Jazz great Ornette Coleman passed away yesterday (June 12, 2015) at the age of 85. I only heard him live once, at Carnegie Hall, but I’ll never forget the 100% effort he put into his music. He had the kind of presence that makes me want to be the best musician I myself can be.
If you aren’t yet familiar with Ornette’s music, a good place to start is “Peace” from his 1959 album The Shape of Jazz To Come. (And yes, he was “Ornette” before Adele was “Adele” or many of today’s one-namers were even born!)
Many of the tributes to Coleman will focus on his “free jazz” innovations and how he liberated jazz from repeating chord progressions while leading the avante garde movement. But I think his biggest, most influential contribution to the music involved his phrasing. When he was coming up in the early-mid 1950’s, a lot of bebop players were just stringing together a lot of 8th note lines. Much of bebop had become stale. The truly creative jazz musicians were finding various ways to keep the music fresh. One way Ornette did this was by doing away with preset chord progressions. He and his band literally made up the harmonic journey as each solo unfolded. This is what influenced the avante garde movement most directly.
But a much more influential aspect of Ornette’s playing was his loose, flexible approach to phrasing. Listen to “Peace” with this in mind. It’s astonishing how every phrase he improvises is new, vibrant, and in-the-moment. This way of phrasing influenced jazz musicians across the board, not just the free jazzers.
Listen to pianist Keith Jarrett, who is a huge Ornette Coleman fan. Ornette’s sense of phrasing is evident in almost every solo that Jarrett plays. And Jarrett in turn has influenced much of the young generation of jazz musicians.
It’s true that much of Ornette’s music is extreme and maybe he isn’t listened to as much as, say, Sonny Rollins. But listening to “Peace” as I prepared to write this blog post reminded me just how much we all owe to him whether we know it or not. Indeed, Ornette Coleman will be influencing the shape of jazz for many years to come.
Here’s a listening exercise that will teach you more about jazz than perhaps any other single source of instruction. In fact, it’s a big part of how all the great players themselves learned!
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