by Phil Freeman
Ornette Coleman is obviously best known as a jazz musician. His 1959-61 quartet broke jazz wide open on albums like The Shape of Jazz to Come, This is Our Music, and Change of the Century, and he gave an entire genre a name with Free Jazz. Later albums like The Empty Foxhole, Broken Shadows, Science Fiction, Crisis and Ornette at 12 weren’t as transformative as his previous work—the boundaries of his style had been established, and he was now tweaking the details rather than upending things entirely—but they were every bit as emotionally potent and beautiful. His turn toward electric funk, which began in the mid ’70s and continued for 20 years, alienated almost as many of his fans as his first acoustic recordings had repelled jazz traditionalists, but there were still clearly audible connections to what had come before. His voice on the horn was still uniquely and unmistakably his own, no matter what kind of clatter and squall surrounded it.
But there’s another side of Ornette Coleman‘s music that has often gone overlooked. As early as 1962, and probably much earlier, he was composing for chamber ensembles and orchestras. And while there are relatively few recorded examples of this work, those that do exist are startling, and well worth exploring for what they reveal about his musical personality.
The earliest recorded example of Coleman’s non-jazz writing can be found on his first post-Atlantic Records album, Town Hall, 1962, released on the ESP-Disk’ label. Recorded in December 1962 but not released until January 1965, the bulk of the LP is taken up by a performance featuring his then-new trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett. They play three pieces—”Doughnut,” “Sadness,” and the 24-minute “The Ark.” Tucked at the end of Side One, though, is “Dedication to Poets & Writers,” a string quartet. It’s not that complicated a piece, to my ear. The main violin melody is quite dominant most of the time, and the phrases are not that different from things Coleman or Don Cherry would have played on their horns. There are times when things erupt into a simulation of chaos, and there’s a sharp, stabby passage that’ll perk your head up, but after a while it settles down and some almost Bartôk-like harmonies emerge.
Coleman basically disappeared between 1962 and 1965, but when he came back, he was on fire. Filmmaker Conrad Rooks hired him to score the film Chappaqua, and he combined the Izenzon-Moffett trio (and, on one track, Pharoah Sanders) with an orchestra, arranged and conducted by Joseph Tekula. Rooks wound up not using the music, but Columbia released it as a double LP of four side-long tracks. Chappaqua Suite, the title given to the work, is pretty fascinating to listen to. Sometimes it sounds like the trio is doing their thing—Moffett in particular is going wild—while the orchestra tunes up behind them. At other times, the flutes and other reeds seem to be attempting to keep up with Ornette, ending up sounding like exhausted songbirds. And other times, the orchestra surges in behind the trio to provide accents at the end of a line.
That same year, Coleman, Izenzon and Moffett traveled to England for a concert, which was recorded and released by the Polydor label as An Evening with Ornette Coleman. Before the trio’s performance, though, a new composition was premiered: “Sounds and Forms for Wind Quintet.” He’d only written it to please the British Musicians’ Union, which demanded a piece of concert music in exchange for authorizing a performance by foreign musicians. The group playing the piece, the Virtuoso Ensemble, featured bassoon, clarinet, flute, French horn, and oboe. Over the course of 16 minutes, “Sounds and Forms” travels through 10 movements, some of which are little more than ascending and descending scalar patterns, layered to create harmony. Others, though, have a fascinatingly conversational quality, as though one or two people are attempting to get a message across as others murmur interjections. In the concert program, Coleman described the piece as “a combination of diatonic and atonal intervals that creates a form out of a sound and a sound out of a form in which the five instruments blend, not by coming together, but by moving in opposing directions.” That about sums it up, but gives little indication of the piece’s quality—while sounding nothing like his jazz work, it’s a fascinating extended fanfare before the main show.
Coleman re-recorded the piece, using the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet, for the 1967 album The Music of Ornette Coleman, his sole release on RCA. This version is longer—21 minutes—and its title has been flipped; it’s now called “Forms and Sounds.” It’s also radically different for one major reason: he’s playing, too. Coleman has written interludes for himself, which he plays on trumpet in between each of the 10 movements. Some are brief scribbling phrases, while others are long fanfares. The call and response between the quintet and the trumpet is fascinating, because their playing is relatively gentle, while his is fierce and almost shrill. The other two pieces on The Music of Ornette Coleman, the nearly-20-minute “Saints and Soldiers” and the three-minute “Space Flight,” are performed by the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia String Quartet. His string quartet writing had grown more complex since the Town Hall performance—he sets the two violins up in a way that blurs the line between harmony and conflict, while the viola and cello are doing their own thing in the background. As with “Dedication to Poets & Writers,” there are occasional outbursts, but the bulk of “Saints and Soldiers” is calm verging on mournful. “Space Flight,” by contrast, is fast and twitchy, harsh and stabby.
Ornette Coleman‘s most famous classical composition, Skies of America, was recorded for Columbia in 1972. The original plan was to do something not unlike the Chappaqua score, and pair his group with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Measham. However, the British Musicians’ Union objected (again), and he was forced to reshape what had been written as a concerto grosso into a symphony, and leave his band out of it. He does, however, appear himself on several tracks.
The music Coleman wrote for the LSO is lush and often quite beautiful. The piece is broken into 21 tracks, the longest of which, “Love Life,” is 4:35, and the shortest of which, “The New Anthem,” lasts just 31 seconds, but there are no breaks between the sections; it’s clearly meant to be heard as a single work. On “The Good Life,” we hear one of his jazz melodies, instantly recognizable, essayed by the orchestra—first just the strings and percussion, then the whole ensemble in a mad thundering rush. It’s not until the 11th track, “The Artist in America,” which closed Side One of the original LP, that Coleman himself shows up; when he does, he’s blowing lightning-fast blues phrases in his inimitable style over a drum kit and orchestral percussion, as the strings come in and out, jabbing and searing the air. “Place in Space,” early in the piece’s second half, is another highlight. The strings fly around like leaves in a storm, as the brass rises up to sing and the drums and percussion rumble like underwater explosions.
Ornette Coleman‘s jazz compositions all have a vibrant energy that makes them feel like the instantaneous product of his mind, like there’s no intermediary between thought and note. His chamber and orchestral works, by contrast, are obviously thoroughly composed. And yet, he manages to effectively recruit the musicians to his cause; players who are working from a score sheet play as though they are improvising together. It’s an astonishing achievement.
Stream Skies of America: