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Ornette Coleman: The Samuel Beckett of Jazz

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DAVID WAS: Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman is the Samuel Beckett of jazz: misunderstood, maligned, and after almost five decades since his debut, still making news.


It's musician and DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

WAS: Some of Ornette's first recordings for Atlantic have just been released in the States for the first time this week by Water Records and sound as fresh and startling today as they must have in 1959 and '60, when they were recorded.

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WAS: The very title of this collection, "For Whom Who Keeps a Record," reflects the twisted musical syntax that so jangled his peers and critics in the pre-avant-garde jazz world when so-called hard bop and West Coast cool jazz dominated the scene.

Ornette, a former R&B player from Texas, once tried some of his crazy scales and whaling sound out on the locals, who reportedly beat him up and threw his horn off a hill.

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WAS: Whether apocryphal or true, that tale bespeaks why the man was later beloved by punk icons like Patti Smith and Lou Reed, who heard the sound of defiance in Ornette's music.

There simply had never been anything quite like it before, as the horn player ditched the harmonic foundation traditionally provided by piano or guitar and ventured forth with just a drummer and bassist in tow.

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WAS: The naked sound, as evidenced by compositions like "Motive for Its Use," was all harsh angles and stuttering versus swinging, but it took Manhattan by storm in 1959.

Leonard Bernstein came out and noted his approval at the time, while Miles Davis famously declared that Ornette was all screwed up inside. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins heard the new sound, propelled by bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, and went back to the woodshed to retool his music, excising the piano and guitar and featuring the work of trumpeter Don Cherry, Ornette's perennial sidekick.

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WAS: The revolution, called "Free Jazz," the title of another Coleman LP from 1960, had begun, and would soon see the august likes of John Coltrane take to its strange modal scales and its furious polyrhythmic drumming.

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WAS: But forgotten amid all the controversy was the fact that Ornette Coleman was a gifted and feelingful composer, capable of poetic ballads like "Some Other," heard on this collection, and proof that his departure from jazz tradition was rooted in the lonely soil of the blues.

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WAS: At 75 years old, Ornette Coleman continues to perform, record and still influence young musicians in search of the lost chord.

BRAND: Music from Ornette Coleman's re-release, "To Whom Who Keeps a Record." Our reviewer, David Was.

(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Was