By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by David Gahr
Ralph Ellison’s novelistic Invisible Man; Albert Ayler’s saxophonic “Spirits” and “Ghosts”; Ornette Coleman’s “Angel Voice,” “The Disguise” and “Invisible” — all speak of communication from unseen sources best not ignored.
Those three Coleman titles all come from his 1958 debut recording, Something Else!, in which the L.A.-via-Texas alto saxist stepped out of the shadows to present concepts he later started to group under the name harmolodics — a system whose implications still haven’t been widely absorbed. With its rejection of traditional hierarchies in favor of equality, freedom and interaction, harmolodics has social and intellectual implications as well as musical ones. “Music has no prejudice,” he told me in 1996. “It’s a sound; there’s no anti-sound.”
Also in this issue: Read this week's interview with Charlie Haden
Like the magicians and fakirs who fascinate him, Ornette Coleman periodically appears and disappears, and his new quartet’s Disney Hall show Friday on a bill with the ensemble of his old bassist Charlie Haden marks his first L.A. performance in over a decade. That last gig, in 1990 at the Orpheum, was supposed to be a reunion with the classic quartet that shocked New York in late 1959, but trumpeter Don Cherry was ailing and had to withdraw — he died in 1995. Ed Blackwell, who alternated with Billy Higgins as the original quartet’s drummer, passed in October 1992; Higgins, who swung the trio that night, followed Blackwell and Cherry down the river in 2001, leaving Coleman (long an NYC resident) and Haden (based at CalArts) as the rarely conjoined remnant.
Coleman didn’t vanish only from Los Angeles; he has released no new music since 1997’s Colors, an album of ’96 duets with pianist Joachim Kühn. But according to his son and longtime drummer, Denardo Coleman, he has never stopped filling reams and even rooms with compositions; Denardo figures that the new band, which features Denardo plus bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, has worked out more than 100 pieces. Coleman is in one of his visible stretches; at 74, he has logged numerous concerts in 2004, and in October received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts from the hands of presenter Wynton Marsalis (Coleman’s about the only avant-gardian Marsalis can tolerate) at a ceremony attended by fellow out-musicians such as Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins — and Lou Reed, on whose Edgar Allan Poe tribute album the harmolodian guested/ghosted last year.
With Ornette unavailable to talk, I was glad to gain some perspective by telephone from Denardo Coleman, truly a unique drummer who can act as both a groove powerhouse and an intricate rhythmic conceptualist. He answered the phone “Harmolodics” before bemoaning the Yankees’ playoff collapse, which had been finalized the day before. Really, though, he’s a Mets fan.L.A. WEEKLY: You’ll be playing a lot of new stuff?
DENARDO COLEMAN: Yeah, because what Ornette likes to do is write new pieces for every concert. Sometimes he writes a whole program.
With 100 new tunes, how do you keep them all in your head?
Well, when you rehearse for 12 hours, you can remember ’em. [He laughs.] We do marathon rehearsals. The thing about it is, Ornette is in such good shape — we’re all dropping off like flies, and he’s going strong. We put up the white flag! It’s like that in the concerts as well.
This two-bass small-group format is great, but hardly anyone outside of Bill Dixon uses it.
Tony Falanga plays in the St. Luke’s Orchestra as well as being a jazz player, so he plays a lot with the bow. It’s a good contrast with Greg Cohen, who is more finger-style. All the time we spent working on the music has given everybody a space and a united sound. The band is sounding really fantastic, and my father is playing better than ever.
Your father gave you your first set of drums at age 6, and you made your first album with him, in a trio with Charlie Haden, in 1966, at age 10. As a musician, how do you find your relationship with Ornette has changed?
It hasn’t changed a whole lot. ’Cause the way he talks about music today is how he talked about it back then. Hopefully I’ve improved a little.
How does he communicate his ideas to his musicians?
He’ll say, “Okay, that might’ve been a minor third, but if you thought about it coming from this other key, it would’ve been a dominant seventh. If it was a dominant seventh, then it would’ve gone really nicely into this other thing.” He’ll break it down theoretically, and then he’ll play it. So in that way he’s like a scientist — you know, like breaking down the genetic codes.
Many people would be surprised by that. He has a reputation for being a “free” musician, and the music sounds so natural.