"If we could start with universe, we would automatically avoid leaving out any strategically critical variables."
No one since Charlie Parker has built on what already existed and totally transformed that music as powerfully as Ornette Coleman. The Ft Worth, Texas, native summed up his revolutionary philosophy thus: "If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence, I might as well write out my solo." Because his compositions do not have chord changes, variable pitch, or asymmetrical phrases, they are free to transfer the listener's attention from a dominant soloist to collective improvisation. Because his groups based their solos on melody rather than on chord changes, Coleman referred to this blend of harmony, melody and motion as "harmolodics." It was in 1959 that Coleman assembled a double quartet that included Don Cherry on trumpet, Ed Blackwell on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. The result was a thirty-six minute album on Atlantic called Free Jazz. The album was more liberated from musical convention than anything ever recorded to that point. As Len Lyons and Don Perlo describe it, "The music is based on a given tonal center, around which collective playing alternates with solo performances." Another way to describe it is divinely sublime noise.
Almost everything Coleman did for Atlantic is stunning, changing the way the world understood music. In addition to Free Jazz, his 1959-1961 period also created Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and This is Our Music.
Revolutionary director Shirley Clarke spends little time on Coleman's classic period and instead intersperses his childhood in Ft Worth with a wild presentation of the saxophonist's symphonic hook up in The Skies of America. Risks abound when pairing a wild talent documentarian such as Clarke with a massive creative force such as Coleman. Shirley is relatively careful in not letting the movie be about the making of the movie rather than about the subject matter, although the rhythmic jump cuts and deliberate scene duplications don't necessarily add much value to the process. What makes the Ornette: Made in America (1985) work so well as a vehicle to tell the story is her use of interviews. Denardo Coleman, son of the master, proves himself to be more than just another brilliant rhythm man. He tells stories of his father well, stories that matter, stories that reinforce the mutual respect we see between the two men.
One of my personal favorite segments of the film occurs when a Coleman critic-advocates talks about watching Ornette play just like Charlie Parker, almost as if to prove that he actually could make music with structure and finesse when he chose to do so.
We also meet poet Jayne Cortez, ex-wife of Ornette, as well as writer William Burroughs and composer George Russell. But it is Coleman himself who we came to see and it is Coleman who tells the best stories of all, whether remembering how when another Ft Worth sax man, King Curtis, hit the big time, the two of them took a ride in the latter's limo, or what it was like being a child in a house just a few feet from the heavily-trafficked railroad tracks.
This is a good movie and a very accessible introduction to the life and work of a complicated genius.