For more than five decades, saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman has played a pivotally seminal role in American music. The inventor of what has been called “free jazz,” Coleman belongs to that rare breed of artists/thinkers whose influence extends far beyond the realm of their chosen medium. Always putting his remarkable virtuosity at the service of melody and emotion, he has had and continues to have a powerful impact on how musicians play, improvise, and compose, on how music lovers listen, on the color and sound of music the world over.
While Coleman has led a wide variety of formations, from duos to symphony orchestras, electric and acoustic, his basic musical concept has been remarkably consistent. He is interested in writing and performing music that allows all players to give free reign to their imagination and ideas. His musical system, which he named “harmolodics”and now prefers to call “sound grammar,” is a remarkable exercise in applied democracy. All voices are given equal weight; all musicians are free to make deeply individual contributions while listening closely to one another, at once giving & taking space for their respective creativity.
The release of Sound Grammar marks several firsts: the first release on Coleman’s own, new label, also called Sound Grammar, the album is his first in more than a decade; his first live album in 20 years; and the first recording featuring his latest, now three-year-old, band. Composed of Ornette Coleman on saxophone, trumpet & violin, his son Denardo Coleman on drums, and acoustic bassists Tony Falanga (Orchestra of St. Luke’s) & Greg Cohen (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, John Zorn’s Masada), this group sounds like no other on the music scene or in Ornette’s career.
Beautifully recorded live in concert in Germany in late 2005, Sound Grammar showcases six brand new Coleman compositions and two remakes: “ Song X, ” originally featured on the 1985 album of the same name, and " Turnaround, " from the classic 1959 LP Tomorrow is The Question. He explains: " When I get a job to perform I write a whole new program of music so that we don‘t perform something I have played before and that my musicians have not. I want them to be affected the same way I'm being affected. I only do that for the sake of equality, not because I want to be a great composer."
Ornette explains further: “Sound grammar is to music what letters are to language. Music is a language of sounds that transforms all human languages.” As original, innovative, and groundbreaking as anything Coleman has released in nearly five decades of record making, Sound Grammar is also one of his most accessible and melodic works to date. It is poised to rank among the key musical events of 2006.
For his essential vision and innovation, Ornette Coleman has been rewarded with numerous accolades, including the MacArthur "Genius” Award; an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letter; honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Bard College, the New School for Social Research, and the Berklee School of Music; the American Music Center Letter of Distinction; The Lillian Gisch Prize; and the New York State Governor Arts Award.
But the path to this present universal acclaim has not always been smooth. Born in a largely segregated Fort Worth, Texas on March 9,1930, Coleman‘s father died when he was seven. His seamstress mother worked hard to buy Coleman his first saxophone when he was 14. Teaching himself sight-reading from a how-to piano book, Coleman soon began playing with local rhythm and blues bands. However searching and experimental his music eventually became, a profound infusion of the Africa-rooted gutbucket blues of Coleman's bar-band youth has never left his work. His graduation from the local honky-tonk circuit came with a stint with Pee Wee Crayton's band when he was 20. By the time the group reached Los Angeles, Crayon would actually pay Coleman notto solo.“ Most musicians didn't take to me; they said I didn't know the changes and was out of tune,” Coleman told Robert Tynan in Downbeat in 1960.
In his search for a sound that expressed reality, as he perceived it, Coleman knew he was not alone. The competitive cutting sessions of bebop were all about self-expression in the highest form. “ I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there,” he said. Los Angeles proved to be the laboratory for what came to be free jazz. Doggedly pursuing the sounds in his head, Ornette supported himself as an elevator operator at Bullocks department store, studying harmony on his breaks. There began to gather around him a core of players who would figure largely in his life: a lanky teenage trumpeter, Don Cherry, and a cherubic double bass player with a pensive style, Charlie Haden, who in Ornette found a dream ac complice. Drummers Blackwell and Billy Higgins also joined the intense exploratory rehearsals, despite the lack of live gigs.
