The Wire

In Writing

Ornette Coleman 1930–2015: Robert Wyatt

June 2015

As part of our online tribute to Ornette Coleman, who died on 11 June, Robert Wyatt explains why he loves the saxophonist’s earliest recordings so much

To begin at the available beginning. Ornette Coleman live at the Hillcrest Club, October 1958. On piano: Paul Bley (which may explain what Carla was doing there, recording it). Already, their take on a standard, the Don Cherry feature “How Deep Is The Ocean”, is stretched beyond its bounds. Like Ornette's later recorded “Embraceable You”, it is a totally fresh take – as far from the subject matter as the cubist portraits by Picasso. Similarly true to their emotional source, though.

Musicians can and maybe must discard their earlier attempts. We, listening to the preserved imprints, are under no such obligation. (I’m actually very grateful to hear what Paul Bley was already up to at that time, in that context.) And I find Ornette's earliest recordings so moving. His voice is immediately unique, as if he were the last surviving speaker of an ancient language. So the musicians he works with are naturally encouraged to find their own uniqueness. The Hillcrest recording begins with a lengthy, barnstorming… “Klactoveesedstene”! A Charlie Parker tune, tricky even by the composer's standards. The group sails through the tune itself with a deftness that should silence any sceptic who doubts their grasp of the idiom they inherited.

I only met Ornette Coleman a couple of times – what a gent. Did he ever raise his speaking voice in anger? It's hard to imagine. What I remember is his (often mentioned) amused but welcoming Old World courtesy. (He was, by the way, as is the wonderful Archie Shepp, a very snappy dresser. Just see the photographs: no shabby chic for Ornette!)

But why do I love Ornette Coleman quite so much? Well, I’ll leave it to others to celebrate his significance to subsequent explorers of the freedom principle. What has always warmed my heart, in the end, has little to do with his influence on younger improvisors. It is the timeless vocal beauty of the actual sequences of notes and phrases he could come up with, and the feeling of pure living joy of playing they can communicate.

Ornette dead? The way I hear it, Ornette's heartbeat's as alive, in the ether, as it ever was.

Comments

and the strength of his tone, which carried the emotion through the phrases

Lovely tribute, couldn't agree more.

Just about perfect, Robert, "timeless vocal beauty"; Ornette and Robert both fit that description!
Ornette: even more original than his name!

The energy and power in Ornette Colemans music makes most music made today seem pale or weak.

Steve Lacy on Ornette Coleman:

He 'is the only young saxophone player who seems to be trying for a conversational style of playing and is the only one I have heard who is exploring the potentialities of real human expression'. (1959)

'Ornette showed us certain things that were fundamental: space, time, how to treat time in space and space in time, that is to treat the material like something malleable, not like something predetermined.' (1987)

(From 'Steve Lacy: Conversations' edited by Jason Weiss).

Steve Lacy on Ornette Coleman:

He 'is the only young saxophone player who seems to be trying for a conversational style of playing and is the only one I have heard who is exploring the potentialities of real human expression'. (1959)

'Ornette showed us certain things that were fundamental: space, time, how to treat time in space and space in time, that is to treat the material like something malleable, not like something predetermined.' (1987)

(From 'Steve Lacy: Conversations' edited by Jason Weiss).

WHAT IS THE THERE?

The storm and thunder
had moved east.
The day was nowhere

and I couldn’t
get there
by word or need.

The shape of things
already come
hung there.

What is free?
Is it made
or found?

Is the being
together in air
without feathers,

a multiple hearted
beast beating
the atmosphere,

every note
the tonic
note or not.

I got my alto out
put on Body Meta
and joined in.

The invitation
is forever
there.

(upon the death of Ornette Coleman)
Sargent
11 June 2015

Thanks to Robert Wyatt. I couldn't agree more.

Ornette Coleman never lost that human quality, he always moved me, easily one of the most personal and original saxophone voices.

Mr Wy. We didn't have time to speak about Ornette as your focus lately is earlier jazz, but maybe we will next time. The big thing, that you mention, is that 'freedom principle' - that music could be expressed in any way, by any means, not that it would all be good music mind, but the principle led to people recording sounds and beating on things and using feedback and....

Zaph Mann - The In Memory Of John Peel Show

Footnote. Largely ignored, but consistently brilliant is David Ornette Cherry, Don's son, named after the great one, for those who don't know.

Leave a comment

Pseudonyms welcome.

Used to link to you.