Act Like You Know: Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman i i

Ornette Coleman creates a sound-world with colors. Jimmy Katz hide caption

itoggle caption Jimmy Katz
Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman creates a sound-world with colors.

Jimmy Katz

When Ornette Coleman won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007, Stephen Colbert did a routine which summed up why you should like Ornette Coleman. Colbert cued up a particularly raucous clip from Sound Grammar, Coleman's latest album, and started dancing uncontrollably to it. When it finished, he went for his first punchline: "I am gonna have that tune in my head the rest of the night."

It goes without saying that if Colbert bothers to disparage something, it's probably awesome. Also, it isn't the easiest music in the world to get into, so it has that faint air of oh-so-hip exclusivity about it. (Coleman once cut a completely improvised album called Free Jazz with a Jackson Pollock painting on the cover.) But when Coleman's imprint of fire-brazed melodicism strikes you, you may very well have his tunes stuck in your head all night long.

But what if you're new to the pioneering alto saxophonist and composer (and occasional trumpeter, and violinist, and tenor saxophonist), who celebrates his 80th birthday on March 9? How can you come to possess the social cachet of referring to tunes on Change of the Century with offhand nonchalance? And, as Colbert demands, "How can they reward these apparently random sound waves?!"

Well, start with these five songs.

Act Like You Know: Ornette Coleman

Cover for Something Else!!!!:The Music of Ornette Coleman

The Blessing

  • Artist: Ornette Coleman
  • Album: Something Else!!!!:The Music of Ornette Coleman

When Ornette Coleman's name first started circulating in the jazz press, he was either hyped as proof of human evolution or derided as a hack, a joker, a lunatic outsider, and so on. But if you've heard nearly any jazz music within the last 50 years, it's hard to believe such a controversy ever existed. Take "The Blessing," a little gem of a composition from his 1958 debut. The tune would have been at home on any conventional hard bop album, were it not for Coleman's oddly phrased, sour-toned execution. Must have sounded amateurish for the bebop orthodoxy, but it's well within the bounds of stylistic license today. It's not quite "free jazz," or whatever Coleman is so frequently praised for co-founding. But it was new, and if it wasn't the best thing since sliced bread, it was, at the very least, Something Else. --PJ

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Song
Blessing
Album
Something Else!!!!:The Music of Ornette Coleman
Artist
Ornette Coleman
Label
Fantasy
Released
1958

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The Shape of Jazz to Come

Lonely Woman

  • Artist: Ornette Coleman
  • Album: Shape of Jazz to Come

Coleman had to know that the title to this album would seem cocky, but he was right. His ideas about melody, rhythm and structure have become so commonplace in modern jazz that, to the modern ear, songs like "Lonely Woman" may not sound all that revolutionary. In fact, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins swing with some regularity throughout the bulk of the 1959 sessions that produced a number of albums on the Atlantic label (The Art of the Improvisers, Change of the Century and the following year's This is Our Music). But listen closely to how Coleman and his go-to sideman Don Cherry (cornet) stray from the rhythm section, how their syncopation is "off." Take it a step further and pick up on the looseness of the rhythm section itself; the combination is disorienting. This is the freedom that played colors off the canvas, as Coleman began not just a new shape of jazz, but the new shape of music to come. --LG

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Song
Lonely Woman
Album
Shape of Jazz to Come
Artist
Ornette Coleman
Label
Wea Japan
Released
1959

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Cover for Complete Science Fiction Sessions

All My Life

  • Artist: Ornette Coleman
  • Album: Complete Science Fiction Sessions

When people talk about classic Ornette Coleman, they're often referring to the records made for Atlantic between May 1959 and March 1961. It's all essential listening. But aficionados also champion the underrated music Coleman made in the years surrounding 1970. It's as if the jazz legend had been gradually tweaking his aesthetic during the sporadic output of the intervening years, and suddenly it all came together anew in full-fledged, powerhouse glory. In "All My Life," from 1971, a gorgeous melody rises above a clamorous rhythmic thunder — the vintage Ornette Coleman sound. But he also invited globe-trekking vocalist Asha Puthli to sing along to the loose unison of the whole horn section. There's not even a solo here, but the strength of the internal harmonies — and the band's sheer force — buoys the whole sloppy, surprisingly tender and wonderful mess. --PJ

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Song
All My Life
Album
Complete Science Fiction Sessions
Artist
Ornette Coleman
Label
Sony/BMG Japan
Released
2000

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Cover for Tone Dialing

Street Blues

  • Artist: Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
  • Album: Tone Dialing

Coleman's longest-running ensemble also happens to be one of his most widely known. From the mid-'70s through most of the '90s, Prime Time plugged in with electric guitars and a wild vision of funk. At its height, Prime Time performed on Saturday Night Live and packed amphitheaters. While 1973's Dancing in Your Head yielded the band's most ridiculous jazz-you-can-dance-to, it would be the last proper Prime Time album that put all the crazy pieces together. During this period, the concerts for Tone Dialing featured dancers, video installations and spontaneous poems all over layers of funk, hip-hop, bossa nova and even Bach. With its four-on-the-floor beat and melange of sound, "Street Blues" seems best suited to those live dancers, sending the body into a free-funk ecstasy. --LG

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Song
Street Blues
Album
Tone Dialing
Artist
Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
Label
Harmolodic/Verve

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Cover for Sound Grammar

Turnaround

  • Artist: Ornette Coleman
  • Album: Sound Grammar

Coleman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sound Grammar could either be the conversation-starter or the conversation-ender, depending on your present company. Arbiters of the avant-garde will praise the recording itself, but might denounce the jazz public — and the music world, for that matter — for recognizing Coleman's genius so late in his life. They'd have a point: Coleman pioneered new ways to think about music, only to have it re-purposed in more financially successful ways by rock and funk musicians. But in the end, Sound Grammar really is the perfect summation and continuation of Coleman's vision, which makes it both a fantastic introduction and a fine thank-you to longtime fans. Originally appearing on 1959's Tomorrow Is the Question, "Turnaround" is one of Coleman's catchiest melodies, re-imagined here with the sonorous, sawing attack of two upright basses. It demonstrates his difficult-to-describe musical theory of harmolodics better than any tune he's written, layering sounds-as-colors on top of each other, a conversation in texture. --LG

Purchase Featured Music

Song
Turnaround
Album
Sound Grammar
Artist
Ornette Coleman
Label
Sound Grammar
Released
2006

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