“Beauty Is A Rare Thing. . .”: Ornette Coleman 1930 – 2015

It’s a depressing sign of one’s own mortality when you hear that yet another of your musical heroes has passed. Last week, Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist, composer and musical revolutionary passed away at the age of 85.

As I was getting into jazz in the early 70’s, I would often read about Ornette Coleman as one of the leading figures of the avant-garde, one the originators of “free jazz”. As I was initially interested in jazz for its “modern” tendencies, I was intrigued, but as the same time, hesitant to check him out. At that time, my jazz listening was limited to jazz-rock bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Larry Coryell’s Foreplay (not to be confused with a later smooth jazz band by the same name), Soft Machine and to Miles Davis records like “Bitches Brew” and “Jack Johnson” (all of which I plan to cover in future posts). Then, based on a review in Rolling Stone (during the early 70’s, RS would regularly review jazz records), I bought my first John Coltrane record, “Live In Seattle”. This is “late period” Coltrane and not for the faint of heart. Lots of shrieking saxophone. Lots of dissonance. Not something my 14 year old ears were ready to deal with. And Coltrane was also being cited as one of the leaders of the jazz  avant-garde, along with Ornette Coleman. So if Coltrane sounded like one extended shriekfest, was Coleman’s music similarly difficult? My curiosity finally got the better of me and I  bought the Ornette record “Twins” from Alexander’s Department Store on Fordham Road in the Bronx. “Twins” is actually a compilation album made up of studio outtakes from 1959 to 1961 for the classic early Ornette Coleman Quartet records “The Shape OF Jazz To Come”, “This Is Our Music”, “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” and “Ornette!”. These early records are the ones that really established a paradigm shift in what was possible in jazz and their importance to 20th century music cannot be understated.

I could immediately hear what was new and different about Coleman’s music but unlike the Coltrane record, I found it to be much more listenable. Even the more “out” pieces like “First Take”, which was literally a rehearsal take for the seminal recording “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation”, had a melodic quality and a lightness that I found a welcome contrast to the later Coltrane records and to the other avant-garde jazz recordings of that time. As a composer as well as a alto saxophonist, Ornette’s melodies struck me as a cross between folk song and Charlie Parker bebop. Ornette’s alto playing was largely devoid of the saxophone sheiking nor did it strike me as atonal (lacking a tonal center or key) but seemed to exist on a separate plane from the rhythm section. What made Ornette Coleman’s music revolutionary was it’s approach to improvisation. With bebop, the chord changes of the tune was king. Ornette discarded a song’s preset chord chord progression, allowing the soloist and the rhythm section to individually create new chord changes spontaneously. The soloist playing can suggest a key center that the others are free to follow or not. The key can change at will. Every instrument can have it’s own tonal center. He wanted the musicians to play with him on multiple levels. As he said in a 1987 interview, ““I don’t want them to follow me, I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

In the 1977, Coleman released the record ““Dancing in Your Head” which marked the beginning of Prime Time, Mr. Coleman’s first electric band. It was incredibly dense, angular and loud but sounded nothing like fusion. Some people (foolishly) accused Miles Davis of selling out when he went electric. I don’t think anyone would think that Prime Time was Ornette selling out. The concept of everyone playing on multiple levels was even more pronounced than the earlier acoustic quartet records.

In 1985 Mr. Coleman released the album, “Song X” with the guitarist Pat Metheny. I remember more than one Pat Metheny fan saying WTF. They were expecting something like The Pat Metheny Group’s “American Garage” and what they got was a different animal entirely. In 1988 he released “Virgin Beauty,” a Prime Time album with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead joining Prime Time as a third guitarist on three tracks. As a Deadhead and a Ornette Coleman fan, I was really interested in hearing this collaboration between two of my musical heroes. “Virgin Beauty” is slicker than other Ornette’s Prime Time records and in my opinion, one of his most accessible. But Garcia only plays on three tracks and is really only noticeable on one of those, the tune “3 Wishes”.  On that song, one can here some characteristic Jerry scalar runs as part of a mosaic that is sonically dominated by Coleman’s alto sax and a drum machine (?). I personally like the record but if you are coming to it for epic Jerry guitar playing, I think you will be disappointed. Check out the clip below and decide for yourself.

 Ornette Coleman & Prime Time w/ Jerry Garcia – 3 Wishes

If you are looking for Ornette with Jerry magic, the clip below may be more with your mind in mind. On February 23, 1993 Coleman joined Garcia and The Dead at the Oakland Coliseum for “Space,” “The Other One,” “Stella Blue” and “Turn On Your Lovelight”. The clip below features “The Other One” from that night’s performance. Maybe I’m biased but I find it a much more interesting collaboration between Garcia and Ornette than those found on “Virgin Beauty”.

Grateful Dead w/Ornette Coleman – The Other One 2-23-93

Finally, the clip below is my favorite cut from the record that, for me, started it all, “Twins”.  The melody is played in a loose sort of unison by Ornette on alto and his brother from another mother, Don Cherry, on pocket trumpet. It touches on bebop, blues and beyond and after all these years, still moves me in new ways every time I hear it .

Check Up · Ornette Coleman


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Posted in Grateful Dead, Improvisation, Jam Band, Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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