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Artist Profiles

Ornette Coleman: Sound Catalyst

By Published: January 25, 2007
Ornette ColemanCatalyst (n.)—an agent that facilitates a change.

Catalysis (n.)—the action or effect of a substance in increasing the rate of a reaction without itself being consumed. —Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

While change occurs all around, the agent stands apart, its own dynamism existing somewhere askance from the rest of the world. Though Picasso had a huge influence on several areas of abstract art-making, his own oeuvre stood well outside trends and new developments. In American music, figures like John Cage, Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman have likewise stood outside the music that they helped to develop and nurture. In many ways, it might be helpful to look at these artists not so much as "influences," but as true catalysts.

Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. Among his peers in the Fort Worth scene at the time were alto saxophonist Prince Lasha, drummer Charles Moffett and Coleman's cousin, saxophonist James Jordan (for whom the tune "Jordan" on Coleman's 2006 album Sound Grammar was written). Coleman started on the alto as a teenager, picking up the tenor shortly thereafter and soon found himself working in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas with various dance and blues bands. "When I first got my horn... I mostly played with whatever was going on at that time, Coleman says. "I wasn't thinking about blues; I was doing all kinds of music."

Despite the multiplicity of bands Coleman was working in, he nevertheless always had an affinity for the Texas horn-player's cry, as Lasha puts it, "Standing next to these men it seemed like it was coming up through the ground, up through the bottom of the horn and out the bell and that's one of the most mysterious, magical and frightening things around."

What interested Coleman from very early on, however, was the music of [alto saxophonist] Charlie Parker, which had not taken hold in the groups of the South and Southwest. "Charlie Parker was one of those people who were playing interesting music the way I wanted to, explains Coleman. "So I started to learn what was called bebop at that time. I went on the road again with [guitarist/vocalist] Pee Wee Crayton and some other guys, mostly in the South. I went to California with Pee Wee, where I actually got stranded for awhile and there I got to hear Charlie Parker playing at a club in Los Angeles."

"I had a friend named Ben Hoyt," Coleman continues, "a fella who was much younger than I, who developed early and was my favorite alto player besides Charlie Parker. When I went to California and heard Charlie Parker, it just sounded normal to me and I had to perfect my playing to the kind of music that he was working with. The only thing was that he didn't play his own music; he played mostly show tunes with a rhythm section."

If Charlie Parker had written more tunes that were based on the kind of improvisations he was playing, a very different picture of Bird might have developed. "Basically it turns out that bebop was just another way of playing the same tunes with a different resolution," explains Coleman. "Say if you take 'I Got Rhythm' and call it 'Ornithology,' you're just adding a different melody [to the chords]."

Coleman started writing music on a visit to New York at the turn of the '50s; it seemed that if he was going to be able to play the music he wanted to—that cropped up in his solos, sometimes resulting in protests from bandleaders—he was going to have to set up the context for those very flights. "I started trying to write songs that were coming into my head," says Coleman, "and the quality of what the music could sound like made it possible for everyone to perform it. I never went into any particular style; I was just trying to write music for the band I had."

That band early on included trumpeter Don Cherry, who later employed a 19th-century pocket bugle of North African origin; bassist Charlie Haden, a Missourian who had played with pianist Hampton Hawes; and drummers Ed Blackwell and his student Billy Higgins, both also firmly entrenched in the Los Angeles jazz community.

Haden's recollection provides firm insight into the early days of the Coleman quartet. "I had been going to a lot of after-hours sessions, Haden explains, "and I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried to do that, musicians would become very upset. In order to bring them back in after my solo, I'd have to play the melody so they knew where I was. When I met Ornette, the night I heard him, that's what he was doing. He was playing on the inspiration of a song and modulating from one key to another. When we played together for the first time, I thought 'Man! Finally I've got permission to do what I've been doing!'"

For Coleman, bebop had given instrumental music the "punch in the arm" that it needed, allowing composition and improvisation to become more intertwined and quite naturally, more collective as a result. Rather than using preexisting chord changes from popular songs, Coleman based his compositions entirely on melody relationships, which were highly open to flux depending on the mood and structure of the group. Of course, Coleman's group did occasionally play standards—"Embraceable You appears on their third mature record, This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1960), as melody divorced from the changes, pure and simple.

