Thursday, 11 June 2015

Remembering Ornette Coleman

So, Ornette Coleman has died (here, here, here) – suddenly and unexpected it seems, in spite of his 85 years. You can read all about his fantastic importance to modern music, and the many players and turns of jazz that he inspired in the obituaries, and keep browsing here.

I bought my first Ornette record long before I knew anything about his legendary status in jazz - the Of Human Feelings album from 1979, featuring a pretty early version of the Prime Time band. I thought it was a fusion/jazzfunk group I hadn't heard before, the name of the front man vaguely familiar, so imagine my shock when the angularly crazy, indeed funky, but more than strangely so rythm, the almost naivistic repetitive melodies, the totally off the chart guitar of Bern Nix, and – on top – the most haunting sax sound, I'd ever heard at the time – not even 20 years of age. This is insane, I said to myself, you can't make music like this, but couldn't stop listening, and it opened my eyes and ears to a whole new universe of music.

A few years later, at the time writing reviews, reports and in depth articles for the Swedish jazz magazine, Orkester Journalen, I decided to do an extended piece on the whole harmolodics (Ornette's own theoretical conception about his music) scene of the 1980's – incl. also James Blood Ulmer, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and, of course, Ronald Shannon Jackson's bands. Bold as ever, I wrote (that means a letter written on paper, using a mechanical portable typewriter and sent by regular mail – what you did in those days) to Ornette – using an address provided by one of the main men at Down Beat (Art Lange or Nat Hentoff, I think), whom I also had written asking for it – telling him about the article, and asking him to do a telephone interview. Swiftly (meaning within a few weeks) he wrote back and suggested a date (in the middle of the night in Sweden), and the magazine editor set it up for me to do it from the small editorial office. I was extremely nervous, but Ornette picked up when I called at the agreed time and shocked me again – first by the sheer sound of his mellow, high-pitched voice but soon immensely more by his extremely sweet and generous treatment of someone whom I'm sure he recognised for just what it was: an overly enthusiastic rookie, blind to his own shortcomings. But he treated me as seriously as a scholar and answered all of my questions, some rather theoretical (I was in my start of taking academic philosophy seriously at the time), with the utmost sincerity, taking his time to elaborate complex answers. Then, at the end, I asked about the absence of extended improvisation in his later works, and he told me: well, these were studio-things I had heard, like rehearsals of a concept in its early stages of development, and that if I got to hear the band live now, I would get another picture. A few years later, Prime Time finally visited Stockholm for the first (and I think only) time, and boy was he right.This video is probably from that tour, or the one they did a year before hitting Stockholm:

Of course, as so many others, I also probed historically Ornette's enormous contribution to jazz and improvised music since more than 50 years. But in the end – today when I hear about his passing – what echoes inside of me is that voice on the phone so many years ago; it merges with the melody to Lonely Woman (the Ornette tune everyone knows, if one knows only one), and it tells me even today That – I'm – Worth – Something.

Thanks Ornette, for that and for everything else – thanks and peace!