To describe Ornette Coleman, who has died at the age of 85, as a ‘giant of jazz’ is, at least in part, to misrepresent his intentions and convictions. Coleman was a passionate critic of conventions and classifications who firmly believed that all good music was one. Whilst he we will remain known most of all for his searing, blazing alto saxophone sound, he also played violin and trumpet, always recognising that the most important element of music is sound.
At first, he was widely criticised for perceived limitations in his technique and, perhaps more significantly, his knowledge of harmony. Even a musician as malleable and controversial as Miles Davis could apparently find little to admire. Early in his career, Coleman was famously assaulted after a Louisiana gig by a group of people seemingly offended by his playing and by his appearance. Charles Mingus seemed to see something else, however, and would come to grasp tentatively for the core of Coleman’s musical philosophy: “It doesn’t matter what key he’s playing in – he’s got a percussional sound, like a cat on a whole lot of bongos… It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer.”
This is by no means the complete picture where Coleman’s music and sound is concerned, and is arguably quite reductive, but Coleman certainly developed close musical relationships with drummers. In the first instance these were Billy Higgins and Shelly Manne (who played on his first two albums Something Else!!! and Tomorrow Is The Question respectively). Something Else!!! had a sprightly energy and contained some key early compositions (including The Blessing, The Sphinx and When Will The Blues Leave) but Tomorrow Is The Question proved to be the first major step towards Coleman’s revolutionary period.
Abandoning the piano, the lack of a harmonic instrument freed the soloists to follow their intuition away from conventional harmonic restrictions. This style mutated in to what musicians know as ‘time, no changes’ – rhythmically, it very much resembled the type of high energy, swinging jazz that developed beyond bebop (and composed themes introduced and often concluded the pieces), but it rejected that music’s harmonic contouring. Some of the themes on Tomorrow Is The Question (including the title track and Tears Inside) are turbulent but memorable and listening with the benefit of hindsight now makes Coleman’s detractors seem very wide of the mark. Compositions such as When Will The Blues Leave, Turnaround and, a litttle later, Blues Connotation draw heavily from the blues in outline and in sound (particularly drawing on the idea of ‘the cry’) but Coleman was more interested in how to stretch and expand this lineage than in how to emphasise or repeat it.
Coleman developed a more durable and productive working relationship with drummer Ed Blackwell, who was also interested in experimenting with different approaches to structure and form. With bassist Charlie Haden, Blackwell formed the core of his working group through the period on Atlantic records that produced the vital albums The Shape Of Jazz To Come (1959), Change Of The Century (1960) and This Is Our Music (1961) in an extraordinary three years of music making. The dual frontline of Coleman and Don Cherry (enduring from the first two albums) evolved into one of the most exciting in jazz history.
The music on these brilliant albums captures Coleman’s disdain for the mutually exclusive. It is both free and organised, passionate and cerebral (Coleman went on to define his approach to music as ‘harmolodics’), instinctive and informed. The Shape Of Jazz To Come includes the Lonely Woman, surely one of the finest recorded performances in all jazz and Coleman’s most admired composition. The performance has a singular approach to time – the rhythm section maintains a steady tempo, but the melody appears to float above it, the almost overwhelming emotion of the frontline not in any way constrained by conventional responsibilities.
Perhaps the most significant and influential of Coleman’s Atlantic albums, however, was the presciently named Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. The album expanded Coleman’s ensemble to feature a double quartet, one in each channel. Billy Higgins returned to the drum chair and Scott LaFaro joined Charlie Haden on bass. Two major musicians of the time, Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, provide the frontline in the right channel. This unbroken 40 minute suite of improvised music (at this stage a first in jazz), for better and for worse inspired an approach to spontaneous improvised music that still dominates today.
It has resulted in a lot of brilliantly sustained and developed music with fast flowing ideas – but while one form of time in music (the steady pulse) might have been jettisoned by this approach, it sometimes feels that another has come in – the demands of the clock dictating that all improvisations must be similarly lengthy. Undoubtedly, though, there is something thrilling and captivating about the sound of boundaries being broken here and through sheer conviction and self belief, these musicians were surely the right people to do it. Ironically, Free Jazz works better as a listening experience in the CD and digital era, without being split into two parts for each side of a vinyl record.
Whilst there is a consensus that these albums remain the most admired, Coleman continued to surprise and astound throughout his career. 1971’s Science Fiction is among his most intense and exciting albums. Like Nina Simone, Coleman was furious on the lack of opportunities for black artists in the ‘classical’ music world. His fraught collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra on Skies Of America, a long form orchestral piece, although challenging to record (union disputes prevented the involvement of his quartet and Coleman’s writing placed considerable demands on the orchestral musicians), is one of his major statements. It is the sort of single-minded, incandescent work that flourishes because of, rather than in spite of, tension and setback.
In the 1980s, Coleman’s influence for younger musicians became more readily apparent. He collaborated with guitarist Pat Metheny on the wild and brilliant Song X. He also formed a new and exciting ensemble in Prime Time, which explored funk and groove in greater depth, and deployed three electric guitarists. 1988’s courageous, mysterious Virgin Beauty is one of the finest albums from this period. By this stage, Coleman’s most dependable collaborator was his son Denardo, a deeply unconventional drummer with bird-like technique and a curious approach to time playing. Once again, Coleman proved himself uninterested in rehashing traditions or keeping within accepted rules or boundaries.
Coleman maintained a restlessness and artistic drive in to his 80s. In 2009, he curated the Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, during which he invited a fascinating and diverse range of acts to perform. Longstanding musical colleague Charlie Haden performed with a version of his Liberation Music Orchestra, and other jazz acts included David Murray and vocalist Bobby McFerrin. Also involved, however, were Yoko Ono, The Roots, Patti Smith and Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra (a splinter group from apocalyptic post rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor), demonstrating Coleman’s crossing of cultural boundaries and his relevance and importance beyond specialist fields. Coleman’s own performances at the festival captured a curious blend of commercially motivated nostalgia, mischievous and playfulness, continued inspiration and insight. Whilst he nominally devoted entire evenings to particular classic albums, he quickly deviated from the material, and improvised with determination and delight.
Coleman’s initially confrontational music moved the goal posts in terms of what was acceptable and possible within improvised music. He was a brave, singular talent driven by his own ideas, perspectives and rules. As important and valuable as the current education-driven approach to jazz is, it is difficult not to wonder whether there will be another musician this radical and significant in the future and, if so, whether they will in fact come from somewhere other than this establishment.