When asked whether there was a possibility of reconsidering the show tune standards of the day in this light, his response is that, "The melody is always stronger than the chords. Nobody has to spell to learn how to talk."

It isn't just the fact that Coleman's Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960) was subtitled "A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet" that makes his music an inter-communal experience; it's that constructing music requires the "instruments that will make it sound the way you want it to be heard." In other words, instrumental music (Coleman prefers this broader terminology, a-stylistic, for his work and that of his peers) is designed around certain instruments and certain players' approaches, a specificity that the jazz canon is not always used to.

Coleman's songbook is ever-expanding, and one rarely sees a different Coleman configuration playing timeworn tunes (though some chestnuts are re-arranged for new groups)—the reason lies partly in his concept of instrumental music as music written for a specific set of variables. Variation, too, is a key to Coleman's music, for he often conceives from the flatted fifth instead of a tonic, for him allowing more sonic space in which to work. "The way music is taught in Western culture is from mathematics," Coleman explains, "not sound. D and F is a minor third and C and F is a fourth and anybody knows that four is more than three. But the minor third is higher and there are many things like that in tempered music. I understand why classical musicians have such an attitude, because they're restricted to a certain interval, they think that makes them Classical. It just makes them repeat what they're reading."

A crucial tenet of Coleman's compositional approach is Harmolodics. "Harmolodics means to me that the freest tempered interval is the minor third and a chromatic scale," Coleman says. "They are tones that are in unison that, when played collectively, they become other sounds. But there's a part of Harmolodics that I'm realizing is present, that if I speak to you and you hear what I'm saying, and I know you understand it, you're hearing more than what I'm saying. I call that 'Sound Grammar.' I believe that sound itself has a grammar that's different than language or anything else; if it wasn't you wouldn't have so many languages. The future of music is basically that sound is the concept of grammar. It has information, and this information is shared with others."

Sound Grammar is also the title of both Coleman's latest recording and his new record label. For his first release as a leader in a decade, Coleman is joined by his son Denardo Coleman, a drummer who has been associated with his father's music since 1966, and bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen. Akin to a group Coleman led with Haden and David Izenzon, Sound Grammar has Falanga playing arco in direct conversation with Coleman's alto, trumpet and violin (two instruments he began working with in the mid-'60s), while Cohen provides a jagged pizzicato pulse. In a way, this group acts as a double-duo, with subtly shifting rhythmic relationships between Cohen and Denardo, a constant conversation between Falanga and Ornette, and a plastic dynamic between the foursome.

Coleman has often used the format of "doubles" in his music—in addition to Free Jazz and his interesting two-bass concept, Coleman's free-funk unit Prime Time featured tandem drummers, bassists and guitarists. The current quartet has also been augmented by electric bass guitarist and Prime Time alumnus Al McDowell, which likely brings the rhythm-sound stew of Sound Grammar to an entirely new level of language.

But these aggregations, as heady as they might appear, are really just expansions on those first sentences offered by Coleman's music as it always has been. Each instrumentalist has a grammatical role, but these roles are fluid—Haden recalls playing the parts of rhythm, chordal accompaniment and melodic counterpoint all at once. From word, to paragraph, to intertwined conversations, the listening curve of Sound Grammar is not as sharp as it may seem. Of course, Coleman's timeless keen cuts through orchestral mass as well as it does a quartet, in a cry that sounds like the first word. Sound Grammar is something we can all relate to—in all languages.

Selected Discography

Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006)

Ornette Coleman, In All Languages (Caravan of Dreams-Polygram, 1987)

Ornette Coleman, Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House-Verve, 1977)

Ornette Coleman, Science Fiction (Columbia, 1971)

Ornette Coleman, At the Golden Circle, Stockholm , Vols.1&2 (Blue Note, 1965)

Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic-Rhino, 1959)

Photo Credit

Paolo Soriani

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