Jazz Notes: Iconoclastic Jazz Master Ornette Coleman Receives a Rousing Tribute by Jazz at Lincoln Center
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, May 8, 2018
Ornette Coleman, who dared to step to the edge of jazz boundaries and break the rules in search of improvisational freedom with his free jazz, was once considered a renegade and outsider. In testament to his alto saxophone and composer genius, in 1959 his album The Shape of Jazz to Come proved to be a harbinger of what the music would turn into in the following decades and even become mainstream today.
Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra became a fan of Coleman’s idiosyncratic, melodically rich tunes, and testified to his impact on the jazz world with a concert in 2009 of his music arranged by different band members, including saxophonist Ted Nash. He developed a new arrangement for Ornette’s tune “Kaleidoscope,” first recorded on his 1961 album This Is Our Music. “We developed a lot of Ornette’s compositions from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” Nash says. “He came to a rehearsal and I was nervous when we did my arrangements of ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Una Muy Bonita.’ He came up to me later and said, ‘You can transcribe notes, but you cannot transcribe an environment.’ I didn’t know what he meant. Was it great, did I miss? It was like a jewel and only many years later did I come to a deeper understanding. What he was saying was people can copy notes verbatim and be technically correct but not be playing the spirit of a tune.”
Coleman in his metaphoric riddle was giving Nash his approval.
Coleman passed away three years ago, but his music has gained even more attention and love, which is why the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is revisiting the breadth of his career with Nash, a 20-year veteran of the big band, serving as the artistic director. There will two evenings of Ornette celebrations, Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 at Rose Theater. “We’ll be doing six or seven brand new arrangements of Ornette’s music,” he says. “We’ll be doing popular songs including ‘Free,’ ‘Peace,’ ‘Una Muy Bonita’ and ‘Lonely Woman,’ as well as several others, including ‘Honeymooners,’ ‘Feet Music,’ ‘What Reason Could I Give,’ and ‘Sleep Talking’ which from his last studio recording, Sound Grammar in 2006.”
A brief primer follows on Ornette Coleman and how he fits into jazz history. His controversial late ‘50s albums of free jazz—especially 1958’s Something Else and 1959’s The Shape of Jazz to Come—flew in the face of the prevalent jazz styles of bebop and hardbop. It was seen as a slam against the jazz status quo (even Miles Davis initially labeled his music as fraudulent). Live performances on both coasts were met with polar critiques ranging from genius to derision. Yet Coleman proved to be the bellwether of the next evolutionary stage of jazz. Even though he was the epitome of the avant-garde then, today his unpredictable music of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s sounds remarkably modern—especially since a plethora of musicians over the years have taken his lead and play music now that is more in sync with what was once considered to be so scornfully radical. He pioneered a highly melodic style that he called “harmolodic.”
He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1994 and a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007 for Sound Grammar. Thankfully, nearly 60 years later after he brought his new view on jazz to the fore, Coleman’s music teeming with melody still blows with the voice of provocative, unorthodox authority.
“When I first started playing saxophone,” says the 58-year-old Nash, “I was into Charlie Parker, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, but not so much Ornette. It wasn’t until I was in my forties to really listen to him. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to handle it before, but it was like I had discovered the Grand Canyon and began to explore.”
In 2011, Nash formed a piano-less quartet fashioned after Coleman’s favored band configuration. He performed with the group newly envisioned classics from the Coleman canon as well as new music inspired by him. He had created the band at the request of aspiring film director Douglas Chan for his Chaography: Variations on the Theme of Freedom where Nash appeared as an Ornette figure. The film was never finished, but Nash recorded his tunes and released them on the 2012 album The Creep.
So, with Ornette in his history, Nash proved to be the perfect artistic director of the “Celebrating Ornette Coleman” show. “While the jazz orchestra was originally formed as primarily a repertory big band, I’ve watched it grow,” says Nash. “Now we do new compositions and new arrangements. Early on Wynton let me do some arranging for the band, and he knew I could lead this event. We’re celebrating Ornette as a true American. He was like a folk musician who used folk, jazz and blues in his music over the years. He was the founder of free jazz that was based on intuition. He would let his bands improvise freely, but they always came back to his melodic themes. His music was at once primitive and sophisticated. He was an original.”
Nash, who scored a 2017 Best Large Jazz Ensemble Grammy for his Motéma Records album Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom, will return as a marquee player in the Jazz in the Chamber show on June 1-2 in The Appel Room with clarinetist Eddie Daniels and the Harlem Quartet. It will be an intimate bebop-to-classical chamber event. The show will feature new Nash compositions as well as his modern arrangements of classical pieces by Vivaldi, Bach and Ravel, and Daniels will be delivering new material including one piece from his new album Sound of Brazil, to be released on June 1. “Eddie is proficient in classical and jazz,” says Nash. “We’ll be combining those throughout the evening. Get ready for Mozart to be delivered as a samba.”
Cover: Ornette Coleman; courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center.