Coleman still blending, bending and upending jazz

Special to The Times

Ornette Coleman walked onto the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night to a resounding wave of applause. A slender man of 74 in a pastel suit, a hat jauntily perched on his head, holding a white plastic alto saxophone, he could hardly have been spotted as the revolutionary jazz figure he has been for more than four decades.

There was a time, in fact, when a performance by Coleman at a venue such as Disney Hall would have been as unlikely as a speech by Che Guevara at the United Nations. And for the several dozen listeners who departed well before he had completed his set, Coleman’s free-jazz alto saxophone, trumpet and violin playing was apparently still a bit too radical.

That’s how it’s always been for Coleman. He was born in Ft. Worth, but first came to the notice of the jazz audience while living in Los Angeles in the ‘50s.

In 1959, his quartet with bassist Charlie Haden (who also performed in Friday’s concert with his “Land of the Sun” ensemble), trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins opened a run at New York City’s Five Spot Cafe that became one of the legendary gigs in jazz history. Virtually every performance was attended by the creme de la creme of the Manhattan jazz community -- performers, critics, fans. What followed was a schism comparable to the battles in the ‘40s between lovers of swing and advocates of bebop.


Coleman was described as everything from a musical charlatan who was incapable of playing within traditional harmonic boundaries to the potential successor to Charlie Parker.

In fact, he was neither. On the one hand, he was, like John Cage, a teacher, a transformer of perspectives, an advocate of sheer creative open-mindedness. But he was also an utterly fascinating player whose seemingly radical efforts (playing beyond metric and harmonic limitations) were rendered appealing by his gift for engaging melody and the creative intensity that was constant in his music.

Coleman’s music always brings to mind the Abstract Expressionist concept of action painting, of an event in which the work/painting is the result of a spontaneous, charged encounter between artist and medium. In Coleman’s case, as with Jackson Pollock’s, the seemingly random action is founded on an inner drive to, in effect, open the gateway to allow creativity to pour through.

Initially described as “free jazz,” his music was later labeled by Coleman “harmolodic music.” The latter term is perhaps more apt, an invented word describing his belief in the interchangeability of melody and harmony.

“Free,” after all, is a multifaceted concept when it comes to making art, of whatever sort. From a musical perspective, playing freely can be a recipe for sheer anarchy. From another perspective, the desire to find -- or to allow -- coherence to take place in an environment of free improvisation can require even greater musical focus than the more familiar method of playing variations over a harmonic framework.

Leading a quartet consisting of bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen and his son Denardo Coleman on drums, he wasted no time digging into the heart of his music, instantly displaying its inner fire and fury. The first tune, “Jordan,” was a bursting succession of notes, poured out in rapid succession across a tsunami of steaming rhythms.

Once the disjunct theme was established, Coleman ripped into his solo, his lines surging across the length and breadth of his saxophone. Falanga and Cohen created whirling currents of sound, the former playing with a bow, his melody lines frequently following Coleman’s lead, the latter playing pizzicato, walking-bass style, sometimes at brutally rapid tempos.

Seated in his dressing room after the concert, Coleman -- who speaks in a quiet, precise manner far different from his fiery musical excursions -- explained the strategy. “I told Tony, who’s used to playing in a symphony orchestra, ‘Play your solo as if you’re leading the orchestra.’ And I told Greg, ‘You play as if you’re making your own ideas to fit the movement -- not the chord changes, the movement.’ And then I said, ‘I’ll take care of the rest.’ ”


And he did. And any notion that the music was simply a random melange of sounds haphazardly thrown together was dispelled when the quartet came to a sudden, unexpected halt, completely together.

Although nearly all the works he performed Friday were new, many of them composed for a residency earlier this year at the University of Michigan, each was very much within the familiar Coleman lexicon of rapid-fire runs juxtaposed against striking lyricism -- stunning examples of his capacity to find both emotional content and subtexts of structure within a free environment.

Backstage Friday, he was asked about a comment he once made -- that when he realized that he could make a mistake while playing in free style, he knew he was on the right track.

“Well, yes, that’s right,” said Coleman. “A mistake is having to resolve something that’s out of place. Tonight, for example, I decided to look for the mistakes while I was playing. What I mean by that is that, if you’re a horn player, usually what you try to do is resolve what the bass player and the piano, or two bass players, are doing. Well, I don’t try to resolve that way, I try to resolve everything in relationship to the key, and -- tonight -- that approach [brought everything together] between the two basses.”


He does so via a fundamental vocabulary of riffs, licks and phrases that are the building blocks of all jazz improvisers. For most jazz artists, that vocabulary primarily derives from the input of a lifetime of heard music, usually from admired players. Great jazz musicians like Coleman, on the other hand, create their own vocabulary -- in his case based in the blues of his Texas roots.

Coleman finished Friday’s program by asking Haden to join the other two bassists in an encore version of his 1959 piece “Lonely Woman,” one of his most intimately heartfelt songs. As Haden began the number’s bass vamp, there was a rustle of applause from the audience -- the sort of response one more often hears at a pop concert.

But Coleman’s rendering, far from duplicating the recorded version, took the number into myriad fascinating musical locations, galvanized by the remarkable textures of the three basses.

“The way we played that was the way I always like to play,” said Coleman, summing up his creative philosophy. “I want people to play what they know they can play without my approval. ‘Make your own mistakes,’ is what I say, and I have to make mine. Because I was trying to play an idea that affected everybody, including the listener. I wasn’t trying to play the saxophone, or even the composition. I was trying to play the music.”