Freed Jazz

The Philosopher King Brings Himself to It

On a recent Thursday morning, I visited the recording studio and rehearsal space Ornette Coleman has created in a building at 125th Street and Park. Fifteen mostly young musicians were coming to grips with Coleman's "La Statue," subtitled "The Country that gave the FREEDOM Symbol to America." Commissioned in 1989 for Bastille Day and performed several times in Europe by Ensemble Moderne, it will receive its American debut Thursday night, June 1, at the Battery Park kickoff to the New York Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival. On the same program, Coleman will perform in and present new work composed for the Global Expressions Project—with Charnett Moffett, Denardo Coleman, and Asian musicians, including Badal Roy—and the immortal trio with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.

The last time Coleman presented a triptych in New York was four years ago at Lincoln Center, and that was spread over as many nights. His erratic performing schedule over the past 40 years has had the benefit of keeping the ardor of his fans at a constant low flame. When a fix is in the offing, the flame erupts, and if the fix includes a reunion with Haden and Higgins, time stops. You will never get to see Oliver and Armstrong at Lincoln Gardens or Ellington at the Cotton Club, or Parker and Gillespie on 52nd Street, or Brown and Roach in concert; Coleman, Haden, and Higgins, however, live and breathe. Did I mention that this concert is an Event? Michael Dorf must be praying everything will go off without a hitch despite the broken toe Ornette recently suffered, in which case we can happily concede that he is a true showman—the Florenz Ziegfeld of jazz.

But up on 125th Street, the rehearsal was moving forward in fits and starts, mostly fits. All the musicians present, excepting trumpeter Lew Soloff and percussionist Greg Bandian, had been recruited from the classical world by violinist and conductor Tom Chiu, and they needed to talk the piece through. "La Statue" belongs to that part of Coleman's oeuvre you might call classical but I call notated. As with his woodwind octet and symphony, every note is written—complete with bowing markingsfor the strings. Yet the 20-piece orchestra(five members were absent), which includesa double string quartet, will appear as the Harmolodic Chamber Ensemble, and you know what that means. Well, actually you probably don't, and neither did most of the musicians, which is why they were talking so much. One violinist asked, "What style do we play?" Tom Chiu answered, "Pretty much your own style. You have to bring yourself to it."

Harmolodic Heaven, circa 1979
photo: Elena Carminati
Harmolodic Heaven, circa 1979

Coleman, the philosopher king of American music, could not attend the rehearsal because of his toe. A harmolodic pep talk would have been something to hear. The main challenge posed by the piece is this: It consists mostly of solos that, while notated, do not have to be—and, preferably, ought not to be—played literally. That does not mean a musician can ignore a passage and substitute a B-flat blues. But it does mean walking an adventurous line between discipline and freedom. The conundrum is not, from a jazz perspective, as radical as it may seem. The beauty of Coleman's music has always been that it honors instinct before theory. In conventional jazz, where harmony, movement, and melody are not fused into a single term, the player has to walk a similar line—it's called chord changes.

Coleman is not opposed to musical conventions, and has used a lot of them since the days of Free Jazz. For one noteworthy example, "La Statue" has time signatures; it begins in 12/8, and all the passages I heard were pretty comfortably parsed in multiples of four. But he draws the line at predetermined chord changes—he would rather musicians rely on his score than hazard the clichés lurking in a standard progression, although if he wrote it the progression wouldn't be standard. At least I assume he feels that way. Thinking through harmolodics is a bit like playing them; you have to bring yourself to it. Coleman will presently finish his book on the subject, which will make everything crystal, but for now we can say with some confidence that no one has more original and interesting ways to break down the barriers between written and improvised music. His soloists, in "La Statue," can change a note, reconfigure a phrase, alter rhythm, range, even the key—or not.

It occurs to me that maybe we have misread the phrase "free jazz," and that "free" isn't an adjective, after all, but a verb—as in Free Mandela or Free the Voice of E-Mail Spies. Coleman has certainly helped to do that, freeing it to be minimally or maximally governed by compositional dicta. There was not one passage during the rehearsal that did not suggest his particular jazz pedigree, with its high voicings, timpani rhythms, and melding of keys into a harmonic palette as broad as the skies of America. Whether it was clarinetist Dave Morgan practicing an eight-note phrase or the entire ensemble falling into an episode welded to a timpani bounce, the result was pure Coleman. At one point, he scores the winds in fourths and fifths and the strings in seconds and minor seconds; he uses harmonic grinds throughout, and the tonal centers are almost invariably ambiguous. Yet what power they convey. The climax is astounding, a harmolodic jig built entirely on quadruplets—a spare, mostly quarter-note figure propelled furiously into rapid-fire eighth and sixteenth notes, all built on a four-note foundation, and finally lifting off like a rocket. After the group played the final section, it cheered itself. The statue that inspired the piece will be visible behind the musicians at Battery Park.

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