Friday Jazz blogging

David Liebman on Ornette Coleman, from the liner notes to his new Ornette tribute record:

A lot has been written about the music and legacy of Ornette Coleman, his “harmelodic” approach and overall influence. If only for his first recordings in the late 50’s and early 60’s, especially Free Jazz with the double quartets, he would’ve made musical history. On a personal level from the several times I’ve met Ornette, he impressed me as soft-spoken, a total gentleman always ready to talk about music and explain his theories (which after five minutes had me completely baffled–similar to what I have heard from others). I particularly love two of his recordings for their incredible swing and fire: New York Is Now with Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison and Live At the Golden Circle with Charles Moffett and David Izenzon-both great rhythm sections. But in general his music has not had as much an influence upon me as others from my generation. This is primarily due to the relatively minor role that harmony plays in his music, or shall I say intentional-direct harmony. For my aesthetic, choosing and refining harmony (at least on occasion) deepens the expressive power of a melody, be it an improvised line or a nursery rhyme. The development of harmony stands as one of the major contributions of Western culture to the musical world at large. Although there have been “harmonic moments” in Ornette’s music in tandem with pianists Walter Norris, Paul Bley, Joachim Kuhn and Gerri Allan, as well as all the bass players throughout the years, for the most part Ornette’s brand of “free-bop” doesn’t really place much importance on harmony per se.
Nonetheless I do admire his seemingly never ending repository of lyrical melodies, most of which do just fine with little or no direct harmony. Over the years it intrigued me to imagine what would happen if I “loaned” harmony to some of the more likely material and arranged the freer music to fit my long standing group of twenty years which features the guitar in the person of Vic Juris.
A primary factor for me when considering what I call “repertoire” projects (as opposed to original material) is that I can learn something by immersing myself in another’s person’s music and life. After choosing material from Ornette’s vast catalogue and re-thinking the original recorded concepts, I focused on his improvising and found several recurring tendencies: tonally centered material for extended periods sprinkled by short chromatic excursions into neighboring key areas; triadic and close interval line construction with occasional use of wider intervals; often use of blues inflections if not actual blues licks per se; intense swinging eighth notes interspersed with non metrical fast multi-noted flurries; a basically legato flowing approach to articulation encompassing the full range of the alto saxophone with a very strong and focused tone. Finally, there is present a feeling of controlled abandonment which consistently underlies the group interaction surrounding Ornette as a soloist.
Above all as in any great music, it is the spirit that shines brightest. In Ornette’s music there is a joyful spirit which permeates throughout and explains why people love his art as they do. His music expresses an irrepressible joie de vivre, uplifting and mournful at the same time, playful and deadly serious-a full view of the human condition. With deep respect to a true individualist and master of his art, I hope you enjoy our Ornette Coleman voyage.

As a piano player and one who’s devoted to understanding the full harmonic palette of the instrument, it’s easy for me to nod along in agreement with what Lieb’s saying here. If you really dig the evolution of modern jazz harmony from Bud Powell to Bill Evans to Herbie Hancock to Richie Beirach, chances are you’re going to wrestle with Ornette’s music at some point or other, because, as Lieb notes, it really feels all the way on the opposite pole yet still manages to make such a bold statement.

To me it’s a little surprising to hear a player like Lieb express this feeling, for a couple reasons: 1) Given his past work with Beirach, I figured it was too obvious an idea that he’d have a hard time with Ornette – and usually, influence in jazz is not this easily traced. You’re much more likely to be surprised by a player’s influences in my experience (cf: Wynton Marsalis citing Booker Little).  2) The pianoless Elvin Jones records on which Lieb played in the early ’70s seem to me to be very much in the Coleman tradition. It would be interesting to hear Lieb’s thoughts on this early work.

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