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Genius Guide to Jazz

Free to A Good Home

By Published: August 17, 2005
Of course, Ornette Coleman cannot be blamed for the wretched excesses that came from the Free Jazz movement. I've decided to blame actress Julia Roberts, because I just don't care for her anyway. And while we're at it, let's see if we can pin Soft Jazz on her, too. Two birds, one stone.

Meanwhile, back to our show.

On the heels of the staggering impact of his live performances and seven Atlantic records between 1959 and 1962, Coleman did something completely unexpected. He retired from performing for two years to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a rodeo clown. Or am I thinking of professional rodeo clown and barrelman Festus Allcock (who has one of the most fun-to-say names we've come across since Baroness Panonica de Koenigswarter)? Either way, Coleman took two years off and took up violin and trumpet before reemerging in 1965 at the Village Vanguard with an entirely new trio.

To say that Coleman's impact diminished over time is somewhat of a disservice to him. The quality of his music, and the adventurousness of his approach, have remained true to their spirit. Yet, buried under the morass of so much musical debris spawned by lesser minds, Coleman's genius no longer resonated with quite so much force. Just as Orson Welles was never quite able to make another Citizen Kane, Coleman left himself with a virtually unapproachable legacy from the very start. To his credit, though, he never became a bloated version of his former self, hawking cheap wine in widely parodied TV commercials.

Which brings us to.

Of the innovations in jazz that have had the greatest impact, it is difficult to argue for Coleman's concept of harmolodics (giving equal importance to harmony, melody, and rhythm, without regard to their particular social standing). For one thing, only Coleman and his hand-picked few were ever able to truly execute the concept. Like Miles Davis' "time-no-changes" approach, that only worked with a particular group of musicians at a limited point in time, harmolodics served only as a high water mark for a particular concept that could never transcend the influence of its originator. And if I keep this sort of thing up, I run a considerable risk of being mistaken for a legitimate jazz writer.

Still, Ornette Coleman must be considered among the most important jazz musicians of all time if for no other reason than the startling contributions he made to the music that still sound ahead of their time 40+ years after the fact. That, and the fact that if he weren't so damned important, I'd have wasted this entire column. So let's call it even, shall we?

Before we close for the month, I have a few bits of Genius Guide housekeeping to address:

First, a correction. I have repeatedly stated in this column that pioneering saxophonist Frankie Trambauer was, in fact, a very large raccoon. It has been brought to my attention that this is incorrect. He was a Coati, which is a cousin of the raccoon.

Secondly, I have decided that I will focus my unhealthy obsessions normally reserved for Nicole Kidman on actress Thora Birch for the remainder of 2002.

Third, I have received several e-mails wondering what happened to the Modern Bachelor pieces I was alternating with the profiles earlier in the year. Well, the fact is, it wasn't getting me any leg so why bother?

Lastly, being a connoisseur of beer amid the wine aficionados here at AAJ, I've decided to devote a small piece of the Guide to giving equal voice to my favorite potable. This month's beer is Left Hand Brewery's Sawtooth Ale. An English-style Extra Special Bitter (ESB), of which I am normally not fond, I was impressed with the character of the beer and its multidimensional palate. I am also left-handed, which swayed the voting.

Till next month, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.

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