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The father of harmolodics

February 18, 2007|Greg Burke | Special to The Times

New York — SINCE the 1950s, Ornette Coleman has hacked his own trails in improvised music. It was lonely out there in the wilderness, but he never looked back. What made him do it?

"My mother and my father were both born on Dec. 25," the sax-violin-trumpet virtuoso says quietly, crouched on a couch in his Midtown Manhattan loft, a week before last Sunday's presentation of a Grammy lifetime achievement award that brought him his biggest prime-time recognition, just before the age of 77. Christmas? Coleman implies significance in his parents' shared birth date: He was an ordinary Earth child, while they seemed like gods, "and that's exactly how far away I was to them." His father died before Coleman could know him; he was raised by women, the only male in the family.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 20, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Ornette Coleman: A photo caption with an article about jazz musician Ornette Coleman in the Sunday Calendar section said he is 74. He is 76.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Ornette Coleman: The surname of writer Greg Burk was misspelled as Burke in his article about jazz musician Ornette Coleman published in Sunday's Arts & Music section.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 25, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Ornette Coleman: A photo caption with an article about jazz musician Ornette Coleman last Sunday said he is 74. He is 76. Also, the surname of article writer Greg Burk was misspelled as Burke.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Ornette Coleman: A photo caption with an article about jazz musician Ornette Coleman in the Feb. 18 Calendar section said he is 74. He is 76. The surname of writer Greg Burk was misspelled as Burke in the same article.

"They wasn't interested in nothing I could do or say," he says. "To this very day, I feel like an outsider just breathing. Because let's face it, you'd be seeking, trying to find something that you could enjoy, or something that you could do that would make you feel normal. But you can't take that cure. There's no medicine for that."

Family was Coleman's dry nurse; Los Angeles was his next desert -- he emigrated from Fort Worth in 1953 at age 23. It was here, amid a smog of hostility and conservatism, that he inspired a few allies (trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins) to boost his transition from blues and bop to the "harmolodic" music he heard in his head -- joyous, jagged, chordless, free. It was here he made his first albums, for Contemporary Records. It was here that his unorthodox blowing got him kicked off a lot of bandstands while he supported himself with odd jobs.

"I was at the point where it was nothing but work," he says. "But not professional work. You know -- like knees and hands." And it was from here in 1959 that he fled like a bat out of hell to New York, where he instantly polarized the jazz world and made grave imprints on the heaviest contenders in his field, along with a whole generation to follow.

Coleman's freedom and democracy found ready ears amid the 1960s' racial struggle and countercultural mapmaking. In addition to John Coltrane and Don Cherry's album "The Avant-Garde" (recorded 1960) and Sonny Rollins' LP "Our Man in Jazz" (1962) -- both featuring Coleman sidemen and both launching years of reconsideration by the two tenor colossi -- numerous explosive projectiles by Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and others would never have made waves without Coleman's initial harmolodic splashdown.

His influence, though, has been more conceptual than specific. Without drinking straight from the source, nobody could absorb Coleman's feel and compositional song craft -- the urgent mournfulness of "Lonely Woman," the stop-and-spin giddiness of "Ramblin' " or the shrouded intergalactic masses of the 1972 symphonic work "Skies of America." And 2006's Grammy-nominated "Sound Grammar" live set ripples with the same vintage energy. As Ornette's alto lines leap and flutter, son and longtime drummer Denardo Coleman pushes a light metronomic counterweight to the rhythm while feathering the cushiest of bomb-drops; bassists Tony Falanga and Gregory Cohen seesaw bowed frenzy against driving heat. This ain't moldy tradition, it's just fun.

With a mainstream Grammy surge supporting Coleman for a change, it will be good to see him rake in some bonus clams with this release. Always revered yet minimally heard over the years with his various acoustic and electric ensembles on landmark albums such as "Free Jazz" (released 1961), "Dancing in Your Head" (1977), "In All Languages" (1987) and "Sound Museum" (1996), he's never been a marketplace blockbuster. So his Sunday sparkle -- the lifetime achievement award; his nomination for best jazz instrumental album, individual/group, for "Sound Grammar"; and a stylin' black-clad turn as a presenter for (appropriately) best new artist -- was like a finger in the AC socket.

"It's a total turnaround," says Coleman. ("Turnaround" is also a song title on "Sound Grammar.") "I never thought that I would get to this level." And the fact that the ceremony happened in Los Angeles -- well, we always love the one we hurt.

Coleman shows a glimmer of a smile when complimented on his sharp attire, saying he tries to look the part of a professional. "Without any money, but.... "

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