It has been more than 30 years since a young Denardo Coleman began playing drums and recording with his father Ornette Coleman. Since that time, Denardo Coleman has gone on to record and eventually produce many of his father’s recordings. In 1966, at the age of 10 years old, Denardo, along with Ornette and Charlie Haden on bass, recorded the award- winning album The Empty Foxhole for Blue Note.
Coleman fondly recalls his early collaborators: “Don, Billy, and Charlie got on board and very quickly became as creative a group of musicians as any I have heard to this day. I would write new music all the time, usually for every show we had, and they would play like they had been playing it their whole lives. As a group and as human beings, we found a relationship to our common humanity and to the creation of art that was really special, truly something else. I miss Don &Billy greatly, as musicians and as friends.”
Simply by persisting, Coleman‘s creativity attracted champions. Bebop bassist Red Mitchell (an old associate of Cherry's) brought the saxophone player to Contemporary Records' Lester Koenig, originally intending to sell him some of Ornette’s compositions. After realizing the difficulty musicians were having in playing the music, Koenig asked Coleman if he could play the tunes himself. That led to the 1958 album Something Else and to the following year’s Tomorrow Is The Question.
Another supporter was the Modern Jazz Quartet‘s pianist and musical director, John Lewis, who hailed Coleman as “the only really new thing in jazz since Charlie Parker in the mid- 40s.” It was Lewis who secured invitations for Cherry and Coleman to study at the summer workshop in Lenox, Massachusetts and introduced them to producer Nesuhi Ertegun, hence jumpstarting what would become a brief but fertile stint with Atlantic Records.
The energy and electricity that had been building around Ornette and his players exploded during his now legendary engagement at the Five Spot jazz club in New York in late 1959. Fueled by rumors of the unorthodox young Texan‘s approach, great anticipation preceded the shows and as the initial two weeks extended to six, the revolutionary Coleman quartet became the must-see event of the season. Its opening night was attended by a cross-section of Manhattan's art intelligentsia.
Critics raved and raged
And yet, as writer and long-time Coleman associate Robert Palmer observed in his notes to the Beauty Is A Rare Thing box set (Atlantic): “The present day listener will most likely hear these pieces as well conceived and superbly realized works on their own terms and will again wonder what all the controversy could have been about.”
At the cusp of the freewheeling, open 1960s, the boldness of The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959) with its timeless ode, “Lonely Woman,” crystallized the era‘s energy and optimism. Coleman’s philosophy and music were in tune with the times. The saxophonist shook/ shocked the music world again with his explosive landmark double quartet recording Free Jazz, featuring reedsman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Scott LaFaro, in addition to Cherry, Haden, Higgins & Blackwell.
Following his parting with Atlantic, Ornette spent three years studying trumpet and violin and expanding the scope of his composing to include string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic works.
The history of African-American artists finding a warmer appreciation overseas is long. In the mid-‘60s, Ornette embarked on a nomadic period in Europe. He played his first shows outside America, in England and in Scandinavia. For European jazz fans, these were almost holy visitations that finally brought the free jazz gospel to life. The resulting recordings, Blue Note‘s At The Golden Circle Vols. 1& 2 continue to be cherished relics.
Music drew Coleman back to the West Coast. A 20-minute orchestral piece, “Sun Suite,” was performed at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley with25 members of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in ‘68; maverick rock promoter Bill Graham booked him at San Francisco’s Fillmore West and New York’s Fillmore East, at the latter on a bill with John Coltrane who was studying with Ornette at the time.
One of Coleman‘s perennial concerns has always been finding an affordable, secure, controllable space in which to work freely. In the shabby, grey wasteland of post-industrial late 1960s SoHo in New York City, Coleman and other artists found such a haven. At 131 Prince Street Ornette created Artists House, a performance/gallery space that was part of a vibrant artistic community.
Continuing to explore composition, Coleman used a Guggenheim Foundation grant to write a symphony, “Skies of America,” which debuted at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 4, 1972. As Coleman says in his liner notes, "The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them in this century than any other country...When it reaches one thousand years, will its descendants care about the American Indians whose skies gave so much?” In 1973, Coleman, writer/clarinetist Robert Palmer, and a small crew went to Morocco to work with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in their mountain village. The mix of music and spirituality into daily existence was a powerful inspiration.
