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Ornette Coleman interview, 1996

What is reality? One ’60s sci-fi story speculated that long ago the world actually was flat, and that the seat of human reason actually was the heart, not the brain. The story wondered if pi at one time actually was 3.1, as some old texts say, not 3.14159 etc. You could come closer than that with a piece of string, the theory went, yet the ancients used the ratio to build large edifices with virtually no error.

It has to do with learning, with perception. If you’re conditioned to see something, you see it, and it’s real to you whether or not it exists, a word drawn from Greek roots meaning to "stand outside."

Also in this issue:
Read this week's interview with Denardo Coleman
Read this week's interview with Charlie Haden

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

Sometimes it seems that Ornette Coleman perceives the world differently from the rest of us. Maybe he didn’t internalize some of his conditioning; maybe he sees more accurately. Since the ’50s, his perceptions have led him to create music different from anyone else’s, music without chord changes, without harmonic rules, without hierarchies. When he talks about it, he uses terms more commonly associated with human relationships than with musical styles, and he’s not being metaphorical. He thinks of his instrument (alto sax, trumpet and violin) as only one of the voices in his music’s conversation, and considers its role less important than his role as a composer. And his definition of a composer isn’t the usual one: he doesn’t make structures to set limits, he makes rooms where people can meet.

Coleman calls his approach harmolodics: "a theory, not a style." But it’s not even a theory, really, it’s more of a philosophy, emphasizing equality of voices, freedom, spontaneity and participation -- not just for the musicians, for the audience, too.

Though Coleman’s doors are always open, not everyone is inclined to walk in. In the beginning, his music was called noise. The radical turn jazz took in the ’60s, inspired largely by Coleman’s innovations, chafed beboppers and swing devotees alike. Throughout his career, frequent changes in his sound, from quasi-bop to total freedom to chamber music to symphony to electric double quartet, have made it hard for him to build a wide following. His relations with record labels have been brief and stormy, so there have been long spells with no "product."

Now is a period of high visibility. Late last year, Coleman and his electric Prime Time band shattered a seven-year silence with Tone Dialing, a chaotic, energized portrait of polyglot modern America. The new release is Sound Museum, a collection of new and used Coleman tunes performed by an acoustic quartet in two different versions on two separate albums. And in the symphonic arena, it’s not hard to imagine why the French government commissioned Coleman to write a piece for chamber orchestra celebrating the French Revolution; it is slated to receive its first American performance at New York’s Lincoln Center (without the agency of Wynton Marsalis) in December.

***

Speaking quietly, unassertively, with a slight lisp, Coleman doesn’t sound like a revolutionary or a confrontational artist, and he doesn’t identify with the dogmatism those labels imply. "I don’t want to monitor, or be like the police," he says on the phone from the New York office of his own Harmolodic Records. "I’m only trying to say that whatever you like about the things you care about, you can participate in it. I try to inspire people to participate in sound, in many ways -- mentally, emotionally, psychically, physically."

One way he does that is through multimedia spectacle, an angle he first explored in the ’80s in collaboration with Houston’s Carnival of Dreams arts facility. A 1993 San Francisco show, which went virtually unreported due to a regional newspaper strike, found his two bands sharing the stage with a poet, a light show and skin-piercing guru Fakir Mustafar. Mustafar pierced himself with long needles through the nose, cheeks and chest, and presided over a ritual in which he skewered three nearly naked young people (two women and a man) through the skin of the upper breast, and presided over a dance in which they twirled about in metal collars and heavy-duty chains. The audience was polarized: many fled the arena in disgust; others thought the young people were being exploited; others were riveted.

Coleman says he is fascinated with the idea of using body and mind together to defeat pain. "I read a lot of books on mental physics. And I read this book on a tribe of people that were somewhere between Thailand and Cambodia. They had a religion where they would get in a state where they could pray, and then feel so complete that they could pierce themselves and walk on hot coals, and not one part of their body would be harmed, and their spiritual consciousness would be in a high state. And I said to myself, Wouldn’t this be fantastic if I could find such a person that could do this, and have them on the same bill with us, and see if that consciousness would have the same effect on his audience? And I tell you, it was really unbelievable."

It’s not hard to understand why Coleman would be interested in transcending pain, or why he would find dancing in irons an apt metaphor. Still, the sensationalism got some swords pointed his way. People don’t expect this kind of thing from a musician. But Coleman isn’t just a musician.

The San Francisco show was remarkable in another respect: it marked a reconciliation of Coleman with keyboards. "I didn’t like the piano, because it was in the way," he says. "I just hadn’t found anybody that could play harmolodically." Coleman hadn’t recorded with a pianist since he used Walter Norris on his first studio album in 1958. But this night he broke out in a big way: Dave Bryant playing electric keyboards with Prime Time, and pianist Geri Allen featured in his acoustic quartet with Charnett Moffett on bass and his son and longtime collaborator, Denardo Coleman, on drums.

The appearance of Allen, who also plays on Sound Museum, was a special charge. At 39, she is a superb jazz artist in her own right, blending technical mastery, rhythmic acuity and intellectual fire. She had teamed for a number of projects with Charlie Haden, Coleman’s perennial first choice of bassists, and kept prodding Haden to boost her with Ornette.

When Coleman finally took the plunge, the match-up was obviously correct. Allen is often the most involving facet of Sound Museum’s gestalt, whether spreading out a delicate carpet, overlayering dense patterns or executing perfect rapid unisons. And she never "gets in the way."

