Coleman is not merely among the last survivors of the post-Parker revolution in musical affairs (along with Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Roy Haynes, and Charlie Haden, himself the last surviving cohort of Ornette’s breakthrough quartet of 1958-60). He was also, along with John Coltrane, the progenitor of that revolution. And yet his music sounds as fresh as tomorrow, and he remains, to put it plainly, the greatest living alto saxophonist. There are more technically accomplished horn players, but few—perhaps none—match his unvarnished intensity, his mesmeric levitation of melodic lines, his instinctive immersion in the blues. He is known as the father of “free jazz”—a style of music that broke through the constraints of chord-changes—but the term is misleading. As many who have tried to emulate him learn, freedom doesn’t mean chaos; Ornette Coleman’s free jazz demands tremendous discipline, because it demands all of the alluring traits of great jazz—beauty, grace, wit, and verve—without the rules that help most musicians get there. It’s tightrope- walking not only without the net but, seemingly, without the rope.
Ornette Coleman is 77. He walks slowly and talks meekly; he is not as strong as he once was. Yet, judging from the last two times I’ve seen him play in New York (both times at Carnegie Hall), his tone is more gorgeous than ever, his mastery of the elements every bit as assured. His band—Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga on bass (Cohen plucking, Falanga strumming) and his son Denardo Coleman on drums—is as tight and hair-raising as any he’s led since his classic quartet of (can it be?) 50 years ago. Who can say how much longer he can keep this up? Go see him now.
(In an Oct. 2006 issue of Slate, I wrote a deeper analysis of Coleman’s music, especially of his latest CD, Sound Grammar, replete with 30-second sound clips illustrating my points. You can read it by clicking on the “external link” below.)