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Ornette Coleman's Challenging Sound
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Ornette Coleman's Challenging Sound

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Ornette Coleman's Challenging Sound

Ornette Coleman's Challenging Sound
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Ornette Coleman at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival i

Ornette Coleman performs at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival in Battery Park on lower Manhattan, New York June 1, 2000 Scott Gries/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Scott Gries/Getty Images
Ornette Coleman at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival

Ornette Coleman performs at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival in Battery Park on lower Manhattan, New York June 1, 2000

Scott Gries/Getty Images

This week's staff song pick comes from News & Notes producer Roy Hurst. His choice is Ornette Coleman's "Only Once," a piece Hurst describes as an emotional and challenging composition.

TONY COX, host:

Time now for our Song Pick of the Week.

Around here, when you talk about music with the staff, producer Roy Hurst always steps up. He lives and breathes music, as he told me when we sat down to discuss his pick, Ornette Coleman. Roy says even after 50 years in jazz, Coleman is the greatest living black musician who most black folks still don't know about.

(Soundbite of song, "Once Only")

COX: So Roy, what is it about Ornette Coleman that you like?

ROY HURST: He's so emotional, Tony, and so completely original. His concept of music is so extremely original. You can't deny his genius. That's the way I look at Ornette Coleman.

COX: Is it hard to get into it?

HURST: Well, I think that it's taken me a while to come around to Ornette, but you hear a song like "Peace" or a song like "Lonely Woman"; they just sort of wash over you like, oh my God, this is coming from outer space. It's so strange and yet his music is so emotionally cohesive and well-rounded, and there's so much depth there.

Finally, I think the world is coming to Ornette Coleman, so to speak. He just won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his record "Sound Grammar." This is the first record that he has come out with in 10 years. And this song, my song pick, because you asked…

COX: I did.

HURST: …is called "Once Only."

(Soundbite of song, "Once Only")

COX: You said that Ornette Coleman's music was emotional. So what emotion do you get from this song?

HURST: Well, it's emotional and lyrical, I should say. And in his music, I find that there are all these recognizable lines, all these things that sort of hint at other things. Sort of like a poem that's playing around another poem. First of all, it's difficult to describe Ornette Coleman. For me to sit here and try and describe this man's music is, you know, I'm just pulling it out, you know, my backside.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HURST: But I can hopefully impart my enthusiasm and inspiration, the inspiration I get from his music. One thing is important, though, when you are talking about free jazz, which is what this has been called for 50-something years; that is free because it's free improvisation. That means every musician is doing his own thing within the confines of the song itself.

The one thing that you should understand is that, you know, you can say there's music before Ornette Coleman and there's music after Ornette Coleman. And what Ornette Coleman did for legions of musicians who came after him was free them up of the idea that they had to follow chord structure, and so you got a lot of guys who were just, you know, a lot of people thought were playing nonsense. In fact, they thought Ornette Coleman was playing nonsense at first, and then they started to listen a little closer.

And this song is a good example of that. You've got guys playing all over the place, and then you have his alto saxophone playing these beautiful, lyrical lines over the top of this nonsense, and it all in my mind tends to make sense. It's making a complete sentence, so to speak.

(Soundbite of song, "Once Only")

COX: "Once Only" by Ornette Coleman, our Staff Pick of the Week chosen by producer Roy Hurst.

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Ornette Coleman: Decades of Jazz on the Edge

Ornette Coleman: Decades of Jazz on the Edge
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'Sound Grammar'

Hear selections from Ornette Coleman's latest CD:

'Turnaround'
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'Matador'
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'Song X'
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Ornette Coleman i

When he Ornette Coleman burst on to the national scene in 1959, he was accused of arbitrarily breaking the rules of jazz. Scroll down to read reviews of three essential Ornette Coleman albums. Jimmy Katz hide caption

toggle caption Jimmy Katz
Ornette Coleman

When he Ornette Coleman burst on to the national scene in 1959, he was accused of arbitrarily breaking the rules of jazz. Scroll down to read reviews of three essential Ornette Coleman albums.

