From onetime elevator operator to 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner is – by any stretch of the imagination – a big leap. But alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died last week aged 85, was making big leaps right from the start. His radical approach to jazz sounded innovative in 1959 and that pitch-blurred squalling still sounds unique now. Many great horn players in jazz have a signature sound, but it’s pretty safe to say that no one sounded like Ornette – and over the last 55 years no one ever has.
Coleman was an iconoclast right to the end of his life. In 2009, he
curated the South Bank Meltdown Festival and was received rapturously by the audience who enjoyed his unique alto sax sound in harmolodic invention with post-punk singer Patti Smith, Senegalese griot Baaba Maal, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and a Moroccan drum choir. It was a typical Coleman kind of mix and the sort of musical genre mashup that had characterised his remarkable musical journey. I was lucky enough that summer to meet him in a chance encounter with his son Denardo in their London hotel. I could only shake his hand and mumble how much I admired his music and vision – but it was a memory I’ll cherish.
For many jazz fans (and musicians) Coleman’s signature sound is still too spiky, too untutored and just too ‘out there’ to be acceptable. It seems to have been pretty much like this from the start. Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas – something of a musical centre for several key jazz artists including Julius Hemphill, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Dewey Redman and Charles Moffett. Most would share a stage with the alto (and sometime tenor, trumpet and violin) player in later years.
His early years were characterised by rejection – he was thrown out of his high school band for improvising, beaten up (and his tenor saxophone destroyed) on his first tour with a rhythm and blues band and isolated in his New York apartment in the early 1960s. The early adoption of an unconventional white plastic sax only irritated further the many critics of his sound but, surprisingly, Atlantic Records had enough faith in his singular talent to sign him for a multi-record deal, resulting in the appropriately named The Shape of Jazz to Come album in 1959.
Coleman went on to plough his singular musical furrow – whether in conventional jazz trio and quartet form, with a full symphony orchestra, incorporating traditional musicians from China or with his electric (and eclectic) free funk group Prime Time – until his death this month. However, as critic John Fordham noted, he remained one of the greatest geniuses of a simple song, the song of the blues. Coleman stripped down and simplified the conventional harmonic framework of jazz, remoulding the raw materials of improvisation and casting off the formal and technical bonds of the bebop style dominating jazz during his childhood. But his saxophone sound was steeped in the slurred notes and rough-hewn intonation of 19th-century singers and saloon-front guitarists at work before jazz was even born. His affecting tone swelled with the eloquence of the human voice.
There isn’t a better way of understanding the core of Coleman’s sound than this, but really the only way to appreciate Coleman is – of course – to listen to his music. There are some obvious places to start for the untutored listener. I’d recommend Ramblin’, from the 1960 album Change of the Century if only because of Charlie Haden’s sublime bass coda which would later be pinched by Ian Dury to form the backbone of Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Add to this the clarity of vision of his Live at the Golden Circle trio (try the opener from Volume 1, Spaces and Places) and then go to the amazing Complete Science Fiction album and choose the opening track What Reason Could I Give? with Indian vocalist Asha Puthli. To end this avant garde feast, dive into the free funk world of Coleman’s Prime Time band and swim around in the harmolodic freedom of Singing in the Shower from the album Virgin Beauty where he’s joined by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. The last track also has an electric bass line that in places owes something to where your journey began with Charlie Haden’s playing on Ramblin’… And that word ‘harmolodic’? Coleman invented it because he needed something that would symbolise the equal importance of harmony, melody and rhythm. Of course. It seems a good place to end.
[With grateful thanks to John Fordham’s excellent obituary – the Guardian 12 June 2015]