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Artist Profiles

Ornette Coleman: Sound Catalyst

By Published: January 25, 2007
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

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