Avant-Garde Roots Music

In 1959, when Ornette Coleman arrived in New York and opened on the Bowery with the quartet that included Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, there was no talk of a harmolodic system. He spoke of playing with natural raw feeling instead of technical obsession, yet Coleman proved to have the most comprehensive grasp of improvised order outside of preconceived form that we have heard in the jazz avant-garde. Coleman brought a conception to the music that Wallace Roney explains perfectly: “Ornette wanted to get the same kind of freedom he heard in Charlie Parker but discovered that the only way he could do that was to move away from chords and count on his melodic imagination to get him where he wanted to go.”

Most of Coleman’s greatest recordings are either on Atlantic or Blue Note and were made by 1965. With Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Haden, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, David Izenzon, Higgins, Ed Blackwell and Charles Moffett, he laid down what remains the heaviest body of purely avant-garde jazz. Just a few years ago, when the saxophonist performed with Haden and Higgins at Lincoln Center, it was obvious that Coleman is still the boss and that when he has actual jazz musicians up to the task of playing his concept with absolute authority, his vision of group improvising is far, far beyond that of those who claim to have extended upon what he brought to the Five Spot in 1959.

Coleman’s signal achievement is that one does not have to have a panel discussion to argue about whether or not he is a jazz musician. The sound of blues is central to his alto-saxophone tone and to the passion of his music because, at heart, Coleman is a sophisticated country-blues player, the most highly developed to arrive in jazz after Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The grandest example of thematic improvisation unbound by harmony, Coleman creates variations both subtle and explosive. His phrases are often conversational, traveling the length of inspiration rather than two-, four- or eight-bar phases. Emotion can determine tempo and create another kind of syncopation, one in which velocity arrives as unexpectedly as accents outside of the expected. A master at getting everything in, Coleman can turn from very complex chromatic passages that feel devoid of any metric direction, then fall right into a succession of stark but protean riffs delivered with a level of fiery swing that none of those who purported to follow him have ever equaled.

Like all professional improvisers, Coleman proves himself an intellectual because artistic improvisation is contemplation in motion that seeks to achieve high-quality aesthetic success, not just the kind of venting one can hear after asking a roomful of children to improvise. The professional has to recognize the elements in the musical environment—the notes, the rhythms, the registers, the colors—respond to them, create a design and achieve form. In Coleman’s case, that form has great plasticity, protean possibilities, but it arrives in music quite like the Picassos that mix the figurative with abstraction.

Technically speaking, the most important thing about Coleman is that he proved how much jazz could do with its own tradition in order to “advance.” It did not have to use academic methods borrowed from the European avant-garde as the basic foundation with which to marginalize the jazz idiom and the distinctive emotion of the music. It also did not need the exotica of Indian or African music or the pretensions that too often attend the rhetoric of those devoted to something “non-Western.” Jazz could build on its Negro-American origins while maintaining its universality. Negro-American, of course, means the national mix with a certain interpretation informed by parade music, blues, spirituals, gospel, dance tunes, street chants and so on. As Coleman said in the early ’60s, “Many people don’t realize it, but there is a real American folklore music in jazz. It’s neither black nor white. It’s the mixture of the races, and the folklore has come from it.” That realization is what anchors his achievement. He believes that anything he hears is his if it can fit what he’s doing and come through his personality in an aesthetically natural manner.

The astonishing sweep of liberated form and emotion in his music is made obvious in his remarkably symphonic improvisation on “The Ark,” from his 1962 Town Hall concert with bassist Izenzon and drummer Moffett, both of whom brilliantly respond to and inspire Coleman’s creation of long movements based on the theme rather than choruses. In the process, they make his trio perhaps the most spontaneously flexible we have ever heard. Inspired, Coleman moves with absolute ease in and out of straight time, moods, keys, meters, tempos and dynamics.

For all of Coleman’s abstractions, he’s much like a blues singer, stretching from tender whispers to exultant shouts, from mystical whines to angry growls swirled around by gloom or closely wrapped in midnight-hour erotic memories. At times, Coleman also relates to Izenzon’s arco playing in ways that makes us rethink the idea of “third stream”—the fusing of jazz and European music—as if he decided that what Gunther Schuller and John Lewis proposed should provide another color that could spontaneously give wider sonic and emotional range to his music.

Ornette Coleman is that magical combination of the primitive, the great thinker, the virtuoso and the brave singer of songs. We are lucky to have him among us.

Originally published in December 2002

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