I’m now officially in mourning.
I just heard the news that Ornette Coleman has passed away at the age of 85. He was one of the true innovators of Jazz and his influence on the development of this music over the last 50 years has been absolutely immense. I don’t have the words to pay adequate tribute to the either the man or his music, so I’ll just highlight two tracks from my favourite album of his, which was recorded Live at the Golden Circle club in Stockholm in 1965, and was proclaimed “Record of the Year” the following summer in Downbeat magazine. This features a trio of Coleman on alto sax, David Izenzon on bass, and Charles Moffit on bass. By the mid-60s Ornette Coleman had already established his reputation as leading light of avant-garde saxophonists and, in his own way, was as great an influence on jazz as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane had been just a few years earlier, but this album is, for me, when Ornette Coleman underwent the transition to greatness.
The track European Echoes starts in a deceptively simple manner, with Ornette’s little two-note statements over a fast waltzy 3/4 foundation provided by Izenzon and Moffitt. It then eases into a passage marked by freer improvisations by Ornette, the meter changing at the same time to 4/4. Ornette plays for more than half the track, after which Izenzon and Moffitt take over for all but the final minute, at which point Izenzon drops out and Moffitt plays an intricate percussion solo.
Although most people I know recognize the virtuosity of modern jazz musicians they don’t really like the music very much. On the other hand fell in love with this track as soon as I heard it, partly because it begins simply enough for a beginning saxophonist to play along with, but also because it’s highly original without being at all self-indulgent. In fact, at one level, everything Ornette Coleman does on this track is quite simple; he plays the saxophone here like he’d just discovered the instrument and was in the process of finding out what it could do; at least in his early years, he didn’t have much of a technique at all in the conventional sense but nevertheless managed to produce amazing music. This a view echoed by the great Charles Mingus in quote I got from another blog about Ornette Coleman:
Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when [the jazz dj] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.
I did learn to enjoy and admire Ornette Coleman’s more “difficult” music later on, but European Echoes was the track that convinced me that Ornette Coleman was a genius.
Though from the same album, Faces and Places is quite a different kettle of fish. It goes like the clappers right from the start, with some terrific work on the drums by Moffit, skittering along on the cymbals with interludes of powerful rapid-fire accents on the skins. Fantastic stuff.
I’ve decided that I’m going to spend this evening listening to Ornette Coleman records and drinking to his memory.
Rest in Peace, Ornette Coleman (1930-2015).Follow @telescoper