Back in New York, the re-charged Coleman devised his next, radical move – the electrification of his music with the formation of Primetime, a funky, two-guitar band, all sinewy grooves and jump-happy melodies, featuring Jamalaadeen Tacuma on electric bass, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and eventually guitarist James Blood Ulmer. The band recorded two albums for the Artists House label, Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta, and the haunting Of Human Feelings for Island’s Antilles imprint. Weary of shuttling between labels with no trustworthy hand at the helm, Coleman enlisted Denardoas his manager. His next release also proved one of his most commercial: Song X, a 1986 collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny.
Still in search of that elusive healthy working context, the Colemans bought an old public school building in Manhattan‘s Lower EastSide in 1985. Big as a city block, the former P.S.4 on Rivington Street was intended to set up a Harmolodic Institute, complete with performance spaces and dormitories. Although the building became a great rehearsal resource, the idea ultimately proved too ambitious.
An easier fit was collaboration in the late ‘80s with the new cultural center Caravan of Dreams in Coleman‘s native Fort Worth. Coleman c ommemorated the building’s opening with a series of events, including a performance of “Skies Of America.” Thus also began a new recording label. Ornette recalls, "I said, ‘let's start with something really special’." The result was In All Languages, a triumphant summation and in some sense the closing of a circle. On the album, Coleman juxtaposes versions of the same music played by the classes of '57 and '87: the original quartet of Cherry, Haden and Higgins and Prime Time, with whom he'd re-interpreted the sound for the moment.
Ornette moved into the broader public consciousness in the late ‘80sby performing with the Grateful Dead and recording with their guitarist Jerry Garcia. Legions of Deadheads attuned to freeform improvisation related to Prime Time‘s progressive collage. The affection and respect which Coleman and the late Garcia had for each another was captured on1988's Virgin Beauty (CBS/Portrait).
In the early ’90s Ornette formed the Harmolodic label and began an association with PolyGram France. Over the course of the decade the venture released a number of works beginning with Tone Dialing, then with a matching pair of CDs with overlapping tracks, Sound Museum and Four Women.
Rather than simple concerts, Coleman‘s performances had by now become big multimedia events that reflected the host town's community. The template for these ambitious projects was laid in Reggio Emilia in Italy in 1990, when the first four-day event took over the center of the ancient town for a performance of “Skies Of America” and sets by Prime Time and the Original Quartet.
The two events that were produced back to back in Paris and New York in 1997 were both uniquely adapted to their host culture. In France, Prime Time performed their Tone Dialing set with dancers and video installations. A unique duo night showcased the intense interplay between Coleman and German pianist Joachim Kuhn, a combination recorded later that year on Colors. French philosopher Jacques Derida opened the shows with a lecture.
A four-night stint at New York’s Lincoln Center saw Kurt Masur conducting the New York debut of “Skies Of America” performed by the New York Philharmonic together with Prime Time; an exquisite trio gig with Higgins & Haden, performing all new material; and an evening with Prime Time complete with video projection and a guest spot by Lou Reed. In San Francisco, the Tone Dialing show offered elaborate entertainment, including dancers, a 50-foot video screen showing local art, and philosopher Vincent Harding spontaneously delivering a poem. But the flashpoint came when the noted body artist Fakir and his team pierced their faces and torsos with metal rods, transforming themselves into living sculpture.
Now 76 years young, Ornette continues to search, to study, to learn, to ask questions and to compose new music for every concert he gives. His current quartet, documented on Sound Grammar, was just augmented by electric bass player Al MacDowell for a recent and stunning show at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The New York Times enthused: “And here was Mr. Coleman’s sound: still unusual and provocative, a thing with its own breath and life force.”
A metaphysician, philosopher and eternal student, Ornette Coleman continues to confound categorization. At an age when most rest on their laurels or retread their classics, he and his boundless creativity continue to expand. “Most people think of me only as a saxophonist and as a jazz artist,” he once stated. “But I want to be considered as a composer who could cross over all the borders." With Sound Grammar, he is one giant step closer to that ultimate, life-long goal.