***

It’s not an easy balance to strike, this harmolodic harmony. "The most peaceful part of being complete in any environment," says Coleman, "is when you feel at ease without fear, loneliness, need and want, where it has to do with your mentality and most of all the consciousness of your behavior."

An ambitious goal, and highly democratic. Coleman disdains hierarchies, and he has no use for categories. "The class style, which is the monarchy system in sound -- I haven’t wanted to feed that image. To me, all of those different monarchs are anti-social, and I don’t want to add to that. I found people that were interested in things that I could write, and they didn’t have to worry about a category."

Hamolodics makes everything personal; the musicians are allowed to search for "their own hidden notes," as Coleman calls them. While most forms stick to a set 12 tones, he says, interpretation is up to the individual. "The notes are the same, but your brain is constantly defining what these notes are recalling to you."

This notion of musical freedom plainly arises from a search for personal freedom. "I was born in the South, and I learned long ago that the black person has not yet been able to use the full potential of his brain and of his inner being. I had been in an environment where a person who knew what I knew didn’t even have an opportunity. I wasn’t angry or disappointed, I was just like anyone else that’s exploited. And in some ways, that’s done now with all races."

Along with the freedom comes the necessity to listen, to be aware of your environment. On the surface, Coleman’s music can seem random, but playing it requires training and discipline. At its best, it reaches unexpected convergences of dissimilar elements, becoming a model for an ideal alternate reality. It’s so ambitious a concept that its most successful moments can seem metaphysical, though Coleman sees the process as entirely natural -- arriving at a natural state just requires dumping some preconceived baggage, that’s all.

Still, Coleman is interested in magic. "I was in Paris last year, and I saw where David Copperfield was doing a show, and I went there to see what he was doing with magic, to see if I wanted to get involved with it, with other musicians. And he was a very fantastic magician -- I just thought that his show was leaning more toward, ‘You sit here and you watch me,’ and so I couldn’t figure out how someone could participate in his show without having to take a direction from what he was doing. So I felt that it was just his way of putting himself in a position of what they call a successful performer. But I still believe that magic is really illusions. I guess it means to make something unseen seen, or to make something seen disappear." And Coleman’s main concern is reality.

Maybe that’s why Coleman left Los Angeles back in 1960. "I was in California 10 years before I made a record," he says. After all the punishment and neglect, he got a band and a record contract with Atlantic, and got out. "It’s a city where millions of people make their living from imitating words and images, and yet there’s no other creativity that has the same status as that. L.A. is just a harsh city for creative music."

Coleman had to get out in the world market to find an audience. Los Angeles isn’t such an anomaly, though; people like what they know, and few identify with a man who listens to John Cage and LaMonte Young. Regardless of his music’s originality and scope, he’ll never sell like Mariah Carey.

"That’s what’s amazing about styles," he says. "Sometimes styles are just like if you have a pair of shoes you like, you keep wearin’ ’em because they feel good."

Gentle as he is, Coleman really may be a threat to the established order. It’s hard to know how serious he is about the benefits of the silicon age.

"With all of the advanced technologies, the level of human consciousness is being raised to the point that what is called a job is no longer a job," he says. "It’s just information."

That makes a lot of us jobless, doesn’t it?


REVIEW:

ORNETTE COLEMAN

SOUND MUSEUM: HIDDEN MAN; THREE WOMEN

Harmolodic/Verve

Several titles are familiar from ’70s and ’80s Coleman albums, but the treatments aren’t. Geri Allen’s piano defines a new acoustic-quartet sound: gauzy and moody or taut and light. She whirls Halloween dust through the empty, oxygen-deficient rooms of "Sound Museum," punches fist clusters through the busybusy traffic of "City Living," draws amazing implications from the stereotypical Mexican village of "P.P. (Picolo Pesos)." Her approach is complex without narrowing the other musicians’ playing field.

Bassist Charnett Moffett (whose given name combines that of his father, Charles Moffett, one of Coleman’s ’60s drummers, and O.C.’s) is overrevved at times, but whips out a terrific pluckety-bang introduction to "Biosphere," one of the best tunes on both albums, with its all-for-one common effort driven along by Denardo Coleman’s turbulent, headlong drumming. Denardo, in addition to being one of the best underacknowledged skinsmen on the planet, continues brilliantly in his role as producer: the sound is crisp, almost rocklike, augmented by inventive and appropriate use of reverb.

Ornette Coleman, whose wheedling, flexible alto style is unmistakable and by now almost too familiar, takes a few refreshing spins on his alternate instruments. His trumpet on "Women of the Veil" generates powerful impetus within a sloshing rhythm/antirhythm Arabic framework. And his spidery violin work on the Three Women version of "Sound Museum" displays three distinct tonal colorations in a brief space.

Coleman has long shown a fixation with symmetry: double quartets, two instruments doubling a complicated riff, two bands doing the same songs, now one band doing the same songs in two different versions. Sound Museum’s double-take is supposed to illustrate the variety generated by harmolodics, and indeed it does -- the twins are far from identical, and the highlights of Hidden Man and Two Women rarely fall in the same places. The split may be instructive, but it doesn’t help you decide which album to buy, since the quality of the two is exactly equal (and extremely high). You know what? It doesn’t matter. Flip a coin or get both.

--G.B.


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