Ornette Coleman: Derision turns into admiration

November 21, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Pop Music Critic It's amazing what people once considered unlistenable.

Back in 1833, a German critic griped that Chopin's mazurkas were full of "ear-rending dissonances" and "repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm." A decade later, an English writer insisted that Franz Liszt wrote "the ugliest music extant." And in 1875, a Boston paper pronounced Tchaikovsky's work to be "strange, wild, ultra-modern. . . . Could we ever learn to love such music?"

Of course we could -- and did. So is it any wonder that the same Ornette Coleman recordings that baffled and outraged jazz fans in the early '60s now seem totally accessible?

After a few hours with "Beauty Is a Rare Thing" (Rhino/Atlantic Jazz 71410), the new six-CD collection of Coleman's recordings for Atlantic, it's almost hard to believe there was ever any fuss over the saxophonist's sound or style. Heard today, his music seems graceful, lyrical and daring, with a sense of voice and emotional immediacy rarely found in jazz.

More to the point, Coleman's music has become oddly familiar over time. It isn't that his old albums have become jazz chestnuts on a par with Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" or John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" (though maybe they should); rather, it's that Coleman's ideas so profoundly influenced the sound and shape of modern jazz that it's hard to hear him today without being aware of the way his work echoes through the playing of current stars like David Murray, Pat Metheny and even Wynton Marsalis.

It wasn't always like that, of course. In fact, when Coleman first hit the scene, his arrival was treated with open derision by some of the biggest names in jazz.

Renegade or failure?

Although some supporters -- in particular, the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis and jazz scholar Gunther Schuller -- argued that Coleman was an important innovator, a renegade whose music was every bit as vital and original as Charlie Parker's, others derided him as a failure and a fake. "Man, that cat is nuts!" exclaimed Thelonious Monk. "He's got bad intonation, bad technique," scoffed Maynard Ferguson. "I think he's jiving, baby," said Roy Eldridge.

"I don't know what he's playing," Dizzy Gillespie told Time in 1960, "but it's not jazz."

Actually, it was jazz. But the way Coleman played it seemed to break every rule Gillespie knew.

When jazz was in its infancy, improvisation was simply a matter of melodic elaboration, a variations-on-a-theme approach that carried on well into the swing era. But the melodic approach was too limited to work well beyond a chorus or two, so jazz soloists began looking for new sources of inspiration.

Chordal improvisation was the first breakthrough. Instead of expanding on a song's melody, the solo would be based on the harmonies beneath that melody. For instance, if the accompaniment moved from F minor 7th to B-flat 7th to E-flat major 7th to C minor 7th, the soloist could play off any of the notes in those chords instead of merely sticking with some spin on the melody. An instrumentalist could virtually reinvent a song (think of Coleman Hawkins' classic take on "Body and Soul") without stepping outside its basic structure.

'Free jazz'

Be-bop took that idea even further, introducing chord extensions and substitutions that expanded the harmonies without abandoning them. But Coleman's music swept all that aside, abandoning the notion of chord changes and fixed harmony. He and his sidemen simply played what they felt like -- no chords, no rules, no structure. "Free jazz," the critics called it.

No wonder guys like Gillespie thought it was anarchy unleashed.

To many listeners in the '60s, free jazz meant confusion, cacophony, and noisy self-indulgence, the kind of atonal playing where anything went and it was impossible to tell the good from the bad. In many ways, this fear of free jazz parallelled the art world's antipathy to abstract expressionism (remember those "My dog can paint better than that" jokes?), and so polarized the audience that many jazz fans simply refused to listen to Coleman.

Ironically, Coleman's music was never as "free" as the commentators made it out to be. True, he and his band -- which, for these recordings, usually consisted of Don Cherry on cornet or pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden or Scott LaFaro on bass, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums -- dispensed with the conventional use of chord changes, but that didn't mean they ignored harmony altogether.

Harmony relative

Rather, Coleman felt that harmony was a relative thing, and that emotion and melodic logic should determine the direction of an improvised solo -- not tonality or chord structure. So what he played wasn't atonal (meaning that the notes were chosen at random, with a deliberate disregard for key or chord structure) so much as it was unfettered by the dictates of conventional tonality. Or as he himself explained it, "There is a law in what I'm playing, but that law is a law that when you get tired of it you can change it."

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