Everybody is in front: Ornette Coleman, the Ezra Pound of jazz, is in London this week. Phil Johnson asks him to define 'harmolodics'
Thursday 04 November 1993
The sentiments of the poem could apply equally to the music of Ornette Coleman, a mighty edifice that most succeeding jazz players have somehow managed to tunnel under, bypass or tootle round the foothills of quite happily for 30 years. Perhaps a case could even be made for Coleman as the Ezra Pound of jazz, cracker-barrel philosophy and wilful obscurantism conspiring to conceal the easy communication of a supremely lyrical voice; but the difficulty of Coleman is far less forbidding than that of Pound. The problem for most people coming to his music afresh is in understanding what all the fuss was about first time around; in the late Fifties and early Sixties much of the jazz establishment recoiled at Coleman as if a wild beast had escaped and taken up residency at New York's Five Spot.
As Downbeat's columnist wrote of the Coleman Quartet's Five Spot debut in 1959: 'Some walked in and out before they could finish a drink' (fierce condemnation, when you realise that the gig was a press preview). For those who arrived at the Coleman oeuvre later, like saxophonist Andy Sheppard, there was no difficulty at all: 'My introduction to jazz was heavy John Coltrane and after that Ornette sounded just fine . . . he was so melodic and his ideas really flowed. You can really sing his lines to yourself and the band had such a lovely, light open feeling to it that he just seemed to float.'
Even now, Coleman hardly measures up to the image of the far-out artist hiding away in a garret. Pressed about his latest projects, he lets slip that he has just played with Bruce Springsteen for the soundtrack of a new Jonathan Demme film, and recently performed with the Grateful Dead.
But even so, what is most attractive about Coleman's music is that it does sound so strange and utterly unlike that of anyone else. His saxophone voice (typically using a plastic alto) has a sense of pitch that can seem wayward and untutored; he is self-taught and learnt to play on an E-flat horn whose concert scale is different from that of the orthodox instrument. But his earliest recordings are light and boppish and the oft-noted freeness lies less in the overall conception of the music than in the latitude given to his own lines. He sounds so melodic, so bluesy, that even at its most experimental, his music is still a world away from the squeaks of the European free jazz movement that it gave rise to. He sounds all too human, the sax wailing like a voice lost in the wilderness.
Coleman's Festival Hall concert tomorrow night provides a handy peg on which to assess the music with which he came to prominence. After years of playing with an electric band, Prime-Time, he has reformed an acoustic jazz quartet, partly, he says, to promote the coming six-CD re-release of his Atlantic recordings from the early Sixties. Don Cherry, his colleague from this heroic period, is on trumpet again, with Charnette Moffett, son of Coleman's once regular drummer Charles Moffett, on bass and Coleman's own son Denardo on drums. Denardo, who also manages his father, is one of the reasons why Ornette was so derided by critics in the mid-Sixties: Ornette introduced him as the drummer in his group when he was only 10 years of age. His other crimes include daring to play the trumpet and the violin
despite having no training or apparent aptitude for either.
Though he is now one of the old dependables of the international avant garde, currently composing ballet music for Cologne and an orchestral piece for Paris, Ornette Coleman sits uneasily alongside other 'serious' artists. Take his suits; Coleman likes to make a show. As Andy Sheppard says: 'He wears a different suit for every performance; it's almost as if he goes out and checks the lighting and then chooses the appropriate suit.'
The story of the suits, and perhaps of Coleman's music itself, goes back to Fort Worth, Texas, in the late Forties, where Coleman, now 63, learnt to play. The local character of Coleman's music hasn't been commented on much, but a lot of what he has done harks back to those Fort Worth years. As a teenager playing in high school R&B bands, Coleman regularly earned dollars 100 a week in gambling joints, playing tenor sax - sometimes while lying on his back - after the fashion of honkers such as Big Jay McNeely; many of his early bands included musicians that he was later to be associated with, such as Prince Lasha, Charles Moffett and Dewey Redman, and when he left his home town it was to accompany a touring tent show. Disliked by his fellow musicians for playing, even then, so weirdly, Coleman - who affected a pre-hippy persona of long hair and vegetarianism - later fetched up with the blues band of Pee Wee Crayton, before being sacked again and ending up in Los Angeles without a job. He worked as an elevator operator by day - formulating his theory of harmony - while at night he would try to sit in at jazz clubs, where the musicians usually sent him packing after a few phrases.
Coleman's breakthrough came when he found a steady band of musicians to play with. The delinquent schoolkid Don Cherry, Ozark Mountains country music child-star Charlie Haden and New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell became his regular band, and blacklisted movie producer Lester Koenig agreed to buy some of Coleman's compositions for his Contemporary record label. Koenig was inveigled into letting Coleman and Cherry record and before the second Contemporary album was released, Coleman and his band signed to Atlantic, recording The Shape of Jazz to Come. 'I think that was a very good beginning for the type of music I was playing at that time', he says.
The repertoire for the Festival Hall concert will, Coleman says, be made up of new compositions. It will, however, still conform to the famous Coleman theory of harmolodics. Pressed to describe it in a nutshell, Coleman says: 'Harmolodic music means being able to transcribe, transpose or interpret any sound equally amongst any other sound without having them destroy the meaning of what the other sounds are having an effect on what you're doing.' Got it? 'In most jazz settings,' he says, 'there has always been the person who stands in front and the other guys back him up, like a singer. But in harmolodics, everyone comes to the front.' The result is that everybody plays what they want at once, but somehow it sounds okay. Last year, people were so excited that they shouted out loud. Does this put Coleman off? 'No, it happens all the time,' he says. 'I'm not here to censor anyone's behaviour.'
Ornette Coleman, Royal Festival Hall London, 5 November.
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