:Mark photos drummer Ed Blackwell are probing and pulling at but somehow not tearing form.
Explosions of notes, the showering of extra eights and sixteenths at speed that imbued bebop with its vitality; the soaring flight of Charlie Parker over the contours of a melody; the overall rhythmic thrust and acceleration of this mid1940s modernism in black music – Coleman’s early work often took that as a wheel and span it into a faster frenzy.
Denardo Coleman ascribes the rush of sounds in his father’s music to the sheer agility of his mind. “I don’t think Ornette thinks about the speed of the music as how really fast it is, but how instantly the ideas keep coming and that instant communication can happen in split seconds. For him it’s music in the moment fuelled by ideas.”
In the process, boundaries between genres can become wholly blurred. When Coleman made his debut in the late1950s, jazz was at a conceptual crossroads. The pursuit of harmonic advance was making the music ever more urbane and nuanced, its embrace of impressionistic, Satie-derived voicings ushering it towards the finesse of classical music while the desire to dismantle structural certainties such as tempo, key and chord changes, to create a ‘free’ or new music was also gathering momentum. Both models seemed to be vastly removed from the simplicity of quintessential black pop such as blues.
However, as astute artist-cultural critics such as Archie Shepp pointed out, early incarnations of that naïve, crude folk music were ‘free’ in that uneven numbers of bars and fluctuating meters often reined before counts of four, 8, 16 and 32 crystallised as the norm. If Coleman headed to the future of the avant-garde he tailed back to pop before anybody knew what to call it, and this time traveller’s paradox was sensational. From his early days in Fort Worth, Texas, he played blues and knew the aesthetic of that music well, its roughness, its rugged nature, its raucous energy, and as he shifted towards the jazz world, intrigued by the harmonic hurdles of complex forms such as bebop he didn’t reject the relative simplicity of the other idiom. The blues is still not something Coleman turns his nose up at. Speaking on the phone from his New York home in between rehearsals for his forthcoming London Jazz Festival gig his voice rises in admiration at the mention of a Delta music legend. “Robert Johnson? Yeah! You’re right on it, there! Mmm, yeah, all that’s still active, it’s still real, that music’s still up there.”
If his love of the blues is clear enough it plays second fiddle to his desire to talk about what underpins it in the best case: everyday experience. That is the essence of the blues as form of communication but Coleman’s way into that is through metaphysics rather than material concerns. Seamlessly, he switches from Johnson to philosophical reflections similar to thoughts he stamped on record sleeves some 40 years ago.
“The human world is concerned with what it hasn’t been rather than what it can become. The thing that’s so amazing is that music is nothing but the soul of human beings without any fear. That’s what life is to me, because of music. There are some things that I really believe in; one is the quality of humans, I don’t know how human beings were before I was born but since I’ve been born I know that it’s not knowledge that we’re all trying to find, it’s the freedom of life.
“Money, race, and wealth doesn’t allow anybody to trust anybody,” the 81 year-old continues, barely pausing. “I don’t think, right, every human being is looking for trust. I don’t know how to say this, I have never yet understood why a human doesn’t have anything but a name, I mean human is a much more complete word than any word I’ve ever heard.
“The human race gets so involved with each other’s attitudes that human gets lost all the time. I don’t understand why human beings have to do all this other stuff and end up in a sad situation. The human race has to go to something to achieve anything, knowledge or whatever, but what about something coming to you without you knowing it?”
Which begs the question, where does Coleman’s ideas for music come from and what governs his choices with regard to form? Talking specifically about music seems to mean little to him, given his contention that any sound that he makes is fostered by what is in his head and heart at any given moment in time. “Well, I don’t think of it as music, I think of it as emotion. I really do,” Coleman says swiftly as if the idea is bustling for space in his mind among several others. “And it’s better that way. All I know is that I breathe and think.”
Concerts see Coleman take speed of thought to extremes. To hear him play a complete tune in 15 or 20 seconds with a head that could have something like 25 or 30 notes popping manically all over ten or 11 bars is to hear the image of slapstick clowning guided by an engineer’s precision. Hip hop and film scores do interlude. Jazz does composition. Coleman does composed interludes that squeeze maximum data into minimal space.
Exactly how such a concentrated self-definition translates into sound is a fascinating question. Music appears to be coming to Coleman as if on tap. The veteran Jamaican double bassist Coleridge Goode, a key associate of compatriot saxophonist Joe Harriott, whose highly original early1960s work drew parallels with Coleman’s, saw the American when he played the Fairfield Hall in Croydon in 1965 and upon meeting him at his hotel in Queensway was astounded to find that he was “writing music while he talked.”
Be that as it may, Denardo Coleman points out that his father’s pieces are highly detailed and need great preparation. “Yes, lots of structure, meaning we spend hours rehearsing and working on parts. But most of the time is spent going deeper into sound and music. Getting into the DNA of sound. So when improvising, you really know how to tell a story instantly. Then when we are all telling a story collectively.”
Suggesting that Coleman is simply pulling amazing ideas and sounds out of thin air would be a slight on his talent, but what underpins virtually all of his recordings is not just the zest of spontaneity but the rarely achieved alliance, the balance of spontaneity, craftsmanship and discipline. He has somehow unlocked his instincts and framed them with strictures set by both others and himself. In the sleeve notes that he penned for his 1960 masterpiece This Is Our Music he makes the most meaningful declaration in this regard. “I can’t talk about technique because it is ever changing. That is why for me the only method for playing any instrument is the range in which it is built. Learned technique is a law method. Natural technique is nature’s method. And this is what makes music so beautiful to me. It has both, thank God.”
These days Ornette Coleman remains
20 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise