Friday, June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come?

History is such a confusing and inexhaustible muddle, we're always on the lookout for "turning points" to serve as landmarks along the way. Wars and their aftermath are especially dramatic and revealing. Borders change, venerable states disappear, to be replaced by others which, before long, are likely to seem a little arbitrary themselves.

We ask, Why is the world like it is? Whence did these troubles arise? The answers seem to come from previous conflicts, unsatisfactorily resolved, or revolutions unfulfilled. Entrenched interests—the autocrats, the military, the capitalists, the apparatchiks, the one percent—are always claiming privilege, dragging their feet, resisting the tide of creativity and development.

On the opposite side of the coin, we tend to be impressed by those individuals who challenge assumptions, push the envelope, and break out of the mold, exercising their creativity to forge new and revolutionary paths, so that, as they say on the movie trailers, things were never the same, AGAIN. 

I'm laying on the clich├ęs a little heavy, I know. But I have never quite understood why people tend to be suspicious of "progress" yet thrilled by "revolution." Maybe it's just the bourgeois in me, but it strikes me that the term "revolutionary" is value-neutral if not entirely bogus. It's a style statement more than a serious appraisal of merit. This fact may be underscored by the oxymoronic notion of "permanent revolution," which means, basically, "We have no ideas, but if you try to challenge us, you're toast."

Though the rhetoric is often the same in the worlds of art and culture, there are fewer guillotines and death camps involved, and things in general are more anodyne. Revolutionary artists, like revolutionary activists and thinkers, challenge assumptions, push the envelope, and break out of the mold, exercising their creativity to forge new and revolutionary paths, so that things will never be the same, AGAIN.

Picasso once famously remarked that creation involves destruction, and for the artist that may be true. But as new forms of art emerge, the old ones remain accessible to us. We can relish the novelty and zing of the new, while continuing to enjoy aspects of expression in older works that have fallen by the wayside to make way for new visions and excesses.

Ornette Coleman, the groundbreaking alto saxophonist who died recently, offers a classic instance of how new and "revolutionary" styles expand while also constricting an idiom. No one who heard Ornette play back in the late 1950s could fail to notice that his approach was "different" from the styles then popular. 

Regardless of their flavor, hard bop, West Coast jazz, chamber jazz, and Big Band involved improvisation following the harmonic rigors of a series of chord changes dictated by the tune. Ornette wasn't so interested in "playing the changes," as this method was called. He preferred to string together snippets of music--free-flowing motifs and riffs--over a rhythm section that had freed itself from the tyranny of chord progressions. The pianist was no longer welcome. 

And he was very good at sustaining this mode of improvisation for extended periods. It has even been observed that Coleman's seemingly endless melodic lines intimated, if they didn't actually establish, harmonic fields that his band-mates, and especially bassist Charlie Haden, were able to work within and flesh out on the fly, as it were. Coleman hadn't abandoned "the changes" so much as he'd liberated them from the familiar lengths and patterns that listeners commonly recognized.  

It was a fresh, new sound. But was it the shape of jazz to come? Not really.

The 1950s were a great time for "listening" jazz, as opposed to the "dancing" jazz of the Big Bands, which was on the wane. Many of the performers whose names are familiar to us today rose to prominence during that era. I'm thinking of Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Zoot Sims, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Dave Brubeck, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Sonny Stitt, and Jackie McLean, to name a few.

In the early 1960s, musicians who were no longer satisfied with straight-ahead jazz opened three new veins of exploration. Coleman's was one. Miles Davis's complex experiments in modal jazz were another. And John Coltrane's more ecstatic and chant-like religious performances a third. Later in the decade another "school" exemplified by the Art Ensemble of Chicago developed a following.

Alongside these new and revolutionary approaches, plenty of standard small-group jazz was still being performed, though it was gradually being driven out of the clubs by rock and roll. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that Ornette didn't liberate anyone from anything. What he did was develop a new approach to improvisation that took its place alongside other traditions, some new, others long-standing. Though his open, cheerful style undoubtedly influenced many musicians of his and succeeding generations, relatively few followed his path, probably because, in abandoning regularized harmonic patterns, Coleman had significantly reduced the opportunities for coherent expression.

I had an "Ornette" phase, though it didn't last long. Even today, I think I could whistle the first three or four minutes of his song "Dee Dee" from Live at the Golden Circle Stockholm, volume 1 (1965) from memory. Trouble was—at least for me—all of his songs sounded like that, and after three or four minutes, I'd had enough.

Most jazz musicians today would have little trouble delivering an extended solo based on "Body and Soul," a song written in 1930. How many would be able to keep Ornette's "Lonely Woman" or "Folk Tale" afloat? Or would want to?

Anyone who's interested in Ornette's later career, which was hardly less unorthodox than his early prime, can listen to selected tunes with judicious commentary in a recent Guardian article, Six of the Best. Ornette was a cool dude with a mind of his own, and some of his musical theories are so far out they might actually be true.

I was going to give another listen to Live at the Golden Circle, in honor of Ornette's passing, but I don't have a turntable hooked up just now. So I decided instead to put on Motion, a classic Lee Konitz album from 1961. It resembles the early Ornette albums in format—long, intricate, and ceaselessly inventive alto saxophone solos riding over a piano-less rhythm section. But look at the richness of the material Konitz has to work with! "I Remember You," "All of Me," "You'd be So Nice to Come Home To," "I'll Remember April" ...

I also booked two tickets to the Charles Lloyd show on July 1. Honoring great artists posthumously is fine and fitting. Better, perhaps, to see them when they're still making the rounds.

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