Blues the Most


JALC and DTM have been working together on a few recent occasions.

Andre Guess wrote up the panel “A Conversation on Jazz & Race” that he hosted with Wynton Marsalis and myself for JazzTimes.  It’s really an excellent convo (if I do say so myself), although at one point I mention Mahler and both Andre and Wynton make fun of me. Fair enough, that will teach me to reference Mahler….!?

….except that I use Mahler again in the notes I supplied for the JALO plays Ornette Coleman. Well, I guess I think it works. Try imagining the opening oboe solo in “Der Abschied” as Ornette with Charlie Haden in “Lonely Woman” and see if you can’t understand what I might mean….

Official blurb:

May 18-19: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis celebrates one of jazz’s great original geniuses: composer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930–2015). 2017 Grammy Award-winning composer, arranger, saxophonist, and bandleader Ted Nash serves as music director for the evening, utilizing the Orchestra’s many colors to bring this music to life.

Iverson program notes:

Ornette Coleman’s magnificent melodies flew out of his plastic alto saxophone and changed the world. The contours were fresh and modernist, at times imbued with a frank lyricism reminiscent of European composers like Schubert or Mahler, yet always framed by deep blues ethos straight from the heart of Texas.

His early bands huddled around the blast furnace of his melodic genius and were inspired to create the rest of the orchestration. Almost by definition, tonight’s concert is not just about Ornette Coleman. It is about Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and the best of the rest of his invaluable collaborators.

Tonight’s concert is also inevitably about all those fellow jazz legends who went to see Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot in 1959 and 1960. Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis were all directly influenced by Ornette with Cherry, Haden, and Higgins. Was there any other time in jazz history when so many major artists reassessed their music based on a recent arrival?

The biggest influence on Ornette Coleman was unquestionably Charlie Parker. When a very young Wynton Marsalis first visited Stanley Crouch, Crouch played some Ornette on the stereo, and Marsalis thought it was Bird.

Ornette knew not just Bird but also all the other significant modern jazz musicians. In a 1960 Downbeat blindfold test with Leonard Feather, Ornette Coleman smoothly identifies Miles Davis with Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, and Johnny Hodges. That’s not surprising, but Ornette’s correct guesswork about Al Cohn with Zoot Sims and Bob Cooper with Bud Shank might surprise those still suspicious of Ornette’s jazz bonafides.

An interview with Gunther Schuller from the same era offers more conventional jazz wisdom. Ornette observes how a quarter note feels different when you pat your foot, a comment that suggests the dance floors of the big band era.

Bird, the big bands, and the blues: These are the obvious sources for the music of Ornette’s first era, the era of Ornette that remains most impossible to resist.

However, Ornette went on to explore wider horizons. In 1962, perhaps under the influence of Schuller’s Third Stream, a trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett assimilated modernist classical music, where Izenzon frequently used the bow for his bass and Ornette played noise violin. In 1966, perhaps to react against that kind of intellectual culture, Ornette brought in his 11-year son Denardo to enjoy naive rhythms not yet tamed by professional experience. The 1972 monument Science Fiction synthesized all that Ornette had done before but also added pop ballads (perhaps inspired by someone like Joni Mitchell) sung by Bombay chanteuse Asha Puthli. The next step was right in line with many other jazz musicians after Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew: In 1973 Ornette plugged in rock guitars and created an idiosyncratic response to fusion, Prime Time.

Ornette’s oeuvre is rounded out by a large scale symphonic work, Skies of America, various chamber pieces, and a significant soundtrack, Naked Lunch, co-composed with Howard Shore and revisited last year at Lincoln Center with Denardo Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Ravi Coltrane.

In sum, Ted Nash has all sorts of options for arranging the music of Ornette Coleman. While Ornette’s bluesy and searing alto saxophone was an unchanging constant, the settings were fluid, and eventually Ornette addressed most of the genres of music easily accessible to 20th century Americans.

Americans have responded to Ornette’s wide-ranging vision by embracing him as a touchstone artist. Tonight’s concert is another exciting chapter of presenting new ways to explore his phenomenal contribution.