From its inception, jazz has been associated with musical innovation. Ever since the juke joint cutting contests of the early 20th century encouraged players to compete for audience approval with surprising and unexpected riffs and rhythms, the music has carried the burden of making it new with refreshing panache and style. But for saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the adventure of revising previous genres and experimenting with sound has taken on a greater importance than for nearly any comparably important figure in the history of the music. No one, not even his celebrated contemporary John Coltrane, has done more to expand the sonic vocabulary of jazz or to extol the value of innovative thinking in the service of immediacy and communication. It’s Coleman’s peculiar combination of relentless searching for new sounds and total dedication to the primary task of accessing emotion that gives his music its inimitable profile. It’s not just that Coleman doesn’t sound like anyone else—it’s that he does it in order to discover the truth of his experience through his own journey.
While this questing intensity can already be felt on Change of the Century and The Shape of Jazz to Come, the classic albums he recorded for Atlantic in the late 1950s, it was not until Coleman convened a “double quartet” of musicians to record 1960’s epochal Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation that the degree of difference that his musical methods promised truly became apparent. Still an incredible listen in its 50th anniversary year, Free Jazz initiated its own musical genre and loosed a worldwide torrent of creativity that has barely abated half a century later. With eight players soloing continuously on two large pieces, each covering a full side of the LP, Free Jazz was a blast of modern art that rocked as many boats in the musical world as did the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock in the visual arts. In fact, the cover of Free Jazz depicted one of Pollock’s works, The White Light (1954), making the connection between New York-style “action painting” and the new music explicit.
When the 80-year-old Coleman comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall this week with his latest quartet, he will be celebrating more than 50 years of unstinting efforts on behalf of the outsiders in music. As much a visionary and seer as a bandleader, Coleman continues to lead the way toward new modes of freedom in the arts. I spoke to Coleman by phone last week from his loft in New York City.
The new quartet is anchored by your son Denardo on drums and two bass players. What is it about you and the bass? I’ve always liked how bass players are so interested in playing with other people. I think it’s because they make the notes that the others in the group then resolve. They get a lot of information back in the process. Everyone in the group responds to and completes their playing.
Is there some particular quality that you look for in the players you choose for your groups? I enjoy playing with anyone who can think about an idea. I don’t have any preconceptions about what the players I collaborate with should do. They can play what they want as long as what we are doing together makes progress and moves us all forward in the piece.
When you engage in collective improvisation, what are the criteria for a successful performance? It has to be true. When free improvisation is successful not only is it true, but it’s also real. It’s like you don’t have to think first to speak well. We are all made as humans with the ability to execute and to express our feelings through our emotions. I think it’s all different; the feeling of a human being is not that of a race, it’s of an individual. Emotions don’t have any race. You can’t take a quality of feeling and make it into something that comes up the same way every time, like one and one is two. It doesn’t work that way. What’s so amazing about life is that life does not have an ending, and if life doesn’t have an ending, it’s anywhere.
This method has set you apart from most of the other musicians in your field. Where did it come from originally? The way that I am has to do with my parents. They never tried to get me to do anything in particular; instead, they encouraged me to go out and do what I can do. Basically, they raised me to think not in terms of what is right and wrong for a particular person, but rather to concentrate only on what they could become, and on letting that happen in a way that’s true. Since I’ve got those things ingrained in me, I’ve realized that the more that I share them, and the more opportunities I create for others to share them, the freer I become.
The Ornette Coleman Quartet plays UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday, November 5, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.