The death of the great Ornette Coleman yesterday at age 85 means the loss of another master of creative musical expression, not just in jazz, but in all music.
This blogger has vivid memories of buying, in the same day in 1990, John Coltrane's My Favorite Things and an album of Atlantic outtakes from Coleman's years there, The Art of the Improvisors, especially its opening, frenetic "The Circle with a Hole in the Middle." That recording let quickly to purchases of such classics as The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, Free Jazz and many others.
Coleman's approach to harmony, his melodic sense, and the total freedom given to the musicians to play what felt right, provided they were listening and responding to each other, was revolutionary, drawing scorn and appreciation across the spectrum.
While his influence wasn't such that covers of his pieces are very common, outside of a few iconic tracks like "Lonely Woman" or the rare tribute album, like John Zorn's amazing Spy vs. Spy, his legacy is perhaps best represented in the spirit of expression that the murkily-defined concept of harmolodics, in which harmony is given equal weight with melody in the context of free expression concerning time, rhythm and other structures, embodied.
Now, in 1990, this listener, new to jazz, did not appreciate much of these notions, but was drawn to the playful, celebratory, light and crisp sounds of those Atlantic recordings that were made at the peak of Coleman's notoriety.
Of course, Coleman continued to probe, explore and express through his years at Blue Note, Columbia and then on to his electric group, Prime Time, and more modern pursuits, including the remarkable Sound Grammar, the fantastic collaboration with Pat Metheny, Sound X, and the little-discussed duet with Joachim Kuhn, Colors, a rare instance of the use of piano in Coleman's music. That live recording in Leipzig from the mid-1990s represented Coleman's unceasing explorations in instrumentation, as well as sound, and may have had a precursor from over thirty years before.
This was the Town Hall concert of 21 December 1962, recorded by Blue Note Records, but then released on the fledgling ESP-Disk label, which went on to a notable career of releasing free jazz, underground rock and other cutting edge sounds. Having left Atlantic and not feeling appreciated for his utterly original approach to music, Coleman decided to use his own limited funds to rent New York's Town Hall and present a concert that took evolving ideas of composition and expression to a level beyond what he had done at Atlantic. Bernard Stollman, who founded ESP-Disk, was also Coleman's manager at the time.
He had the perfect rhythm section for his new phase in drummer Charles Moffett, whose cymbal work in particular was notable, as well as the stunning bassist David Izenzon, whose clasically-dervived bowing technique was phenomenal in addition to his pizzicato playing. On this record, there are two short pieces, "Doughnut" and "Sadness," in which these two masters utilized their individual and collective strengths to give Coleman a new palette of textures and colors from which to solo.
"Dedication to Poets and Writers," written for a string quartet played by violinists Selwart Clark and Nathan Goldstein, celloist Kermit Moore and Julian Barber on viola, was Coleman's first attempt at a notated piece along classical lines. Coleman had been involved in a project of so-called Third Stream music, blending modernist classical music with jazz, through its most noted promoter, Gunther Schuller, in which the composer wrote "Abstractions" specifically for Coleman.
Remco Takken's notes point out that Izenzon's classical training and approach to bowing on his double bass provide a bridge between the string quartet and the trio performances at this show and this listener totally agrees that what could have been disparate, jarring contrasts became more of an organic, unified program because of Izenzon's way of playing. Coleman's approach to harmolodics, which was always being refined and redeveloped, is also detectable on close listening.
"The Ark" probably represents the closest linkage between the trio and string quartet sections of the concert. A sprawling, multi-faceted, and fascinating excursion into all the tools Coleman had to offer at the time, the piece really is a stunning effort, with Coleman exploring the full range of his alto, Moffett using his highly effective and understated approach, even on his fine soloing, on the kit, highlighted by his shimmering cymbal work, and Izenzon demonstrating why he was a marvel of playing the bass in both the arco and pizzicato styles.
Coleman, however, was thoroughly demoralized by the conditions surrounding his music in terms of what he felt was a lack of appreciation as well as financial concerns and went on a self-imposed hiatus from public performance and recording that lasted two years. During 1963 and 1964, however, he worked busily on his compositional approaches through harmolodics and looked for new ways of expression through learning two new instruments. Although his technique was rough, the emotive content of his playing on trumpet and violin added new dimensions of sound, in terms of color and texture. These are, probably, best exemplified by the stunning recordings from the Golden Circle in Copenhagen from 1965, released on Blue Note.
As a document that was, simultaneously the end of an era from the big splash he made in New York in 1959 and the harbinger of a new phase that was delayed for a couple of years, Town Hall, 1962 is probably, along with a record like Colors, among the least appreciated of Coleman's half-century of recorded work.
Listening to this album tonight evokes clear recollections of the 1990 trio performance (intended to be a reunion of the 1959 quartet, but trumpeter Don Cherry had to bow out because of the flu) at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles during Peter Sellars' Los Angeles Festival. Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins were certainly different in their approaches as the rhythm section, but the full integration of drummer and bass player with the leader is striking in both cases.
Finally, from the perspective of remembrance, this blogger is grateful to have heard Coleman in one of his last local performances, at UCLA's Royce Hall nearly five years ago. It was typically probing, with two bassists, Coleman's son Denardo playing with great mastery on the drumkit (amazing that his father was derided for using his 10-year old son, along with the late, great Charlie Haden on bass, on 1966's The Empty Foxhole), a Japanese singer employing wordless and otherworldly vocals, and then, for a couple pieces, bassist Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers but also a huge jazz fan, joining the quartet and showing that his jazz chops were substantial.
Even at 80, Coleman demonstrated his lifelong commitment to expressing, fully and freely, the wonder of sound. That may be his legacy: taking himself, his fellow musicians, and listeners on an uncharted journey into the ineffable joys of music.
Now, as "The Ark" has just ended and the applause fades, this is the time to say to Ornette Coleman, one of the great creative artists of our time, rest in peace and thank you for sharing your wonder with us.