Jazz music is struggling against irrelevance. The greatest innovators have been dying without new generations to replace them, leaving the genre's torch of progress in the cold hands of traditionalists. While there a few mavericks like John Zorn and Marc Ribot keeping the genre from falling completely off the radar, in general, groundbreaking slowed to a crawl decades ago, petering out with fusion. But there was a time when jazz was one of the most radical of art forms. And at the vanguard stood Ornette Coleman. Starting in the late '50s and early '60s, Coleman changed the face of modern jazz by playing atonal melodic lines over traditional harmonic structure, ushering in the era of free jazz—an approach that demolished the boundaries of which notes were acceptable for writing and improvising in music.
His disregard for traditional harmony was for many too avant-garde, but ultimately his genius was recognized as ahead of its time, a sentiment reflected in his classic album, entitled The Shape of Jazz to Come, which also serves as the title of this year's Portland Jazz Festival. Coleman's signature tune from that session, "Lonely Woman," is remarkable for its combination of propulsive rhythm, haunting atonality, and soulful melody, simultaneously conjuring the depths of emotion indicated in the title as well as the far-reaching vision of its creator.
There is a surreal quality to Coleman's sound. It comes from the dissonance created by the tensions he utilizes, but it's rarely harsh or aggressive, as is often associated with some free- or avant-jazz players. Much of this is due to his blues-based approach to playing, which takes precedence over the intellectual aspect of the harmony. What could be interpreted as a disconnect between the sound of the band and the notes of the soloist is instead the result of his lines floating in and out of the boundaries of traditional harmony while staying as one with the song, as if his saxophone were a bird flying through the open windows of an ancient house, exploring the rooms, never confined and always free to leave.
Among his many musical adventures, joining the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco in the early '70s somehow seems like a perfect match, witnessed by William Burroughs and recalled in the writer's biography by Ted Morgan as "a continuous, sinuous rope of music, uncoiling at an ear-splitting volume, ancient and yet contemporary. When Ornette Coleman played, building up counter-harmonies, it seemed... that [Burroughs] was listening to a 2,000-year-old rock 'n' roll band. When the two forms met, this music from Punic times and modern jazz, it created a new frontier of sound."
Coleman continues to be a musical seeker, developing the concepts of harmolodics, a holistic approach to music which he explains as "the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group."
Despite the fact that the genre is so sadly lacking in new and original voices that a 21st century festival must rely on masters of the past millennia, a genius like Coleman stands as a towering icon of innovation. His legacy is one of influence and inspiration—a challenge to the challengers. And in any genre, at any time, that is something worth hearing and honoring.