Ornette Coleman is Still the Future of Jazz

AAJ Staff By

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Most of us would agree that Ornette Coleman is an important musician, a significant innovator as a saxophonist and a composer. I want to open a forum to re-evaluate Coleman in that I think he is the most significant force in jazz since Charlie Parker, and the fact that Coleman's innovations are widely misunderstood gets in the way of being able to really hear his music and evaluate his importance.

The common conception of Ornette's music, I think, is that it is "free jazz", that after the head is stated, form disappears, the soloists play any old thing, while the rhythm players scramble to keep up. Not so. The core of this music is melody without restriction.

In earlier jazz styles, soloists from Coleman Hawkins through Charlie Parker to Giant Steps -era John Coltrane sought to expand melodic freedom by expanding harmony. Altered chords allowed for more note choices. Ornette, seeking melody without restriction, inverts the relationship between melody and harmony. He doesn't exactly throw out harmony. In his music, the accompanists spontaneously alter the harmonic structure to fit the soloist's note choice, even to the extent of changing the clef. A note can be in any chord or any register. The melodic possibilities are literally without limit.

Coleman's other key innovation coming from his Atlantic period is the use of compositional form to pose new challenges to the improviser. Example: "Bird Food", from the Change Of The Century album. It's in AABA form, but each A section is 9 and 1/2 bars long, and Ornette and Don Cherry adhere to the form. Play the record and count it. It's true. Often during solos the form becomes mutable or even open-ended, but essentially, the soloist needs to know where he is in the form.

Further innovation comes with the role of the bass. Charlie Haden and David Izenzon (underrated giant) brought to the bass a function of melodic counterpoint, at times free of the time, but often swinging hard, and even when swinging, playing a richly melodic line. David Izenzon on the Golden Circle sessions gives extraordinary examples of how to swing hard and provide melodic counterpoint at the same time. I could write a very long and scholarly essay on all this, but I'll try to list Coleman's other innovations more concisely: spontaneous tempo changes while improvising, use of quarter tones and indeterminate pitch, and a significantly different approach to electric music than that being explored by Miles, Wayne and Herbie (Coleman relies more on polytonality, for example).

And his 1995 electric album Tone Dialing is very important, I believe. Here Ornette proposes a true fusion, a true world music in which polytonal improvising, swing rhythms, bebop accents, funk and hip hop beats, Latin and calypso and Indian rhythms, the blues and microtonality all surge together at the same time, and somehow it works.

Anyway, I think the jazz world is finally coming to grips with Ornette Coleman's music. Branford Marsalis, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, and Geri Allen, among others are exploring and personalizing Coleman's ideas from the 1960's. Coleman, restless soul that he is, has continued to explore. In 1999, a Jazz Times survey named Duke Ellington as the Musician of the Century for jazz's first century (it should have been Armstrong, but that's another discussion). But it seems that for jazz's second century, it may very well be Ornette Coleman.

Discuss Ornette Coleman and his music on the AAJ Bulletin Board .

Photo Credit
Dino Perrucci

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