Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Shape of Ornette Coleman

I have a vague memory of a reading (or hearing?) an interview with rock/blues guitarist Johnny Walker.  He was asked if he still practiced when he wasn’t performing.  He replied that he didn’t because there wasn’t that much he was interested in learning.  He was listening to Ornette Coleman.  All that is very vague memory and I apologize to Walker (whom I have loved and saw twice in concert) if I remember it wrong.  It did seem to me at the time that he just tossed out a name that meant something. 
What it meant was clear.  No one in jazz has been so identified with the last great jazz advance, the movement beyond bop into the avant garde.  How much credit Coleman deserves for opening the door to that vast and wonderful and treacherous landscape, I don’t know.  He certainly deserves a lot. 
I trace Coleman’s impact on my own listening by placing in the history of my jazz music collecting.  I acquired The Shape of Jazz to Come when I joined a record club many years ago.  I got three albums for joining, one of which was Kind of Blue.  I don’t remember the other one.  I immediately loved KOB, but couldn’t make sense of TSOJTC.  I started my jazz collection with Miles Davis Quintet’s Prestige recordings and for some time I was convinced that nothing was better than hard bop.  I honestly thought, at one point, that Eric Dolphy corrupted John Coltrane.  That is a pretty good illustration of the barrier that Ornette Coleman pushed through. 
I now find myself listening to as much avant garde as anything else.  I fixed breakfast this morning to Ceil Taylor’s 2 Ts for a Lovely T.  After a dose of that, ‘Lonely Woman’, perhaps Coleman’s best known composition, seems rather tame.  Yet I can still feel the chills I felt when it first sank in. 
A lot of Coleman’s recordings have that same purple wail that digs deep in ‘Lonely Woman’.  Or else you get the bing bing, bomp, bomp, of ‘European Echoes’ on the Golden Circle recordings.  Coleman was always chasing that deep fulcrum that would tilt the human heart in a new direction. 
In case you haven’t heard, Ornette Coleman passed away last Thursday.  Here was a man.  Fortunately, we won’t have to do without him.  His legacy includes the great Atlantic recordings collected in a box: Beauty is a Rare Thing.  If you don’t have it, you want to get it.  Another treasure is his trio live At The Golden Circle.  Another gem, and an excellent introduction to his genius, is his soundtrack for the film Naked Lunch.  If you are doubtful, watch the movie. 
I am playing pieces from all these collections on my Live365 page.  Enjoy. 

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