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In Writing

Ornette Coleman 1930–2015: Gareth Sager

June 2015

The Pop Group member joins our tribute to Ornette Coleman

"Playing In The Key Of The Unison"

I was taught classical piano from the age of five. At 13 I saw a picture of Andy Mackay with his saxophone on the inner sleeve of the first Roxy Music LP and was mightily impressed. So I went in search of a sax teacher and I found a certain Jack Fear, who told me that I had to learn clarinet first if I wanted to play jazz sax. However, he did teach me how to tap my foot in time (you are not allowed to tap your foot playing classical music) and that is where my training stopped. As Ornette may have said: "You've got to learn everything to unlearn it.”

I went straight to Unlearn.

My next encounter with the sax was when one of our Bristol circle, Mark Springer, started playing me modern jazz. Those new tones, timbres and rhythms were a massive revelation. The Pop Group was formed in 1977 and as we ripped through Coltrane, Miles, Cecil, Monk, Sun Ra and Ornette, we started seeing ways to blow our music out of the water.

Then Ornette’s album Dancing In Your Head appeared. While we loved it for its funky, electric looseness, we were almost equally into the cover of This Is Our Music. As a result of this cover – not The Velvet Underground – our bass player, Simon Underwood, took up wearing shades. Me, I loved the lightness of touch on The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century, and the way these guys could roll through the track “Lonely Women” or rock on tracks like “Ramblin’”. Ornette used his horn like a drum playing an endless melodic rhythm. It inspired The Pop Group’s track “Communicate”, basically a punk version of Ornette’s Prime Time band of the late 70s.

So, inspired by the new musical forms, I went on to form Rip Rig And Panic with a mission to open up the world of rock music to the wonders of improvised jazz. I reckoned a Han Bennink five minute slot before the 6 o'clock news would be a great antidote to Top Of The Pops.

Richard Cook, former editor of The Wire, gave Rip Rig great support and we did get to play with OC’s great sideman Don Cherry who told me a good story about playing with OC. They were preparing for a gig somewhere down south in the States when Ornette heard a load of noise outside the venue. A large angry crowd which had turned up to get their ‘free jazz’ were being told they had to pay for it!!!

Ornette Coleman stuck to his guns, delivering music to make us all more human, coming over like a lionheart with fingers of light. I was lucky to catch his last UK show in June 2009, playing with The Master Musicians Of Jajouka – music I love and most definitely the roots of Dancing In Your Head.

I’ll end with my favourite of Mr Coleman’s quotes: "It was when I found out that I could make mistakes that I knew I was onto something.”


As a Rip Rig & Panic fan from those days, Gareth, I'm glad you went on to 'unlearn' and unleash music in the (free) spirit of Roland and Ornette.

Mission accomplished, Gareth. It was through the records of The Pop Group, and even more so Rip Rig and Panic, that I as a teenager growing up in a little town outside of Ottawa, Canada started to look into names like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. That was an explosive and exciting time in music, when it seemed every other band was pushing at musical boundaries. Thanks to both of you for expanding mine.

Coleman learnt then 'unlearnt' that's why he was a genius - same as Coltrane , David , Mingus , Cecil Taylor. Gareth Sager , pop group just went straight to 'unlearn' and sounded more like a capt.beefheart tribute band

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