Saxophonist Ornette Coleman died yesterday at age 85, leaving behind one of jazz’s most interesting and illustrious legacies. Coleman strode into the fifties and sixties with a handful of vanguard artists—Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck—and, as the New York Times writes, “widened the options in jazz.” This meant taking jazz places it had not been before, eventually into the psychedelic jams on Coleman’s 1971 Science Fiction album, which features one track with “a ‘Purple Haze’-styled bassline through a wah-wah pedal,” JazzTimes wrote in 2000, while “Ornette overdubs on trumpet and violin and Dewey Redman wails on musette over Ed Blackwell’s inimitable groove.” The track “Happy House” seems to bend space and time in new directions, pairing two trumpet players and two drummers—one for each ear in stereo recording.
Coleman’s free form willingness to experiment made him a sought after collaborator (at least once against his will) with artists who also bent, or invented, their own genre boundaries. Thirty-two years after Science Fiction, Coleman made an appearance on the 2003 Edgar Allan Poe-tribute The Raven, a late album by Lou Reed, the pioneering artist who took pop and R&B down a dark, psychedelic path. The resulting collaboration, which you can hear at the top of the post, just barely holds together in a gospel/free jazz/funk groove that hypnotizes even as it bewilders listeners, giving us an ensemble of musicians each hearing slightly different rhythms and timbres in the repetitive drone of Reed’s lead vocal.
Reed was excited about Coleman’s contribution, writing on his website, “THIS IS ONE OF MY GREATEST MOMENTS.” The jazz great “did seven versions—all different and all amazing and wondrous.” You can hear four above. “Each take,” Reed explains, “is Ornette playing against a different instrument—ie drum, guitar 1 guitar 2 etc. Listen to this!!!” And listen you should. Try to figure out which of the seven takes made the album version above. Then listen to them again. Then read this interview between Jacques Derrida and Coleman in which he explains how he came to develop his sinuous style, one writes the New York Times Ben Ratliff, less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm” and more in tune with “an intuitive, collective musical language.”