Listening, Party For Two: Ornette Coleman, 'Una Muy Bonita'

Ornette Coleman. i i

Ornette Coleman: still making music. Jimmy Katz hide caption

itoggle caption Jimmy Katz
Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman: still making music.

Jimmy Katz

My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every so often, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.

Ornette Coleman is 80 today, which is to be celebrated. It also makes for a perfect opportunity to introduce the Boss Lady to an artist whose name she's heard, but whose music she may not have. So I sprung some vintage, 1959, Change Of The Century Ornette on her — here's "Una Muy Bonita":

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"Una Muy Bonita," from Ornette Coleman, Change Of The Century (Atlantic). Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. Hollywood, Calif: recorded Oct. 8, 1959.

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Boss Lady: I hear a lot of strutting!

me: Strutting?

Boss Lady: horn players showing their tail feathers. You know, you show me what you've got, and I'll show you!

me: You mean like they're battling each other or something?

Boss Lady: Not exactly, more like marking their territory.

me: Interesting. I hear a lot of cooperation. I mean, they each take long solos, where they each do these really colorful, soulful things. But to me, the opening theme sort of sets the tone. Like, we're going to work together to create these really striking harmonies, before catapulting each other to do our respective things.
And knowing the history behind these two players, I know they're a lot more interested in working together than peeing on their own telephone poles

Boss Lady: I was thinking Roosters in the Barnyard, but I take your point. Who are they?

me: These are Ornette Coleman on alto sax and Don Cherry on the trumpet (the pocket trumpet, muted, to be exact)
They do have a certain, very bright color to their tones and note choices — not entirely unlike barnyard fowl, I suppose
These two were sort of viewed as somewhat heretical for their time, but they were pretty confident that their concept was valid
50+ years later, history looks pretty kindly upon them

Boss Lady: Their concept? The free form back and forth? The melodic fragments on fragments?

me: Yup, pretty much. This was made in 1959.

Boss Lady: So you're saying that it was pretty out there for 1959? I remember last year we made a big deal about all of those canonic jazz albums having come out in 1959 ... 'Kind of Blue,' 'Time Out,' etc. Is this so far off?

me: I mean, to modern ears, it doesn't seem so bad, huh? But Ornette Coleman was an intensely divisive figure when he showed up in New York in the fall of 1959. Some people, critics and musicians alike decried this as heresy. Others welcomed it as the future.
In the end, the future-ists more or less won — things that Ornette and co. do have been co-opted into modern jazz language so thoroughly, and he's so universally hailed, that it's hard to imagine this controversy.
Myself, I hear those saxophone cries — they're certainly not the way they teach you to play in school, but man, are they effective
And those melodic fragments on fragments — they're so good!

Boss Lady: Well I would say it's definitely music that demands attention—not easy just to have on in the background. An intense, animated, purposeful exchange between two strong personalities.

me: Yea. I think it's also to be noted that Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, bass and drums, aren't just along for the ride either. They really set the tone for these so-called experiments: those powerful double stops, that relaxed swing.

Boss Lady: I'm kind of embarrassed to ask this, but what is a "pocket trumpet"? Just a tinier-than-usual trumpet?

me: Precisely. Not a common instrument by any means — looks like a trumpet scrunched in a fun house mirror. But Don Cherry liked it.
He's an important figure in the early '60s avant-garde and beyond too, but that's a whole 'nother discussion.

Boss Lady: So PJ, what appeals to you most about this music?

me: For me, Ornette just comes down to killer melodies. What a perfectly askew series of riffs, a little weird, but tight. Just a feeling of "nifty" to them, their hairiness included. And, of course, the cries of the solos.

Boss Lady: I guess I'm hard-pressed to label those back-and-forths as melodies. Melodies for me have more structure—a beginning, middle and end—but then maybe I'm a sap (or I took too many classical theory courses). I do find the music evocative, and interesting as a musical snapshot of a dynamic relationship.

me: In the end, that's all that Ornette wants: to communicate something to you in sound. Occasionally, some might even call it beautiful.

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