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.