Mon, Jul 02, 2007 - Page 13 News List

'The style cannot compete with the idea'

Ornette Coleman didn't just change jazz, he's taken it on an astonishing ride that keeps getting wilder

By Andrew Purcell  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Ornette Coleman performs at the Skopje Jazz Festival in Skopje, Macedonia, last year. Coleman has been provoking controversy in the jazz world since the 1960s. His music is, if anything, more radical now.

PHOTO: AP

Ornette Coleman is a 77-year-old saxophonist who plays below, between and beyond the notes in search of pure feeling. He is Lou Reed's hero, and an artist too avant-garde even for Miles Davis. The songwriter and critic David Was calls him "the Samuel Beckett of jazz" - an apt description for a misunderstood titan, maligned for his originality and daring. Coleman has won the Pulitzer prize and influenced a generation of musicians. But some people still say he just plays out of tune.

The morning before meeting Coleman for the first time, I interview the film director Jonathan Demme, a renowned record collector. When we finish I tell him where I'm headed. His face opens like a flower. "Ornette is an inspirational artist and a beautiful man. Send him a hug from me. Tell him 'Jonathan Demme wants me to hug you.'"

Coleman lives on a noisy midtown Manhattan block. Put on Sound Grammar, last year's Pulitzer prize-winning live album, and you can hear New York in the dive-bombing bowed bass lines, the clattering drums and the dark blue bursts of his saxophone. In 1959, after watching a couple arguing, he wrote Lonely Woman - a beautiful, melancholy melody with a spare, helter-skelter accompaniment. In 2007, he writes music like the hubbub outside his window: urgent, big city exchanges, raised voices, mobile conversations overlapping and following their own logic.

He never stops creating, never falls back on standards and seldom plays what his audience wants to hear. His belief in improvisation is absolute.

Coleman wears high-waisted trousers with braces, a leather pork pie hat, a pinstriped shirt and a gold brooch in the shape of a treble clef. He's an old man, and can be forgetful, but he remains an engaging conversationalist who poses as many questions as he answers. "Do you need to know a note to have an idea?" he asks. "Do you have to think before you make a mistake? Is life a sound?" He is the antithesis of the soundbite-ready old pro.

It takes half an hour of earnest enquiry to get past the impenetrable theoretical system that underpins Coleman's composition, something he calls "harmolodics." Questions about his childhood in segregated 1930s Texas are diverted into a discussion of how "the name of the note doesn't tell you how to use the sound."

"B and C is a half step, right? But in the bass clef it's a whole step. That's crazy," he exhales, with wonder, "and it doesn't change the sound you're making. Do you understand what I'm saying?" I don't. The word harmolodics is a synthesis of harmony, movement and melody. It relates to the fixed tuning of piano, saxophone, French horn and clarinet, and no one fully understands it except Coleman himself.

Coleman can talk theory into the ground, but he is forever seeking to free himself from its constraints. "Rid yourself of repeating and rid yourself of style," he says. "Then you're free. I taught myself everything I know. I have written symphonies and all kinds of music, and no one has taught me."

Coleman's first saxophone was bought with money he had earned shining shoes. "I thought it was a toy and I played it the way I'm playing today," he says. "I didn't know you had to learn to play. I didn't know music was a style and that it had rules and stuff, I thought it was just sound. I thought you had to play to play, and I still think that."

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