Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, The Last Words of Copernicus.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Focus On Sanity.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Just For You.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, Forerunner.
Ornette Coleman Quartet, The Circle With a Hole in the Middle.

I suggested gospel music, and he was enthusiastic. I brought something I felt he might like: sacred harp music -- white, rural, choral music, about 100 voices in loose unison. We listened to "The Last Words of Copernicus," written in 1869 and recorded by Alan Lomax in Fyffe, Ala., in 1959.

"That's breath music," he said, as big groups of singers harmonized in straight eighth-note patterns, singing plainly but with character. "They're changing the sound with their emotions. Not because they're hearing something." But then we were off on another topic -- whether a singer should seek a voicelike sound for his voice. "Isn't it amazing that sound causes the idea to sound the way it is, more than the idea?" he asked.

Finally the listening experiment broke down. It's hard to keep Mr. Coleman talking about anyone else's music. His mystical-logical puzzles are too interesting to him.

Ben Ratliff, "Listening With Ornette Coleman," NY Times, 22 September 2006.

The Earth itself is in space; it's just a matter of looking up and looking down.

Ornette Coleman.

On one late evening in May, and on two afternoons in October 1959, four men--a Texas-born saxophonist who once, in Baton Rouge, was beaten up by thugs in the street for having played so wild a solo that it stopped a local dance; his closest collaborator, a trumpet player who kept his piece, as small as a toy, in his pocket; a bassist who had learned his trade in his family's hillbilly gospel band; a drummer who had defected from swing--gathered in a room and began speaking in a new language.

A catechism on free jazz: Questions are from an essay on Coleman by Gary Giddins, responses by Ornette Coleman, mainly from 1960 interviews.

Harmony: If you can resolve any note in any chord, why not do away with the chords and allow harmony to proceed serendipitously from melody?

In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not...chords are just names for sounds, which really need no names at all.

Melody: What will it sound like if it follows its own course, free of harmonic pretenses?

Blow what you feel--anything. Play the thought--the idea in your mind...Break away from the convention and stagnation and escape!

Rhythm: What is 4/4 but an artificial subset of 1/1, and who says we have to submit to it?

My music doesn't have any real time, no metric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It's more like breathing--a natural, freer time.

"Focus on Sanity" was the first track that the Ornette Coleman Quartet recorded for Atlantic Records. It opens with the horns offering a mad, reeling fanfare, and then, at once, a massive Charlie Haden bass solo starts--Haden has been given nothing to work with but a couple chromatic intervals and the ghost of a melodic phrase, and so he sets off on his own, moving outward, offering at first not even a basic tempo. At last the horns reappear, barking out the theme fragment again. Then Coleman is off (Shelly Manne, in 1959, described Coleman's sound as being "like a person crying... or a person laughing"). Don Cherry's trumpet solo is a bit more conventional, though the rhythm section appears in fits and starts, while Billy Higgins on drums offers a series of gnomic signals that only occasionally serve as rhythms. The horns end the piece with a shriek of triumph.

"Just for You" offers some reassurance--it's one of Coleman's more gorgeous melodies, brought into being by Coleman and Cherry with acerbity and grace. While "Focus" was included on Coleman's first LP, the epochal The Shape of Jazz to Come, "Just for You" was kept in the vaults until the '70s.

[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him.

Don Cherry.

A month before the Coleman Quartet achieved notoriety during their residency at New York's Five Spot (at the end of one set, Max Roach walked up to the stage and punched Coleman in the mouth), they were back in the studio to record their second Atlantic LP, Change of the Century. Where Shape was radical, Change hinted at a great network of sources--Latin music in "Una Muy Bonita," the blues in "Ramblin'."

And "Forerunner" is a mutated strain of bebop. Coleman described its conception: "I was listening to what the others were playing. I tried to make my own playing tie up everything. I was playing in circles, but the circles were all in one direction, all one way."

"The Circle With a Hole in the Middle," recorded during the October sessions but held in the vaults for a decade, is dominated by a Coleman solo during which, far from playing in circles, Coleman seems to vault his way through the spheres, up into the Primum Mobile.

All the tracks were recorded at Radio Recorders, in Hollywood: "Sanity" and "Just for You" on May 22, "Forerunner" and "Circle" on October 9. All can be found on the fantastic box set Beauty is a Rare Thing; also, "Sanity" is on Shape of Jazz to Come, whose title wasn't hyperbolic; "Just for You" and "Circle" were released on The Art of the Improvisers in 1970; "Forerunner" is on Change of the Century.

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