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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Going back nearly half a century, the signature sound of Ornette Coleman has been one of the most unorthodox and controversial in modern jazz.

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MONTAGNE: Ornette Coleman has also proved to be an influential composer, band leader and saxophonist. At 76, his recordings are still earning praise and challenging listeners.

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MONTAGNE: Ornette Coleman's newest album is titled Sound Grammar. Ashley Kahn spoke with him about his music and his career.

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ASHLEY KAHN: It's not easy living on the avant-garde edge of any art, let alone the ever-changing world of jazz. But that's exactly what Ornette Coleman has been doing for decades.

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KAHN: Coleman's alto saxophone is well known for its playful and vocal-like quality.

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KAHN: And he's celebrated for his groundbreaking approach to group improvisation with tempos that seem to shift with little warning.

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KAHN: And tunes that end with startling precision.

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Mr. ORNETTE COLEMAN (Jazz Musician): I think I'm a composer and an improviser, so I've always been trying to improve upon both. I'm in my 70s, so I've had those ideas in my head (unintelligible) for a long time.

KAHN: To hear it from Coleman, his music has always been about change and challenge. To those hearing it for the first time, it can sound shrill and a bit under rehearsed. And yet generations of jazz fans have come to appreciate its peculiar innovative beauty.

Mr. BEN RATLIFF (Music Critic, The New York Times): The first time you hear Ornette, there's this kind of roughness and chaos in it.

KAHN: New York Times critic Ben Ratliff.

Mr. RATLIFF: And yet, you know, you get older and you listen to it more and more and you hear the incredible beauty in it, and the truth of the rhythmic feeling and the kind of honesty in it.

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Mr. RATLIFF: The fact is, it's been explained ad nauseam to the detriment of the music. You know, jazz has this kind of shroud of seriousness around it and studiousness. The general message of Ornette's music is that it's for anybody.

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KAHN: As unusual as Coleman's music may be, his roots are very traditional. He was born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, where the music he first heard came from the blues bands of the day. While still a teenager, he was playing in the horn sections behind guitarists like Pee Wee Crayton.

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Mr. PEE WEE CRAYTON (Jazz Musician): (Singing) I'm no country boy, runnin' wild in this big old town...

Mr. COLEMAN: Fort Worth, Texas - it's a little, small city and all the bands that were going to California had to travel through Texas. You name them, I've had experience with playing with them. It was music from heaven.

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KAHN: Coleman eventually fell under the spell of bebop and migrated to Los Angeles in 1949.

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KAHN: It was there that Coleman began to develop his own avant-garde style, playing saxophone in a way that took liberties with standard pitch and playing with musicians in a way that relied more on spontaneous creativity than familiar melodies.

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Mr. COLEMAN: For me, I don't ever try and be the leader. The only thing I'm doing is paying the bills, you know. And when I'm in an environment where every human being has the equal right to express themselves, I'm the last one that wants to dominate that.

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KAHN: Coleman burst onto the national scene in 1959 with music that split the jazz world in two. To many ears, his playing was out of tune and his melodies were simply too simple. He was accused of arbitrarily breaking the rules of jazz when he was actually returning to a time when jazz had fewer rules.

Mr. COLEMAN: You can play the alto saxophone in a way where that the people can hear nothing you're doing but they feel everything that you're playing. Do you hear what I'm saying?

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KAHN: In many ways Coleman has made controversy a career-long companion. In the late '60s, he performed on the trumpet and violin before he could play them as well as he played the saxophone. In the '70s, Coleman composed a symphony, explored funk rhythms and invented a new musical approach he called harmolodics, a concept that's easier to hear than to find.

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Mr. COLEMAN: Basically, sound is invisible words, invisible language or grammar. Well, I call it grammar - sound grammar.

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KAHN: Sound Grammar is the title of Coleman's newest recording, his first in nine years. One jazz critic has already called its release as important an event as Bob Dylan's latest album.

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KAHN: Jazz can be strange and delightful stuff that does not always lend itself to accurate description. When it comes to music that's challenging like Coleman's, perhaps one of the keys to understanding lies in not seeking an explanation. Bassist Charlie Haden put it this way: When we were playing with Ornette Coleman, we weren't thinking about playing jazz; we were thinking about playing music.

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MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION and author of The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. Ornette Coleman's latest album is titled Sound Grammar. There's more music from the CD and an Ashley Kahn essay on Ornette Coleman at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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