Jun 112015

I just saw that Ornette Coleman has died. I’m not a jazzbo by any means, but he’s one of 3 jazz artists (mid-’60s John Coltrane and Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis) who first opened my thick head to the genre. I still think there’s something special about him, a floating, open quality to his music that goes down easy for me, that doesn’t raise my suspicions over the motives of those jazz chord–playing cats who’d previously failed to move me.

“I don’t want them to follow me,” he explained. “I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

I will likely never understand the theory behind jazz music and Coleman’s harmelodics concept, but it felt like he and his bandmates were playing bits and pieces of nursery songs, devoid of the context of chords. Too much about life is surrounded by context, surrounded by chords. I still find it exciting to hear he and his mates blurt out their little sing-songy melodies. Sometimes they’re in unison, sometimes not. When the music of Ornette really works for me, it just sounds like kids playing on a schoolyard. “Ramblin’,” for instance, is like the sound of kids jumping rope or playing hopscotch.

It wasn’t always jump rope and hopscotch for Coleman. Another favorite is “Sadness,” from the stark Town Hall, 1962 album.


  11 Responses to “Ornette Coleman Rambles On”

  1. I’d never seen this solo clip from 1972 before, including a bit with Ornette at the piano.

  2. BigSteve

    He speaks to me. The piano playing was interesting, but has there ever been an Ornette fan who wanted him to play less alto? I kept coming across clips of him playing violin and trumpet on youtube today. I know Mr. Mod saw me post this on Facebook today, but here he is with an electric band featuring James Blood Ulmer on guitar and Shannon Jackson on drums:


    He was a great man.

  3. I need to come clean about an area of musical ignorance: I’m never really sure when someone’s playing a tenor or an alto or even a soprano sax unless the shape is different, like those straight saxes, which I think are sopranos. As I watched the clips of Ornette playing trumpet and violin I wondered, “Does he know how to play those instruments?” When he plays whatever sax, it sounds like him. When he plays the other instruments, he sounds like a guy with a lot of confidence who probably can’t play the instrument much better than I can. Does anyone know if he’s “faking it” or not?

    Another thing I thought about while digging through electric Ornette clips: are his electric bassists about the only jazz bassists who play Rickenbackers?

  4. I’m pretty lightweight when it comes to jazz. I really just gravitate towards the pre-1960 basics: early Miles, Monk, early Coltrane, etc. So Ornette’s music isn’t really my cup of tea. But I really admire any artist who so relentlessly chases after something so odd, no doubt for a long time to his own detriment. My favorite line from his NYT obit:

    “he was beaten by a gang of musicians outside a dance hall in Baton Rouge, La., for playing strangely”

  5. BigSteve

    I prefer to believe he was using the violin for texture. It seemed that he played it more like a drum. Remember that there were people who always thought he was faking it. A much repeated story has trumpeter Roy Eldridge, upon hearing his first quartet in NYC in the 60s, saying, “I’d listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving baby.” As long as he’s playing sax, I never get that feeling.

    Ornette apparently thought of himself primarily as a composer rather than a player anyway. Singer-songwriter Joe Henry got Ornette to play on one of his songs in 2001. He had a nice reminiscence of that session on Facebook yesterday. Apparently he kept doing takes that Joe thought were great, but he was unhappy with them. He told him, “Joseph, I know the saxophone so well. And I still hear myself playing the saxophone. I need to keep going until I’m not playing sax anymore but just playing music.”

    I noticed the Rickebacker bass too. Maybe it sounded good next to those big fat hollow-body Gibsons the guitarists were playing. Later when the great Philadelphian bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma played in Prime Time he introduced the Mod’s favorite instrument, the Steinberger bass, to the band.

  6. BigSteve

    Yeah I read that too. He claimed they also took his sax and threw it off a cliff. Trust me, there are no cliffs in Baton Rouge.

  7. That’s awesome.

  8. misterioso

    I love the early albums. After a certain point–early 60s, for me–I can’t grasp what he’s getting at most of the time.

  9. As part of my jumping off point of Ornette videos I came across one of those clips of James Blood Ulmer seated with a Steinberger. It looks like a headless ukulele tucked away in his dashiki and his big mitts.

  10. Did anyone notice that the Ulmer line in this piece sounds like a note for note cop of the opening bassoon part in the Rites of Spring?

    Apropos of our related copyright discussion on today’s All-Star Jam.

  11. tonyola

    For the record, Coleman’s usual weapon of choice was the alto sax, and that’s what he’s playing on the clips that you provided.

Lost Password?

twitter facebook youtube