Clip: Ornette Coleman in San Francisco
It took a while, but jazz world finally caught up with saxist Ornette
Coleman's unique genius
David Rubien, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005
When the headliner of a jazz festival checks into a hospital three
weeks before he is set to perform, it causes worry, no matter how
minor the medical procedure may be described as.
When the patient is Ornette Coleman, 75 -- one of a handful of true
20th century music innovators -- that worry can turn to dread.
Coleman, just back in New York after a concert in Germany, underwent
an operation for a hernia Oct. 21, and his son and drummer, Denardo
Coleman, says it was successful: "Everything went well; he got a clean
bill of health." The alto saxophonist will headline the San Francisco
Jazz Festival on Saturday at the Masonic, as planned.
The turning of the millennium has not been kind to jazz's elders. A
few weeks ago we lost Shirley Horn. Gone in recent times are Elvin
Jones, Percy Heath, Artie Shaw, John Lewis, Billy Higgins and many
more. Of the true titans, very few remain, Coleman, Cecil Taylor and
Sonny Rollins among them.
When Coleman performed at Davies Symphony Hall for the 2002 jazz
festival, many noted how frail he seemed when he took the stage. But
then they observed with astonishment that the saxophonist played for
two hours straight, leading his trio from one ecstatic climax to the
next, until the audience erupted in a resounding ovation.
His quartet with Denardo, bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga and the
maestro on alto saxophone and occasional trumpet and violin has been
earning similar reviews. "From the evening's opening selection ... the
band created more exquisite strands of melody than one might have
thought possible from four players," critic Howard Reich recently
wrote in the Chicago Tribune.
People tend to such effusiveness about Coleman. There was a time when
plenty of folks considered him a charlatan -- including many of his
peers -- but no one harbors that notion anymore. Nowadays his music is
taken up in repertory by outfits such as San Francisco's own SFJazz
Collective, and even by the starched collars over at Wynton Marsalis'
Lincoln Center Jazz program.
But when it comes to playing the kind of music that Coleman introduced
-- or maybe "allowed to occur" is a more apt way to put it -- he's
still the pied piper. Coleman's bass player Cohen, 52, reflected on
the music in a phone interview from New York. "I've played music
without the constraints of bebop, and had a great time doing it. But
those bands don't have what Ornette has," he said. "I don't know how
to describe it, to be honest. ... It's like a fairy-tale feature with
him. The music comes to life with honesty and humor that's lacking in
other 'free' musicians."
What are the "constraints of bebop" to which Cohen referred? Why did
he give "free" a quotation intonation? When Coleman's first album came
out in 1958, bebop and its more soulful offspring, hard bop, had
stretched the American song form about as much as it could be
stretched while still respecting established keys and chord sequences.
You could play "Autumn Leaves" at warp speed, pumping enough virtuosic
gas into it to make yourself and everyone else dizzy, but the tune
still had to hew to the chord structure that let everyone know it was
"Autumn Leaves." The same went for any song.
Those chords are the constraints Cohen mentioned, and Coleman said
they weren't necessary. He said you could create music out of
anything, and it would swing hard as long as you listened closely to
what your fellow players were doing and played fearlessly and with
total conviction. And he's long since proved it, making some of the
past half century's most beautiful, lyrical music.
But freeing music from those constraints doesn't mean the music is
free per se, although some record executive slapped the title "Free
Jazz" on one of Coleman's early records, and the phrase came to stand
for an entire movement. Total freedom means chaos, and Coleman's music
is as organized as any other; it just follows his own rules. And often
enough the music is steeped in the raucous, sensuous honky-tonk blues
Coleman grew up with in Fort Worth, Texas.
It wasn't easy. When, as a young player in R&B bands, Coleman tried to
introduce his radical ideas, he was laughed at, ridiculed and
sometimes punched out. Years later, when he arrived in New York for a
now-legendary monthslong gig at the Five Spot in 1959, he caused a
sensation, with the music hoi polloi divided on whether he was a phony
(Miles Davis and Charles Mingus were in this camp) or the wave of the
future (Leonard Bernstein, John Coltrane in this one). Later he
composed music for symphony orchestras, formed electric bands and
picked up a MacArthur "genius" grant.
Although Coleman's concerts are few and far between, he's constantly
writing music. "Used to be we did a whole new concert at each
concert," Denardo, 49, says. "Now every concert has about half new
material. But the songs that we do that are not new may be only 2 or 3
months old." Coleman, Denardo says, "likes to keep things fresh. He
just keeps pushing."
Understandably, rehearsals occur often and are intense. "It's really
like a laboratory or a classroom," says Denardo, who also lives in New
York. "We really go into the idea of sounds and how notes can be
interpreted in different ways."
Despite the frequent rehearsals, Cohen -- a polyglot musician who has
played with jazzers and popsters alike, ranging from Tom Waits to John
Zorn to Lou Reed -- says he was terrified the first time he did a gig
with Coleman. It was at Carnegie Hall, no less.
"Not only was I up onstage at Carnegie Hall, and onstage with Ornette
Coleman, but I was in an untraditional band. There was no room to
hide; everyone's right out there. I was very nervous. But somehow
Ornette must have known that because he became like a shepherd. He
figured out a way to bring me into the flock. ... What he's doing is
so strong, it just kind of takes you along. You can't help but follow
Cohen says that Coleman possesses the same kind of creative spirit as
jazz greats Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington. "Call it charisma. ...
It's a thing that people can speak through. It lets them get in touch
with their deeper selves. And when Ornette plays, you have a chance to
tap into that world."
Ornette Coleman Quartet: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Nob Hill Masonic
Center as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Tickets $25-$60.
Call (415) 788-7353 or visit www.sfjazz.org.