Almost 50 years ago, Ornette Coleman recorded his major-label debut, The Shape of Jazz to Come, which came on the heels of two fine, though relatively obscure, independent releases. The saxophonist's brazen proclamation — and unique music — put the jazz world on notice. And while history has borne out the legitimacy of Coleman's claim, his songs still often go unheard.
Of course, this makes little sense. In 2007, Coleman's music is clearly accessible, a dynamic combination of exquisite ballads and bold, sometimes brash, wilder explorations. Unlike Cecil Taylor, a kindred free-jazz innovator whose genius lies in conjuring great sonic storms, Coleman has long focused on the power of the tune. Yet his postmodern (i.e., inclusive) approach to composition and improvisation upends mainstream aesthetics. This is why he's often been forced to go the DIY route in recording and performing. It's also why his prophetic statement was — and still is — spot-on.
"Music will be a lot freer," Coleman said in the album's liner notes. "The pattern for a tune, for instance, will be forgotten and the tune itself will be the pattern." His idea, often referred to as harmolodics, is simply to allow the song, the melody as written, to be a launching pad for endless discovery of the very same song. It's about re-creating in every performance, in the moment of the music-making, the original act of composition. It's about opening up the potential for magical mixes of melody, harmony, timbre, and rhythm that wouldn't otherwise come to be. This visionary notion a half-century ago is now common practice among today's leading-edge improviser-composers regardless of genre, from the likes of hip-hop artist DJ Spooky, ska rockers Fishbone, and avant-garde pianist Aki Takase, whose exuberant Ornette Coleman Anthology with saxophonist and clarinetist Silke Eberhard testifies that Coleman's concept not only endures but thrives.
Coleman continues to develop the shape of future jazz as well. Last year's Grammy-nominated Sound Grammar — his first release in a decade, featuring his son, drummer Denardo Coleman, and bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga (Ornette plays sax, violin, and trumpet) — is irrepressibly alive. It's polychromatic and kaleidoscopic, vibrant with growth, movement, and change. Of particular note is "Turnaround," a rerecording of "Turnabout" from his 1959 album Tomorrow Is the Question! The integrity of the tune's angular, Thelonious Monk–like bounce remains the same as the original, but its fresh, roving character and curious dual-bass counterpoint make it sound almost brand-new, which is precisely what jazzheads demand.
Hardcore enthusiasts rightly place Coleman on Mount Olympus beside fellow postwar gods like Monk, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane, each of whom also prophesied the path forward. But these legendary artists are dead, which in the backward-looking way of the jazz status quo makes them safe to deify. Coleman, on the other hand, is life writ large.
At 77, the saxophonist still performs all over the planet, though rarely in the United States. In this country, industry support is limited, even though Coleman has received the highest laurels, such as a MacArthur "Genius" grant and, more recently, a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. A few relatively broad-minded U.S. festivals, such as SFJAZZ and Bonnaroo, have commissioned his live appearances, and popular players like Joshua Redman dip into the Coleman songbook on occasion. But the major labels won't produce his work — Sound Grammar was self-released — and jazz radio rarely gives him airtime. Although many casual fans don't know the Ornette Coleman name, his influence is undeniable as his legacy lives on.