Freedom Rides Again

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

From past issues: Read a 1989 cover story on Ornette Coleman Read a 1996 interview with Ornette Coleman Read a 1991 interview with Charlie Haden Read a 1991 blindfold test 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.

His method has the effect of not only giving you information, but then maybe taking you out of the preconceived zone that you might be in, so that the music becomes even more natural.

Does he write things out?

Oh yeah. Sometimes he’ll get a manuscript book for each musician, and write various things in it — exercises or . . . [He hesitates here, as if exercise, like style, might be a word Ornette doesn’t care for.] It would be kind of like laying out a natural progression of examples. One might have to do with dealing with a key or dealing with chords. My father loves to go through, looking at these various examples, how you can really look at the notes differently, and the combination of notes differently. It’s almost like language [Ornette’s 1987 album was called In All Languages], in the sense that even though you may see a word on paper, it could be used in so many different ways depending on the context, or how it’s being used in terms of the inflection. So all of a sudden, you may have a sentence that takes the passage it came from into a whole different place. He opens you up to expanding not only your vocabulary but also what you can hear.

Sounds like Derrida’s deconstruction — kind of difficult. How long does it take a musician to get spontaneous with the theory?

It doesn’t take that long. Because if you get with him one time, he will reveal something that starts to open up a door that you didn’t realize was there. Just that revelation breaks everything down for you, breaks the lock. Then how far you take it, that’s a different matter.

You yourself must have a special rapport with him.

From playing together for so long — it’s fluid, in terms of having ideas and being able to hear what he’s doing and pick up on it pretty quickly.

You’re still having fun with it, and you have little need to perform with other musicians.

I’ve been spoiled. There aren’t too many other situations like this, where you’re encouraged to have this kind of freedom, yet you’re expressing a complete musical statement on a really high level. A lot of times, when I’m playing other things, I can’t get back to a conventional place.

You don’t get out here often, but you must have memories.

I have a lot of memories of Los Angeles — I had my early childhood out there. [His mother, with whom he also performs, is poet Jane Cortez.] Family and friends and old neighborhoods, and there’s a feeling that I get when I come back there that’s real nostalgic. So it’s nice to go back there and play, because often your friends or family don’t necessarily see what you’re doing.

Any particular plans?

Aside from gettin’ a good Fatburger . . .

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