The shape of jazz to come
by Piotr Michalowski
The curse and blessing of the artistic life is that one must always move on, never remaining in a comfortable place. You might never know that, though, from listening to the glossy world of commercial jazz, which is filled with retro singers, tributes, ghost bands, and the funerary rituals of repertory orchestras and PBS documentaries. Fortunately, Ornette Coleman, who performs at Hill Auditorium on Friday, March 19, has the antidote to such compromises. Almost three-quarters of a century old, he continues to search for new forms of music and new manners of expression.
Coleman grew up in Texas, where he was raised on the blues and the bop revolution of Charlie Parker. As soon as he had learned to play the alto saxophone, he brought those two sources together in hard-rocking local bands. He moved to Los Angeles and there, in tandem with other experimenters, some of them also from Texas, he developed an original style that went against the grain of the cool and hard-bop playing of the times. Together with trumpeter Don Cherry and his bassists and drummers, Coleman created a new form of group playing, one that dispensed with traditional notions of harmony, melody, and song form, while maintaining a spectacular level of musical cohesion and rhythmic drive.
By the time Coleman started recording with his quartet in 1958, his concepts were well formed, and he was ready for artistic battle. The critical reception to his early work was largely hostile; many critics and some musicians accused him of being a charlatan who simply did not know how to play. But others knew better, and he was championed by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet as well as by Gunther Schuller of the New England Conservatory. They understood that the "free" playing of the quartet actually required great skill and discipline, and they accepted the musical challenge of Coleman's conception.
Since then Coleman has remained a vital and unpredictable force in improvised
music. He stopped performing for a while, and when he returned, we discovered that he had spent much of the time learning the trumpet and violin. Once again he was vilified by some as an amateur, but his utterly original notions of how to play these instruments proved to be as personal as his admittedly more fluent alto sax, and his expanded palette only made the music more thrilling. He formed an electric group that played with and broke up rock and pop rhythms; wrote symphonies, concertos, and chamber music pieces; and collaborated with musicians from Africa, painters, dancers, rappers, and poets like Allen Ginsberg. He's now touring with a new quartet, and we can only guess what music he will bring.
[Originally published in March, 2004.]