When I first saw the news online that composer and sax player Ornette Coleman had died, a quick wave of grief went through me, like it was personal. I'm used to jazz masters dying each year; after all that's what the timeline of this great art form dictates. But this was different. A few minutes later a friend texted me with the news. He recalled that Ornette had been important to me. I guess that's right, I thought, though I was far from an "Ornette-head." I replied that maybe it's because he made music that was somehow more than music. And I guess, now, because he represented something so important in jazz: He was an independent Black man who fiercely and defiantly, though gently and lovingly, challenged every notion of what jazz in particular could or should be and what art in general might be in America. He died of heart failure, but he never suffered a failure of nerve.
The Ornette Coleman obits were everywhere last week. There's no need for me to go over the contours and import of his life and career. As good as those pieces have been, including Ben Ratliff's stellar piece in the New York Times, they don't give much idea why you actually might want listen to his oft-cacophonous music. So here I will talk about what listening to him was like for me.
1. For no particular reason I first got to know Ornette (this was the very early 80s) through his live "At the Golden Circle Stockholm" recordings, as opposed to his groundbreaking quartet records from the late 50s, the more logical starting place. These are trio records from the '60s, with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. As was my habit back then, I would take naps with the headphones on. Once, with one of the "Golden Circle" records flowing into my ear canals, I found myself in the liminal space between waking and sleeping, and something very interesting happened. Beneath the music I sensed that a language was being spoken to me. It wasn't words or emotion. But it was what was inside of the music. It's not good for a writer to say that words fail, but there it was. I have never forgotten this, and in fact the only other time I experienced this was when I was listening on the 'phones to Charlie Haden, Ornette's original bass player.
2. From there I picked up Ornette's stupendous move into electronic music, "Dancing in Your Head." Here we have Ornette and his band dealing directly with trance music. The main eight-note figure of "Theme from a Symphony" metamorphoses over the course of 27 intense minutes. It functions like a mantra does when you get into an extended meditation, rather like an update of what Coltrane was up to with "A Love Supreme," but here in a more frenzied format featuring the electric guitars of Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix. This is where you can understand why the jams of the Grateful Dead are said to partake in Ornette's aesthetic. I paired this record on a 90-minute cassette with the Talking Heads' "Remain in Light." I called it "Communion and Infinity."
3. Next I obtained, in quick succession, Ornette's lyrical duet record with Charlie Haden called "Soapsuds, Soapsuds," featuring, incredibly, the theme from the TV show "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," and "Song X," a collaboration with Pat Metheny, here showing his wilder side. These are both great mid-career Coleman discs. If I recall, "Song X" does feature Coleman's trademark knottiness, but also one of his loveliest ballads, "Kathelin Gray," co-composed with Metheny. For a "difficult" musician, Ornette sure could do aching beauty well. For example, his ballad "Lonely Woman" is a perennial cover for jazzers working in all branches of the music. Listen below. The astringent tone of the horns keeps the music, despite its melodiousness, in the category of acquired tastes. Of course, those are the best kind. Ornette and trumpeter Don Cherry sound to me like raw onions.
5. Over the years I fleshed out my collection with some of his classic early stuff, as well as his mid-career double LP "In All Languages." I really need to pick up some of his acclaimed later work like "Tone Dialing" (1995) and "Sound Grammar" (2006). I actually listen a lot to Old and New Dreams, an Ornette semi-repertory band that featured former sidemen Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums, with Dewey Redman sitting in the sax chair.
6. A note on Ornette's aesthetic. Ornette famously expounded his own theory of music making called Harmolodics. To hear him explain it is awesome. But, as with Wayne Shorter, his utterances tend toward the gnomic, to put it gently. By all means seek out some interviews with him. My short version of what Ornette is up to is that he doesn't want players supporting each other or conversing with each other in any explicit way. What he wants is for players to walk side by side, with a logic or relationship that is intuitively, not formally or rationally right. This is what gives his music it's unique character and keeps it from feeling rote or cliched. *
I did see Ornette perform once. We caught his mid-90s "Tone Dialing" band down at Berklee in Boston. I remember that after each song it felt to me like applause wasn't quite the right response. Not because they weren't great, but because what they were doing wasn't "performing." It was something else.
* Another key to his "free jazz" method is to build a solo outward, to keep pursuing and connecting ideas and phrases in whatever direction they suggest, as opposed to structuring a solo in keeping with predetermined chord changes. There can be less of a sense resolution this way, but that's part of the point. [Added 7-11-15]
Postscript: Last year I did a post featuring Charles Mingus' exceedingly interesting thoughts on Ornette's music. He said it's like "organized disorganization or playing wrong right." Exactly!