Ornette Coleman has long been a puzzle to casual jazz fans, his name as baffling as his music, which seems to go everywhere and nowhere. If jazz is the “sound of surprise,” as Whitney Balliett once wrote, then Ornette, at first hearing, is the sound of shock and awe. Yet few jazz musicians reward attention more richly. Even now, at age 76, nearly a half century after bursting onto the scene, he’s blowing his alto saxophone as vitally, imaginatively, and beautifully as ever. His new quartet album, Sound Grammar (on his own label of the same name), may be the best jazz disc of the year—and ranks among the top half-dozen Ornette Coleman albums, period.
The key to figuring out Ornette is that he’s, above all, a musician of melody. This may seem a strange claim, given his renown as the father of “free jazz,” a term that evokes the opposite of melody. But Ornette’s style of “freedom” lies not so much in what the musicians play as in their relationship to one another. Coleman made up his own odd word for his music: “harmolodic,” roughly defined as music where harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody play equal roles. No part is subordinate to the others. All the players feel free to improvise whenever they want.
Listening to an Ornette song, you might not notice the melody at first hearing because it doesn’t follow conventional chord changes or, sometimes, any set structure at all. It’s easy to hum along to most standard American songs because the chord changes cue you to where the melodic line is heading, to what the next notes are going to be. Ornette Coleman’s lines can go any number of directions. The same is true of the bass line and the drum rhythm. (Most of his bands don’t have pianists; he doesn’t need, or want, the harmonic foundation.) There are lines and rhythms. You just have to follow them as they unfold, without the aid of a standard compass—not unlike the way you follow the lines on a Jackson Pollock painting or the swirls of a late-period Willem de Kooning.
Check out the opening tune, “Jordan,” on his new album. At first it might sound like chaos. But listen again. The melody is clear, even catchy. It’s the polyrhythmic drumrolls and the two bass players—yes, two bass players, one plucking, the other bowing, neither voicing out the chord, only hinting at it or playing around it—that may initially confuse things, but, after you get used to it, they deepen the layers, sharpen the edges, and send the music into a different, strangely satisfying dimension.
When Ornette Coleman made his New York debut at a fashionably hip Bowery bar called the Five Spot in November 1959, half the jazz community was ecstatic, half was deeply disturbed. Charlie Parker, who’d revolutionized jazz in the 1940s, had been dead four years, but many still regarded his music, bebop, as the approach to jazz; and bebop was built on elaborate chord changes. Since Ornette wasn’t going that route, many thought he wasn’t playing jazz and didn’t know how.
About 20 years later, when I was fresh out of grad school and getting deeply into jazz, Charlie Parker was my alpha and omega, and I just didn’t get Ornette. I couldn’t hear through what I thought was noise. A friend (I forget who—if you’re out there, let me know) showed me the light by playing three songs: one Parker and two Colemans.
The first song was “Klactoveesedstene,” from Parker’s 1947 Dial studio sessions, a rippingly uptempo bebop classic, which I knew well. The second was Ornette playing “Klactoveesedstene” (one of the very few times he’s been recorded covering someone else’s tune) on a 1958 live session at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles, along with his quartet, plus Paul Bley on piano. I was floored. Ornette was playing note-perfect Parker, but with a twist. The tempo, though no faster than Parker’s, felt faster, more fevered; the cadences were choppier; the passages were punctuated with a bluesy wail. And the rhythm section, instead of simply keeping up and comping the chords, was going its own way, each player supplying his own commentary. It was hair-raising, in a way that was the opposite of Parker’s approach to jazz. Yet the juxtaposition strongly suggested that this was the path Parker may well have followed, or carved out himself, if he hadn’t died so young.
The third song my friend put on was “Lonely Woman,” Coleman’s anthemic dirge from his 1959 album with the presumptuous but prophetic title The Shape of Jazz to Come. Heard right after his cover of Parker, it suddenly made sense; the links clicked, the lights flashed on, my conception of jazz expanded. Once the lines became clear, so did the music’s allure and indigo beauty. And the key to that was Coleman himself—his fleet but knife-edged phrasing and, still more, his tone: nakedly passionate, infused with note-bending blues.
The Shape of Jazz to Come was a jarring album in its day, brooding and intense, and it still is. His next album, Change of the Century (another manifesto title!), recorded just five months later, is a more joyous affair. The first track, “Ramblin’,” is a hoedown blues, a total kick. (And listen to what Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins are doing on bass and drums, respectively: not laying down chords or keeping time, but doing whatever they feel like; yet somehow it works. This is very disciplined playing because there are so few rules, because it could all slip out of control so easily.) The second track, “Free,” offers clear proof that free jazz doesn’t have to mean chaos. Ornette may have written “Bird Food“ to show that he could play like Charlie Parker if he wanted to. (“Bird” was Parker’s nickname; nobody had heard the Hillcrest sessions—Bley released the tapes years later—and many of Coleman’s detractors at the time thought that because he didn’t play like Parker, he couldn’t.) “Una Muy Bonita“ shows him carving a Latin curve.
More than 50 albums later, many great, some not (for a list of my favorites, click here), his latest disc, Sound Grammar, harks back to Change of the Century more than any album since. There’s that similar Latin number, “Matador.” There’s a leisurely blues, ” Turnaround“ (which he first recorded in 1958 on Tomorrow Is the Question!). But more than on any previous Ornette album, there are slow, gorgeous ballads. “Sleep Talking“ is as sweat-soaked as anything in the Coleman catalog: at once turbulent and sweet, muscular and gentle.
The band is the best he’s assembled in more than a decade: Ornette on alto sax (with occasional forays into trumpet and violin), his son Denardo Coleman on drums (spectacularly so), and the two bassists, Greg Cohen (who’s played with everyone from Woody Allen to John Zorn) and Tony Falanga (whose experience is mainly classical). Coleman tried a double-bass quartet before, in the late ‘60s (with Charlie Haden and David Izenzon), but it didn’t really work. This one does. Cohen mainly plucks, Falanga mainly bows, and their interplay—with the two Colemans and with each other—cooks, boils, simmers, lights bonfires: whatever’s called for.
But Ornette is at the center of things, guiding it all. There’s always been a conciseness to his music. The two other colossal saxophonists of his era, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, were probing improvisers (Rollins very much still is), prone to take a passage or verse through endless perturbations, searching for the right note or interval that would open the portal to the rhythm of the universe. It’s this boundless restlessness that makes their music so thrilling. Coleman’s improvisations are no less intricate, but he heads straight for the prize. He seems to have figured out the various mazes of jazz from the get-go, as if he’d designed them all himself.