Listening With Ornette Coleman
from The Jazz Ear: Conversations over Music
By BEN RATLIFF
THE alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, one of the last of the truly imposing figures from a generation of jazz players that was full of them, seldom talks about other people’s music. People generally want to ask him about his own, and that becomes the subject he addresses. Or half-addresses: what he’s really focused on is a set of interrelated questions about music, religion and the nature of being. Sometimes he can seem indirect, or sentimental, or thoroughly confusing. Other times he sounds like one of the world’s killer aphorists.
In any case, other people’s music was what I wanted to talk to him about. I asked what he would like to listen to. “Anything you want,” he said in his fluty Southern voice. “There is no bad music, only bad performances.” He finally offered a few suggestions. The music he likes is simply defined: anything that can’t be summed up in a common term. Any music that is not created as part of a style. “The state of surviving in music is more like ‘what music are you playing,’ ” he said. “But music isn’t a style, it’s an idea. The idea of music, without it being a style — I don’t hear that much anymore.”
Then he went up a level. “I would like to have the same concept of ideas as how people believe in God,” he said. “To me, an idea doesn’t have any master.”
Mr. Coleman was born, in 1930, and raised in Fort Worth, where he attained some skill at playing rhythm and blues in bars, like any decent saxophonist, and some more skill at playing bebop, which was rarer. He arrived in New York in 1959, via Los Angeles, with an original, logical sense of melody and an idea of playing with no preconceived chord changes. Yet his music bore a tight sense of knowing itself, of natural form, and the records he made for Atlantic with his various quartets, from 1959 to 1961, are almost unreasonably beautiful.
Following that initial shock of the new came a short period with a trio, then a two-year hiatus from recording in 1963 and 1964, then the trio again, then a fantastic quartet from 1968 to 1972 with the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman (who died three weeks ago), then a period of funk-through-the-looking-glass with his electric band, Prime Time. Mr. Coleman is still moving, now with a band including two bassists, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, and his son, Denardo Coleman, on drums.
He has a kind of high-end generosity; he said that he wouldn’t think twice about letting me go home with a piece of music he had just written, because he would be interested in what I might make of it. But there is a great pessimism in his talk, too. He said he believes that most of human history has been wasted on building increasingly complicated class structures. “Life is already complete,” he said. “You can’t learn what life is. And the only way you die is if something kills you. So if life and death are already understood, what are we doing?”
A week later we met for several hours at his large, minimal-modernist loft in Manhattan’s garment district. Mr. Coleman is 76 and working often: he is making music with his new quartet that, at heart, is similar to what he made when he was 30. On “Sound Grammar,” his new live album (on his new record label, of the same name), it is a matter of lines traveling together and pulling apart, following the curve of his melodies, tangling and playing in a unison that allows for discrepancies between individual sound and intonation and, sometimes, key.
Unison is one of his key words: he puts an almost mystical significance in it, and he uses it in many ways. “Being a human, you’re required to be in unison: upright,” he said.
Mr. Coleman draws you into the chicken-and-egg questions that he’s asking himself. These questions can become sort of the dark side of Bible class. Many of them are about what happens when you put a name on something, or when you learn some codified knowledge.
Though he is fascinated by music theory, he is suspicious of any construct of thought. Standard Western notation and harmony is a big problem for him, particularly for the fact that the notation for many instruments (including his three instruments — alto saxophone, trumpet and violin) must be transposed to fit the “concert key” of C in Western music.
Mr. Coleman talks about “music” with care and accuracy, but about “sound” with love. He doesn’t understand, he says, how listeners will ever properly understand the power of notes when they are bossed around by the common Western system of harmony and tuning.
He’s not endorsing cacophony: he says making music is a matter of finding euphonious resolutions between different players. (And much of his music keeps referring to, if not actually staying in, a major key.) But the reason he appreciates Louis Armstrong, for example, is that he sees Armstrong as someone who improvised in a realm beyond his own knowledge. “I never heard him play a straight chord in root position for his idea,” he said. “And when he played a high note, it was the finale. It wasn’t just because it was high. In some way, he was telling stories more than improvising.”
MR. COLEMAN’S first request was something by Josef Rosenblatt, the Ukrainian-born cantor who moved to New York in 1911 and became one of the city’s most popular entertainers — as well as a symbol for not selling out your convictions. (He turned down a position with a Chicago opera company, but was persuaded to take a small role in Al Jolson’s film “The Jazz Singer.”) I brought some recordings from 1916 and we listened to “Tikanto Shabbos,” a song from Sabbath services. Rosenblatt’s voice came booming out, strong and clear at the bottom, with miraculous coloratura runs at the top.
“I was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago,” Mr. Coleman said. “A young man said, ‘I’d like you to come by so I can play something for you.’ I went down to his basement and he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. Those are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.”
He listened some more. Rosenblatt was working with text, singing brilliant figures with it, then coming down on a resolving note, which was confirmed and stabilized by a pianist’s chord. “I want to ask something,” he said. “Is the language he’s singing making the resolution? Not the melody. I mean, he’s resolving. He’s not singing a ‘melody.’ ”
It could be that he’s at least singing each little section in relation to a mode, I said.
“I think he’s singing pure spiritual,” he said. “He’s making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he’s singing to is what he’s singing about. We hear it as ‘how he’s singing.’ But he’s singing about something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”
I wonder how much of it is really improvised, I said. Which up-and-down melodic shapes, and in which orders, were well practiced, and which weren’t.
“Mm-hmm,” he said. “I understand what you’re saying. But it doesn’t sound like it’s going up and down; it sounds like it’s going out. Which means it’s coming from his soul.”
MR. COLEMAN grew up loving Charlie Parker and bebop in general. “It was the most advanced collective way of playing a melody and at the same time improvising on it,” he said. Certainly, he was highly influenced by Parker’s phrasing.
He saw Parker play in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s. “Basically, he had picked up a local rhythm section, and he was playing mostly standards. He didn’t play any of the music that I liked that I’d heard on a record. He looked at his watch and stopped in the middle of what he was playing, put his horn in his case and walked out the door. I said, ohh. I mean, I was trying to figure out what that had to do with music, you know? It taught me something.”
What did it teach him? “He knew the quality of what he could play, and he knew the audience, and he wasn’t impressed enough by the audience to do something that they didn’t know. He wasn’t going to spend any more time trying to prove that.”
We listened to “Cheryl,” a Parker quintet track from 1947. “I was drawn to the way Charlie Parker phrased his ideas,” he said. “It sounded more like he was composing, and I really loved that. Then, when I found out that the minor seventh and the major seventh was the structure of bebop music — well, it’s a sequence. It’s the art of sequences. I kind of felt, like, I got to get out of this.”