i play pure emotion…

Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015)

Gareth Sager (The Pop Group) – tribute to Ornette Coleman :

“Playing The Key Of The Unison”

I was taught classical piano from the age of five. At 13 I saw a picture of Andy Mackay with his saxophone on the inner sleeve of the first Roxy Music LP and was mightily impressed. So I went in search of a sax teacher and I found a certain Jack Fear, who told me that I had to learn clarinet first if I wanted to play jazz sax. However, he did teach me how to tap my foot in time (you are not allowed to tap your foot playing classical music) and that is where my training stopped. As Ornette may have said: “You’ve got to learn everything to unlearn it.”

I went straight to Unlearn.

My next encounter with the sax was when one of our Bristol circle, Mark Springer, started playing me modern jazz. Those new tones, timbres and rhythms were a massive revelation. The Pop Group was formed in 1977 and as we ripped through Coltrane, Miles, Cecil, Monk, Sun Ra and Ornette, we started seeing ways to blow our music out of the water.

Then Ornette’s album Dancing In Your Head appeared. While we loved it for its funky, electric looseness, we were almost equally into the cover of This Is Our Music. As a result of this cover – not The Velvet Underground – our bass player, Simon Underwood, took up wearing shades. Me, I loved the lightness of touch on The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century, and the way these guys could roll through the track “Lonely Women” or rock on tracks like “Ramblin’”. Ornette used his horn like a drum playing an endless melodic rhythm. It inspired The Pop Group’s track “Communicate”, basically a punk version of Ornette’s Prime Time band of the late 70s.

So, inspired by the new musical forms, I went on to form Rip Rig And Panic with a mission to open up the world of rock music to the wonders of improvised jazz. I reckoned a Han Bennink five minute slot before the 6 o’clock news would be a great antidote to Top Of The Pops.

Richard Cook, former editor of The Wire, gave Rip Rig great support and we did get to play with OC’s great sideman Don Cherry who told me a good story about playing with OC. They were preparing for a gig somewhere down south in the States when Ornette heard a load of noise outside the venue. A large angry crowd which had turned up to get their ‘free jazz’ were being told they had to pay for it!!!

Ornette Coleman stuck to his guns, delivering music to make us all more human, coming over like a lionheart with fingers of light. I was lucky to catch his last UK show in June 2009, playing with The Master Musicians Of Jajouka – music I love and most definitely the roots of Dancing In Your Head.

I’ll end with my favourite of Mr Coleman’s quotes: “It was when I found out that I could make mistakes that I knew I was onto something.”


Otomo Yoshihide – tribute to Ornette Coleman :

The most important thing I gained from Ornette Coleman’s music was the realisation that it is OK to create your own rules for music and that there is
no need to conform to pre-existing conventions – even in terms of elements like rhythm, harmony and melody that normally cannot exist without conformity. Perhaps it’s possible for rhythms to expand or contract, or the criteria for the integrity of harmonies to be found in your own body and memories and not somewhere external. What, then, is necessary to hold music together? Ornette’s music let me think about that.
I first heard his music in 1976, in a jazz cafe in Fukushima. Since then I have kept returning to engage with his music. To be honest, I have no idea whether what I do is the same as the free jazz that Ornette pioneered. But I have no doubt that my music is the result of engaging with the musics created by the new pathways that he opened up.


Robert Wyatt explains why he loves the saxophonist’s earliest recordings so much

To begin at the available beginning. Ornette Coleman live at the Hillcrest Club, October 1958. On piano: Paul Bley (which may explain what Carla was doing there, recording it). Already, their take on a standard, the Don Cherry feature “How Deep Is The Ocean”, is stretched beyond its bounds. Like Ornette’s later recorded “Embraceable You”, it is a totally fresh take – as far from the subject matter as the cubist portraits by Picasso. Similarly true to their emotional source, though.

Musicians can and maybe must discard their earlier attempts. We, listening to the preserved imprints, are under no such obligation. (I’m actually very grateful to hear what Paul Bley was already up to at that time, in that context.) And I find Ornette’s earliest recordings so moving. His voice is immediately unique, as if he were the last surviving speaker of an ancient language. So the musicians he works with are naturally encouraged to find their own uniqueness. The Hillcrest recording begins with a lengthy, barnstorming… “Klactoveesedstene”! A Charlie Parker tune, tricky even by the composer’s standards. The group sails through the tune itself with a deftness that should silence any sceptic who doubts their grasp of the idiom they inherited.

I only met Ornette Coleman a couple of times – what a gent. Did he ever raise his speaking voice in anger? It’s hard to imagine. What I remember is his (often mentioned) amused but welcoming Old World courtesy. (He was, by the way, as is the wonderful Archie Shepp, a very snappy dresser. Just see the photographs: no shabby chic for Ornette!)

But why do I love Ornette Coleman quite so much? Well, I’ll leave it to others to celebrate his significance to subsequent explorers of the freedom principle. What has always warmed my heart, in the end, has little to do with his influence on younger improvisors. It is the timeless vocal beauty of the actual sequences of notes and phrases he could come up with, and the feeling of pure living joy of playing they can communicate.

Ornette dead? The way I hear it, Ornette’s heartbeat’s as alive, in the ether, as it ever was.


