September 22, 2006
Listening With Ornette Coleman: Seeking the Mystical Inside the Music (BEN RATLIFF, 9/22/06, NY Times)
THE alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, one of the last of the truly imposing figures from a generation of jazz players that was full of them, seldom talks about other peopleâ€™s music. People generally want to ask him about his own, and that becomes the subject he addresses. Or half-addresses: what heâ€™s really focused on is a set of interrelated questions about music, religion and the nature of being. Sometimes he can seem indirect, or sentimental, or thoroughly confusing. Other times he sounds like one of the worldâ€™s killer aphorists.
In any case, other peopleâ€™s music was what I wanted to talk to him about. I asked what he would like to listen to. â€œAnything you want,â€ he said in his fluty Southern voice. â€œThere is no bad music, only bad performances.â€ He finally offered a few suggestions. The music he likes is simply defined: anything that canâ€™t be summed up in a common term. Any music that is not created as part of a style. â€œThe state of surviving in music is more like â€˜what music are you playing,â€™ â€ he said. â€œBut music isnâ€™t a style, itâ€™s an idea. The idea of music, without it being a style â€” I donâ€™t hear that much anymore.â€
Then he went up a level. â€œI would like to have the same concept of ideas as how people believe in God,â€ he said. â€œTo me, an idea doesnâ€™t have any master.â€ [...]
MR. COLEMANâ€™S first request was something by Josef Rosenblatt, the Ukrainian-born cantor who moved to New York in 1911 and became one of the cityâ€™s most popular entertainers â€” as well as a symbol for not selling out your convictions. (He turned down a position with a Chicago opera company, but was persuaded to take a small role in Al Jolsonâ€™s film â€œThe Jazz Singer.â€) I brought some recordings from 1916 and we listened to â€œTikanto Shabbos,â€ a song from Sabbath services. Rosenblattâ€™s voice came booming out, strong and clear at the bottom, with miraculous coloratura runs at the top.
â€œI was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago,â€ Mr. Coleman said. â€œA young man said, â€˜Iâ€™d like you to come by so I can play something for you.â€™ I went down to his basement and he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You canâ€™t find those notes. Those are not â€˜notes.â€™ They donâ€™t exist.â€
He listened some more. Rosenblatt was working with text, singing brilliant figures with it, then coming down on a resolving note, which was confirmed and stabilized by a pianistâ€™s chord. â€œI want to ask something,â€ he said. â€œIs the language heâ€™s singing making the resolution? Not the melody. I mean, heâ€™s resolving. Heâ€™s not singing a â€˜melody.â€™ â€
It could be that heâ€™s at least singing each little section in relation to a mode, I said.
â€œI think heâ€™s singing pure spiritual,â€ he said. â€œHeâ€™s making the sound of what heâ€™s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what heâ€™s singing to is what heâ€™s singing about. We hear it as â€˜how heâ€™s singing.â€™ But heâ€™s singing about something. I donâ€™t know what it is, but itâ€™s bad.â€
I wonder how much of it is really improvised, I said. Which up-and-down melodic shapes, and in which orders, were well practiced, and which werenâ€™t.
â€œMm-hmm,â€ he said. â€œI understand what youâ€™re saying. But it doesnâ€™t sound like itâ€™s going up and down; it sounds like itâ€™s going out. Which means itâ€™s coming from his soul.â€
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 22, 2006 12:02 AM