns his nose up at. Speaking on the phone from his New York home in between rehearsals for his forthcoming London Jazz Festival gig his voice rises in admiration at the mention of a Delta music legend. “Robert Johnson? Yeah! You’re right on it, there! Mmm, yeah, all that’s still active, it’s still real, that music’s still up there.”

Ornette Coleman in the recording studioIf his love of the blues is clear enough it plays second fiddle to his desire to talk about what underpins it in the best case: everyday experience. That is the essence of the blues as form of communication but Coleman’s way into that is through metaphysics rather than material concerns. Seamlessly, he switches from Johnson to philosophical reflections similar to thoughts he stamped on record sleeves some 40 years ago.

“The human world is concerned with what it hasn’t been rather than what it can become. The thing that’s so amazing is that music is nothing but the soul of human beings without any fear. That’s what life is to me, because of music. There are some things that I really believe in; one is the quality of humans, I don’t know how human beings were before I was born but since I’ve been born I know that it’s not knowledge that we’re all trying to find, it’s the freedom of life.

“Money, race, and wealth doesn’t allow anybody to trust anybody,” the 81 year-old continues, barely pausing. “I don’t think, right, every human being is looking for trust. I don’t know how to say this, I have never yet understood why a human doesn’t have anything but a name, I mean human is a much more complete word than any word I’ve ever heard.

“The human race gets so involved with each other’s attitudes that human gets lost all the time. I don’t understand why human beings have to do all this other stuff and end up in a sad situation. The human race has to go to something to achieve anything, knowledge or whatever, but what about something coming to you without you knowing it?”


“I don’t think of it as music, I think of it as emotion”
– Ornette Coleman


Which begs the question, where do Coleman’s ideas for music come from and what governs his choices with regard to form? Talking specifically about music seems to mean little to him, given his contention that any sound that he makes is fostered by what is in his head and heart at any given moment in time. “Well, I don’t think of it as music, I think of it as emotion. I really do,” Coleman says swiftly as if the idea is bustling for space in his mind among several others. “And it’s better that way. All I know is that I breathe and think.”

Concerts see Coleman take speed of thought to extremes. To hear him play a complete tune in 15 or 20 seconds with a head that could have something like 25 or 30 notes popping manically all over ten or 11 bars is to hear the image of slapstick clowning guided by an engineer’s precision. Hip hop and film scores do interlude. Jazz does composition. Coleman does composed interludes that squeeze maximum data into minimal space.

Exactly how such a concentrated self-definition translates into sound is a fascinating question. Music appears to be coming to Coleman as if on tap. The veteran Jamaican double bassist Coleridge Goode, a key associate of compatriot saxophonist Joe Harriott, whose highly original early1960s work drew parallels with Coleman’s, saw the American when he played the Fairfield Hall in Croydon in 1965 and upon meeting him at his hotel in Queensway was astounded to find that he was “writing music while he talked.”

Be that as it may, Denardo Coleman points out that his father’s pieces are highly detailed and need great preparation. “Yes, lots of structure, meaning we spend hours rehearsing and working on parts. But most of the time is spent going deeper into sound and music. Getting into the DNA of sound. So when improvising, you really know how to tell a story instantly. Then when we are all telling a story collectively.”


“He has somehow unlocked his instincts and framed them with strictures set by both others and himself”


Suggesting that Coleman is simply pulling amazing ideas and sounds out of thin air would be a slight on his talent, but what underpins virtually all of his recordings is not just the zest of spontaneity but the rarely achieved alliance, the balance of spontaneity, craftsmanship and discipline. He has somehow unlocked his instincts and framed them with strictures set by both others and himself. In the sleeve notes that he penned for his 1960 masterpiece This Is Our Music he makes the most meaningful declaration in this regard. “I can’t talk about technique because it is ever changing. That is why for me the only method for playing any instrument is the range in which it is built. Learned technique is a law method. Natural technique is nature’s method. And this is what makes music so beautiful to me. It has both, thank God.”

Ornette ColemanThese days Ornette Coleman remains mindful of the continual need for newness of timbres as well as interesting narrative structures in his arrangements.

“A musician shouldn’t be working too long on scales because a scale is to words, the words in music, what a telephone is to making a call,” he says emphatically. “I think the best is to find a way to materialise your ideas without being restricted by keys, chords or resolutions.

“You’ve got the 12 notes in western music, but since music is a sound that’s made by so many different things, so many different notes, it’s endless. Turkish music, different folk music, all of these are expressed differently. What’s so amazing is when you say music you get a different imprint than when you say words.”

Coleman has found a way of cooking the basic ingredients of sound into something that becomes high art, without, crucially, losing its intensely communicative, from-the-heart sensibility, and he has also managed to bring a sense of majesty, an anthem-like quality to dozens of the entries in his songbook. That has had an untold influence on many a jazz instrumentalist who pursues an essential ideal: to be lyrical. Two of the most obvious stars in the contemporary jazz firmament to have benefited from this are Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. They are both bound by the use of Ornette’s sidemen in the early stages of their career  Billy Higgins, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden – and their engagement or rather absorption of the saxophonist’s spirit and aesthetic is really made explicit by compositions which essentially come off as sophisticated folk songs, of which a lot of Jarrett’s Impulse! and some of his early Atlantic recordings are prime examples.

