Some jazz legends have a big impact at the time, but as the years pass their influence gradually diminishes until it is forgotten. This is not the case with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, coming to Japan for his first series of concerts here in 20 years. In that time his influence has continued to grow, not only within jazz, but also among avant rock musicians, including the likes of Mars Volta, Japan's own Date Course Pentagon Royal, and even the mighty Radiohead.
Coleman impacted on the jazz scene with a series of albums recorded from 1959 to 1961 that threw caution and convention to the wind, a strange thing to say within the context of jazz, a style of music that is synonymous with improvisation and taking chances. But, by the 1950s, Coleman, then a young saxophonist from Fort Worth Texas, felt that jazz improvising had become too predictable for its increasingly experienced and knowledgeable audience. In Tomorrow is the Question! and The Shape of Jazz to Come, he ditched fixed harmonic and melodic structures and instead developed a style in which jazz musicians followed each other, working closely with his partner trumpeter Don Cherry – the father of Neneh and Eagle Eye.
What Coleman and his collaborators, who also included double bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, did was to extract and concentrate jazz's spontaneity and ad-lib interaction in a new, unpredictable essence called "free jazz."
"I never really relied upon them to keep time or rhythm for me," he later said of his collaborators. "In fact, I always prefer musicians that play with me to play independent of myself, but with me."The sound produced registered with listeners as a seamless atonal flow of energy without a melodic or harmonic center. With its blazing, improvised solos riding on propulsive rhythms, it revived the jaded palettes of sophisticated listeners. Attacks on his innovations, however, led Coleman to define his music as a sharp break with musical traditions.
"In most music, people only use one dimension, which means the note and the time," he contended.The new, raw style expressed the rebellious energy of the 60s in cerebral jazz a few years before rock n roll did it with electric guitars. Since then Coleman has produced many albums, his last being 1997's more sedate but still innovative Colors: Live from Leipzig.
Critics of free jazz often dismiss it as cacophonous noise, and it's hard to deny that there is a passing resemblance. With few crutches to lean on in terms of obvious melody and harmony, it definitely requires skilled musicians at the top of their game. But it also requires educated, intelligent, and skilled listeners. This is a lot to ask, but if all the stars align on a free jazz night it can be a much deeper experience than, say, any Kenny G concert.
It is the difficulty and the challenge of free jazz that has kept it alive. While other jazz styles have come and gone, free jazz remains a living style, with younger exponents adding to a legacy that includes Sun Ra and John Coltrane. So, what can audiences expect from the man with the plastic horn? Akihiko Inagawa, a publicist with JEC, the tour promoter, is sure that it will be an experience to remember.
"From the shows he has been playing recently in Germany, Canada and the States, it looks like he's playing alto-sax with a drummer and two upright bassists," Inagawa says. "It's seems he'll do a more or less acoustic set, rather than his electric one."Besides the intrinsic attraction of the shows for serious music fans, they also have a rarity value. Unlike Sonny Rollins and Oscar Peterson, two other jazz legends recently brought to Japan by Inagawa's company, Coleman is an infrequent visitor to these shores. Apart from a couple of one-off gigs in Tokyo and a visit in 2001 to pick up a cultural award, the Praemium Imperiale, his last major appearance was in 1986. Given his age – 76 in March – this could well be the last chance for Japanese fans to see this groundbreaking musician.
International Herald Tribue Asahi Shimbun
13th January, 2006