Jimmy Katz

It's not easy living on the avant-garde edge of any art, let alone the always-changing world of jazz. But for nearly 50 years, the sound of Ornette Coleman has proven to be one of the most unorthodox — and most influential — in modern jazz.

At 76, Coleman's role as "free jazz" pioneer, as an innovative bandleader, and as an eclectic composer continues unabated. His alto saxophone is known for its playfully melodic and vocal-like quality. His approach to group improvisation — with tempos that shift with little warning and tunes that end with startling precision — is instantly recognizable and celebrated.

Coleman's recordings — like the just-released Sound Grammar — still earn praise and challenge listeners. Yes, his music can sound raw and under-rehearsed. Yet generations of jazz fans have come to appreciate its peculiar and spontaneous beauty.

"The first time you hear Ornette, there's this kind of roughness and chaos," says New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff. "And yet you get older and you hear the incredible beauty and the truth of the rhythmic feeling and the kind of honesty in it. The fact is it's been explained to the detriment of the music. Jazz has this kind of shroud of seriousness around it and studiousness. And the general message of Ornette's music is that it's for anybody."

Coleman's musical career began like many others. He was born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, where the music he first heard came from blues bands. While still a teenager, he was playing in the horn section behind guitarists T. Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton.

Coleman eventually fell under the spell of bebop and in 1949 migrated to Los Angeles, where he began to develop his own avant-garde style: playing saxophone in a way that took liberties with standard pitch, and with like-minded musicians in a way that sacrificed established arrangements or compositions for individual improvisation.

Coleman burst on to the national scene in 1959 and split the jazz world in two. He was accused of arbitrarily breaking the rules of jazz when he was actually returning to a point when jazz had fewer rules.

Since then, Coleman has made controversy a career-long companion. In the late 1960s, he performed on the trumpet and violin before he had developed the facility to play them as well as the saxophone. In the '70s, Coleman composed a symphony, explored funk rhythms, and invented a new musical approach he called "harmolodics."

"I've called my music 'harmolodics' [and] it was called 'free jazz' before. Now I'm up to 'sound grammar,'" says Coleman, adding an enigmatic tenet common to all his music. "You can play the alto saxophone in a way where the people can't hear nothing you're doing, but they feel everything that you're playing. Do you know what I'm saying?"

Learning to Love Ornette Coleman

"I don't ever try and be the leader. The only thing I'm doing is playing the bills, you know. When I am in an environment where every human being has an equal right to express themselves, I'm the last one that wants to dominate that." — Ornette Coleman

So much of what makes Ornette Coleman's music stand out and sparkle are the aggregations he's managed to assemble through the years. He's a talent magnet on the order of Miles Davis (who was a Coleman detractor at first, but later came around to praise — and employ — many of his innovations.) Both created bands that provided maximum freedom for its members, and yielded one legendary jazz player after another.

Understand that, and you begin to grasp Coleman's common denominator. At the heart of all his collectives is the kind of spontaneous musical discussion that happens when stellar improvisers meet angular and loosely structured compositions.

Then there's the Coleman signature: a slur-happy alto saxophone that skips merrily through tunes that still feel as modern as today, while ringing with the sort of joyful, historic dissonance that defined the earliest of jazz styles.

One could label Coleman a traditionalist in this sense, but for most part he's an intrepid innovator, and an exciting arc of progress proves it. He's played in bands from acoustic to electric, from free and loosely arranged material to a composed symphony in 1972. "I've called my music 'free' jazz, and then 'harmolodic'. Now I'm up to 'sound grammar'."

Whatever the approach, I believe that terminology should come after listening. Here are three steps I recommend starting with: three brilliant recordings that capture Coleman centering three of his most outstanding ensembles. Each recording is needed listening for a modern jazz understanding. And take it from one who has learned: it may sound strange at first, but the passion for it comes swiftly.

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