Ornette Coleman creates a sound-world with colors.
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.