His Beauty Was A Rare Thing: Ornette Coleman Remembered
Stewart Smith , June 13th, 2015 11:19

“I think that those elements – light and sound – are beyond democratic. They’re into the creative part of life.” Ornette Coleman

In this beautiful quote Ornette Coleman breaks music and art down to their essences of light and sound, speaking of them as liberating forces. By harnessing the creative part of life, he suggests, we can go beyond democracy to imagine new ways of being. In his music, Coleman illuminated beauty, gave voice to freedom. His passing at 85 marks the end of a remarkable life, one characterised by innovation and generosity of spirit.

Coleman was a giant of 20th century music, pushing jazz into new harmonic territory and reconceiving the way in which musicians improvised. This unique approach he called harmolodics. Yet there is nothing forbidding or overly cerebral about his music. From the seminal run of albums he recorded with his classic quartet between 1959 and 1960, to the free funk of Prime Time in the 1970s and 80s, Coleman’s music is wonderfully alive, open to all possibilities without losing sight of the life-affirming potential of melody and rhythm.

His 1959 statement of intent, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, may no longer carry the shock of the new, but its vitality and invention still astonishes. Its great innovation was to dispense with the idea of chord changes as the basis for improvisation, allowing the musicians to improvise more freely around a tonal centre. The results are far from chaotic. A common approach is for Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry to state the theme in rough unison, before taking off on improvisatory flights, their intersecting lines forming cubist angles over the indelible push and pull of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins’ bass and drums. The music thus has an openness and freshness sometimes lacking from the more rigidly structure hard bop of the era.

It’s also full of melody. As Robert Wyatt put it, “he wrote such good tunes, didn’t he?” For all the sophistication of his concepts, many of Coleman’s tunes have a strong relationship with the blues and folk forms. Take 1959′s ‘Ramblin’, where Haden quotes a Cajun dance tune, or 1976′s joyous ‘Theme From A Symphony’: music that crackles with life, sounding both ancient and futuristic. The saxophonist Archie Shepp puts it well: “His tunes have about them the aura of a square dance telescoped through the barrel of a machine gun.”

Coleman was never a fire-breathing reedsman in the vein of Albert Ayler or Pharaoh Sanders, but his playing is wonderfully expressive, capturing something of the human voice. As the drummer Shelly Manne put it, the sounds he produced were “like a person laughing and a person crying.” Upon Coleman’s arrival in New York in the late 1950s, many jazz musicians, raised on the bebop stylings of Charlie Parker, didn’t know what to make of him. Who was this Texan interloper with the white plastic alto and unconventional style? Some would never come round to his way of doing things, but many other recognised his genius from the off.

The next great leap came in 1960 with Free Jazz, a long continuous piece for a double quartet which set the template for subsequent large ensemble blow-outs like John Coltrane’s Ascension and Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. Less fierce than those landmarks, Free Jazz is nonetheless startling. Introducing a new concept for group improvisation, it bristles with invention: Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet goose calls, Haden’s deep flamenco tones cushioning Scott LaFaro’s virtuosic bass runs.

In the early 60s, Coleman stopped performing for two years, teaching himself the trumpet and violin. In contrast to his controlled approach to saxophone, his violin playing was highly intuitive, focussed on texture and rhythm. This intuitive approach informs his inspirational 1966 album The Empty Foxhole, where Coleman plays violin, trumpet and saxophone while his 10-year-son Denardo mans the drum kit.

The mid-1960s saw Coleman’s music come into closer alignment with the free jazz of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane. With his new trio of David Izenson on bass and Charles Moffet on drums, Coleman toured Europe, resulting in the classic At The Golden Circle albums on Blue Note. Later in the decade, he worked with a number of different configurations, often drafting in tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman to beef up the sound. The 1969 live album Crisis is hugely potent, with Haden a volcanic presence on bass.

The 1970s brought further innovations and stylistic shifts. 1972′s Skies Of America was a remarkable symphonic work, while 1971′s Science Fiction introduced elements of Indian classical music, poetry and electronic treatments. Coleman’s interest in non-western music led him to visit Morocco and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, a meeting documented on 1976′s Dancing In Your Head. His electric group Prime Time might be thought of as a response to jazz fusion, but their knotty arrangements and lopsided funk rhythms are very different to the groove-based jams of electric Miles or Headhunters. If anything, the angular dance rhythms of of 1976′s Dancing In Your Head anticipate The Slits’ post-punk.

Coleman continued to make great music throughout the 80s and 90s: Virgin Beauty with Prime Time and Jerry Garcia, Song X with Pat Metheny, the Naked Lunch soundtrack with Howard Shore. 2007′s Pultizer winning Sound Grammar is a fine example of Coleman’s late style, his saxophone tracing a path through the febrile harmolodic interplay of bassists Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga.

I was lucky enough to catch Coleman’s Meltdown festival at the South Bank in 2009. Resplendent in one of his self-designed print suits, the great man communed with the Master Musicians of Jajouka and jammed with a surprisingly effective Flea, before joining Charlie Haden for a sublime duet of ‘Lonely Woman’. Goodbye Ornette: his beauty was a rare thing.