Monday, 9 November 2009

Ornette Coleman… agent provocateur of Avant Garde

THE last time I heard about saxophonist and agent provocateur of avant-garde, Ornette Coleman, was in 2007. Then, he was topping the list of 50 top CDS of the previous year.

And as evidenced by this list, which was complied by Jazz Times in the course of its yearly review, backed up with valid statistics as criteria, 2006 was described as the year of the elderstatemen, proving that musical virility does not necessarily equate to youth. Why?
Because, that year, the chart was dominated by veterans and elder jazzmen such as Coleman himself, pianist Andrew Hill and legendary saxophone player, Sonny Rollins in that order, Sonny please, recorded after 9/11, became an overwhelming favourite of critics and fans for sentimental as well as aesthetic reasons for Sonny Rollins. Creating exotic, darkly luminous aural landscapes that inspired the soloists in Time Lines, pianist Andrew Hill made a remarkable impact upon his second coming to Blue Note records. His note choices remained cryptic, his phrase shapes angular and his movements curry. But with Sound Grammar recorded live in Germany, Ornette Coleman made a new and bold statement.
On this album, the inter-locking movement of bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen is very prominent. Denardo Coleman’s drumming is both propulsive and colourful, reflecting many years of experience with his illustrious father. Ornette’s alto is prolific, tireless, characteristically semi-sharp; he briefly switches to trumpet on Jordan and Call on duty and bows the violin towards the end of Song X, the finale.
The acoustic two-bass concept is not without precedent in Coleman’s career. Though unconventional, it follows an internal logic. Falanga plays abstract melodies while Cohen holds down the bottom. Jordan, Call to Duty and Song X are difficult thematic lines that launch into whirlwinds of free-bop intensity. Matador has a rhythmic foundation akin to a samba. Sleep talking and Waiting for you strike a more solemn tone, with some bass lyricism in the lead. And Once only is altogether unclassifiable, a strong example of Coleman’s enduring depth of vision.
It may not be correct to arrogate the pioneering process of avantgarde or its creation to Ornette Coleman, considering the fact that the desire to discover strange horizons and break new grounds was burning in numerous musicians who were working in different directions along their various career paths. Theolonius Monk, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and even the bass player Charles Mingus were working on theories that tended to take jazz to higher levels of creativity.
The most convenient thing to say therefore, to avoid unnecessary controversy, is that Ornette Coleman is one of the most important and controversial innovators of the jazz avantgarde. And as expected, he gained both loyal and lifelong detractors when he burst on the scene in 1959 because had become fully formed. Apparently, these detractors who find it difficult to come to terms with Coleman’s avant-garde may not be impressed by his recent revolutionary effort in Social Grammar. But they are bound to acknowledge his remarkably high musicianship and technique as a saxophone player and composer.
The impact of Coleman’s revolution came to light in 1959 with what can be described as a fitting endorsement by John Lewis, the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ). He gave an interview to an Italian jazz magazine which was subsequently printed in original English in The Jazz Review.
Asked about new trends, Lewis replied that “there are two young people I met in California, an-alto player named Ornette Coleman and a trumpet player called Don Cherry. I’ve never heard anything like them before. Ornette is the driving force of the two. They’re almost twins; they play together like I’ve never heard anybody play together. It’s not like any ensemble that I have ever heard, and I can’t figure out what its all about yet. Ornette is in a sense, an extension of Charlie Parker and the first I’ve heard. This is the real need that I think has to take place, to extend the basic idea of Parker until they are not playing an imitation but actually something new.” In conclusion, Lewis said, “I think that they may have come up with something not perfect yet, and still in the early stages but nevertheless very fresh and interesting.”
Many who read the interview were doubtless intrigued. It was some highly effective publicity for Coleman, and it came at the right time. And coming from John Lewis, a figure of substance and an often astute judge of musicianship, Coleman’s innovation was taken seriously by the jazz scene.
Although the interview was brief, it looked at many aspects of the music and even the situation in which it was being created. Lewis admitted that Coleman’s music is an extension of Charlie Parket, a valid statement which got many critics and jazz devotees thinking.
Parker had established bop in1942, inventing a new style of improvisation which demands creative progression along the chord sequences of songs, selecting notes and phrases which are sweet and appealing. This innovation was adopted by every jazzman irrespective of whatever instrument. Parker was a great influence. It was just natural that 17 years after this revolution, something new should emerge, considering the fact that there is no stagnation in nature, especially as it relates to a musical culture such as jazz which has a significantly unique history behind it.
It was this same spirit of experimentation and search for new ways of approaching the music, in line with the times, that culminated in crossover or smooth jazz which has also become popular. Even though this innovation has tended to water down the music in terms redefining the creative approach which has tended to commercialise the music, this category of jazz has also come to stay considering the fact that when it came in 1972, some of its protagonists were giants of jazz such as Herbie Hancock, who was famous for playing with Miles Davis.
However, Coleman has proved that he is one of the most consistent practitioners of jazz because since 1959, till date, he has not wavered in his resolve, and has not in anyway compromised the purity and validity of the avant-garde music which he strongly believes in.
Coleman’s music has lived survived through the ages till date. Perhaps the most outstanding element in his musical concept is the utter and complete freedom. His musical inspiration operates in a world that is not cluttered by conventional bar-lines, conventional chord changes, and conventional ways of blowing or fingering a saxophone. Such practical limitations did not even have to be overcome in his music, they somehow never existed for him. Despite this or more accurately because of this, his playing has a deep inner logic.
And perhaps the secret of Coleman’s success and the principle that has guided his career to date is the fact that despite criticisms he has always believed in himself and what he is doing. Coleman himself says, “I haven’t read any one yet who wrote about my music. The only person I know that could write about my music would be me. Writers can write about the effects of it. Nobody’s ever written about the music itself; because nobody knows. It’s beautiful for people to be interested and help me, but its much more beautiful whenever something exists, it doesn’t have to be analysed for symbolic meaning, when it exists on its own. You know they put all kinds of stuff in toothpaste, but you don’t try to go out and find what it is. They might put anything in toothpaste. You don’t worry about what they got in it you use it, and that’s it.”
Anyway, by now, the voices of those who said that Coleman was not playing music have been mostly stilled. In a way, he has simply gone to the furthest reaches of what baritone saxophonist and composer Gerry Mulligan implied when he formed his ‘pianoless’ quartet. But his remark “I like to hear a difference between the tune and the improving” has had wider implications than many would countenance. Insisting that “I know enough music and I know enough about the horn to known everything I’m doing,” he returns over and over again to the theme of what is natural. Admitting that he himself is not always “naural” he says, “I think feeling is the only thing that is creative.”
Ornette Coleman has remained true to his highly original vision throughout his career. Technically, he may not be considered a virtuoso because of the controversy he continues to live with, but obviously, he is a giant of jazz.

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