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Ornette Coleman: Music is a Verb

By Published: September 21, 2009
One of his most enlightening performances came on a trip to Africa during the 1970s. While in Morocco, he had the opportunity to jam with local musicians. The result produced two tracks on the CD version of his Primetime band's Dancing In Your Head (A&M, 1973), but are more significant in terms of what the experience provoked within him.

"I was playing with guys from Jajouka, and they'll be in a key that hasn't been developed in other keys, like in America," Coleman recalls. It's a little difficult for him to explain in layman's terms what it was that touched him about these musicians—perhaps another kind of freedom. "So I would modulate the same sound without worrying about that key again. The result is that you can resolve your idea and still be related to the main sound of the key."

This growing interest in world music, in the sound of other cultures, has affected Coleman in his search for new sounds and freedoms. His band today features two basses and son Denardo on drums. It remains as inimitable as ever, filtering funk and world music through his own unique aesthetic. To him, it's the most basic form of communication.

"I can go anywhere, and hear any tone that's played," he says, "and I wouldn't have to know the key, but I could find the note that would match the meaning of it."

He is fascinated by humanity as a whole. To him, it's all music, and music is all humanity. One is another form of the other, like matter and energy. Perhaps for this reason, the different features of culture and ethnicity thrill him, particularly the nuances of language that convey emotion.

"Imagine how many forms of dialect make up the human language in the human world," he says. "I mean that's got to be quite a few keys! And there's nothing wrong with that.... Take Arabic, for instance. I have played with Arabic musicians, and their tonic sounds like it's going from one note to another, to change the sound of what they just played. And that is fantastic!"

Countless musicians over the years have been intrigued by the link between music and words. Many jazz musicians feel that they have to hear the lyrics of a song before they can improvise over it, no matter what the changes tell them. But for Coleman, it goes even further, beyond lyrics. He's never recorded any standards, per se, though writing and poetry hold a certain intrigue for him. His album Science Fiction (Columbia, 1971) featured a track of spoken word poetry over free improvisation along with other vocal tunes, and his 1962 Town Hall Concert (ESP) featured a dedication to writers and poets.

Yet his interest goes even further, beyond words even, to the essential nuances of speech that are generally the province of linguists instead of musicians. It's possible to hear that in the way he talks, in the questions he asks and the answers he gives. And it seems that his real intent is to find a kind of communication that doesn't discriminate, that breaks free of languages or keys, in the attempt to reach an emotional center at the core of every living person.

"I would like to play music that the human race, regardless of what language it is, can still enjoy," he says. "That's the one that I'm trying to achieve on stage, the one I keep trying to perfect—what are the actual qualities of keeping it focal without worrying about the language of the human race."

That may be the point of it all: a kind of equalizing sound that recognizes differences even as it transcends them. A universal language through plastic alto saxophone.

"I don't know how many different people have a different face, a different language, or different feeling about who we are," he says, "but it isn't the same face or the same language." He laughs. "But we all going to the bathroom!"

Ornette ColemanLive performance represents, for him, a chance to step forward, to embrace and be embraced. For a musician such as him, who has endured controversy and criticism over the music he plays and the way he plays it, the approach seems to be the same as any other musician stepping on to the stage. So how does Coleman know, at the end of the night, that it's been a good show?

"The only thing I can say about that," he says, "is if the audience expresses their emotion to the performers and has some sort of activity in their hearts and minds to let you know they've enjoyed it. That's about as good as you can be accepted, and it does happen."

"For me," he adds, "I haven't been anywhere where it didn't happen. And not because I was looking for it to happen."

The question of what he listens to, and what he really likes, evokes a mixture of indecision and hesitation. He listens to a lot of things, has played with so many different musicians and heard them up close, that it seems unfair to list one above the other. Even dividing his preferences into the loosest of genres seems like too much.

"I like spiritual music," he says. "I like non-spiritual music. To me, the quality of sound is not about what you like; it's can you express it so someone else will like it and understand it."

When asked if this means that music is all about sharing, he answered that he would say so. When asked about the process of his own music, his answers get a little more esoteric, and perhaps a little more tongue- in-cheek.

Ornette Coleman l:r: Denardo Coleman (hidden), Tony Falanga, Ornette Coleman, Al McDowell (hidden)

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