Listen to El Juicio [The Judgment] and you can hear Coleman’s spirit not just on the tribute ‘Piece For Ornette’ but on several other numbers, notably ‘Toll Road’ and the title track, which is especially interesting for the way it moves from the dot-dash rhythmic energy of a ‘Ramblin’’ to the graceful solemnity of a ‘Lonely Woman.’

Going one better than working with Coleman’s associates, Metheny would record with the man himself on the 1985 set Song X, which ranks as one of the most interesting albums of a decade during which black pop was rebooted as a radical new form called hip hop and black art music splintered into all kinds of difficult to define shapes.

By the time the saxophonist came to Song X he had covered an enormous amount of ground stylistically. From the first flowering of his acoustic quartets in the late-1950s and 60s, he went on to record symphonic works such as 1972’s Skies Of America, travelled to Morocco to play with the fabled Master Musicians Of Jajouka, the results of which ended up on 1976’s Dancing In My Head, and formed Prime Time, an electric band in which robust, bulky, dense, guitar-heavy funk and rock tonalities were to the fore. Its impact on future generations of serious composers and irreverent groovers was clear. That intense and wideranging body of work made the essential point that the saxophonist did anything but remain locked in an ivory tower. “When you say minor thirds that’s intellectual information, but you don’t have to know a note to make a sound,” Coleman states. “Sound has a specific order and that’s what’s amazing about civilisation. When I visited Nigeria everybody was playing an instrument and making their own notes, which you don’t find too much here, unless it’s folk music. I’m a human folk musician. I guess we all are in that sense.”

Inclusive as Coleman is with regard to music, he nonetheless retains an essence of himself, that utterly distinctive core that can be identified in just a few bars of blowing, among all these new colours, and that sense of individuality amid open mindedness is one of his greatest achievements. The placing of his songs in new contexts emphasises how much was already in them, and how some of the tumbling, bouncing non-Western rhythms, often implicit rather than explicit, reflect America’s position as part of the Americas, a geographical space in which Europe and Africa had collided to create something unique. “To me, it just sounds like a pulse,” says Denardo Coleman of this rhythmic richness. “But there is so much music in one single pulse, you just don’t get that from other music or other musicians.”

Uncannily, some of the highlights of Song X make the Spanish or Caribbean resonances of Ornette’s aesthetic explicit, just as Jarrett did, none more so than the mesmerising ‘The Good Life’. What is nonetheless important here is the juxtaposition of elements woven into what is essentially a raggedy calypso. In a magical moment close to the halfway mark Ornette quotes a snippet of ‘Skip To My Lou’ before the rhythm section breaks down to allow Denardo Coleman to lay down bold percussive lines. Then Metheny produces high pitched, ray gun effects on his guitar synth that are wholly congruous in the sonic framework. Natural and supernatural tones gel.


“My father is playing with a continued exploration of the deeper spiritual effects of sound in mind”
– Denardo Coleman


Why? Because Ornette Coleman has often bridged the gap between ‘unplugged’ and ‘plugged in’ sounds. One of his greatest achievements as a saxophonist is to create a kind of tonal incandescence that frequently suggests rabid distortion and an extremely physical, loud, tearing, scarring sound that prompted one of his most simpático partners Don Cherry to evoke a “whinnying horse” when discussing Coleman’s tone. Lengthy, tremulously sustained notes that have the effect of ripping through the air carry much weight in his improvisations and arrangements and they are complemented by an immensely forceful punch on his short note led phrases that sends a current around the music. But that’s a key thing: Coleman did of course “amp up” when he recruited guitarists and bassists such as James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and Jamaaladeen Tacuma for Prime Time but even in his acoustic setting there was something electrifying about his sound. Pat Metheny noted: “His long running efforts to deal with the challenges of electricity have produced some of the few efforts in that area to transcend the wires and knobs and buttons and ascend to true soul music.” Fair enough, but if we turn that around for a moment it could feasibly be argued that Coleman’s acoustic music transcends a lack of wires and knobs and buttons to create a sonic squall that somehow equals the thunder and lightning borne of amplification. “The ideas are all based on the same concept,” comments Denardo Coleman, who has played for many years in both acoustic and electric groups with his father. “It’s like eating, every single person on the planet does it. So no there is no difference. The difference is in taste, some like their music acoustic, some electric, some people like eating fried bugs, some people don’t. My father is playing with a continued exploration of the deeper spiritual effects of sound in mind.”

Certainly the 2009 Meltdown performance confirmed that Coleman has not yet finished his research and the anticipation around his forthcoming return to the South Bank is hot to say the least, because the memory of that event still burns bright. Before signing off at his last Royal Festival Hall gig he told the audience “Follow your own heart”, and in those few words he seemed to say more about Ornette Coleman the musician and the man than dozens of critics have done in the last 50 years. On the one hand, it was a simple dictum of self-belief, which, in his case, once came at considerable cost, but on the other it conveyed a deep humanity, a need for emotional honesty that is often a sub-text to the saxophonist’s work.

Tied to his musical gifts is enormous compassion, that may appear misplaced in a world where focus on the self and profit by cynical means are sadly pervasive. However Ornette Coleman’s steadfast faith could also be a weapon of mass salvation for the world in a time of crisis. “There’s one thing that will never fail you, that’s love,” Coleman says softly but firmly. “That sure is what it is.”

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