Thursday, June 11, 2015

Ornette Coleman, 1930-2015: a few words, with a helping hand from Robert Palmer

Photo: Michael Hoefner / Wikimedia Commons
No single musician changed the way I hear, approach, perceive, feel, appreciate and think about music the way Ornette Coleman did. His music was... is mind expanding and profoundly touching. It can be relentless in its conviction, but also communal in its approach. Inclusive, even. "Friends and neighbors, that's where its at." It can be deceptively complex yet also alluringly simple, and vice versa. It is all of that, and so much more. And it has a democratic principle at its very core.

This democratic principle to music making has been a cornerstone for me for many years. It is one I see mirrored in so much of my fave music, both in jazz and beyond. Even in rock music, such as in the set up and approach of groups like Gang of Four (particularly the early version) and the Minutemen. I've written about this topic previously (e.g. ENO #1), and will likely return to it again.

Today, I'm feeling too sad to do much writing at all. The news of Ornette Coleman's death -- although I like many others had heard rumors his health had been poor -- has devastated me. Instead, I'll leave you with some words by the late, great Robert Palmer, who wrote about Coleman as well as any I've read.

"The Ornette Coleman quartet that debuted in New York at the old Five Spot, in the fall of 1959, approached the void and, at times, tumbled into it. The listeners that first night included Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, and almost every musician in town. Some heard formlessness and chaos, others a sound that would radically alter the course of jazz and inform the work of a generation of musicians to come.
"In the music we play,'" Ornette said, "no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time."
 This new approach to group playing looked ahead with its polyrhythms, geared to exploration rather than to predetermined patterns, and its melodies that proceeded through a complex of unstated modulations rather than riding on a cushion of traditional chord progression. But the music also looked back through the jazz tradition with its collective improvisation and its personal, speechlike approach to intonation and phrasing (...)" -- from "Ornette Coleman and the Circle with a Hole in the Middle," reprinted in Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer (Scribner, New York, 2009)

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