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Monday, 26 March, 2001, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
The last jazz revolutionary?
Ornette Coleman
Coleman was determined to find a new way in jazz
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

Most musical revolutionaries eventually become conservatives; very few remain synonymous with musical adventure into their seventies.

Ornette Coleman, who celebrated his 71st birthday on 19 March, is one who has.

If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence I may as well write out my solo

Ornette Coleman

In London to play two concerts at the Barbican centre, Coleman is one of the few figures who changed the course of jazz history.

His innovations, on a series of albums recorded in 1959 and 1960, were not universally welcomed by jazz critics nor, it has to be said, by jazz fans.

An alto-saxophonist from Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman believed that by the late 1950s jazz improvising had become too predictable.

"If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence I may as well write out my solo," he once said.

So with his partner trumpeter Don Cherry - the father of Neneh and Eagle Eye - Coleman developed a jazz style in which musicians followed each other rather than using fixed structures.


The resulting music, often called "free jazz", could be cacophonous and disorientating.

It could also, thanks to Coleman's unique gift for melody, be soul-stirring and utterly original.

He dubbed his musical approach "harmolodics" - theorising that harmony, melody and rhythm were organically linked.

Slowly through the 1960s Coleman's ideas gained acceptance in the jazz world, influencing major figures like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

Ornette Coleman
Coleman: Still delivering the unexpected

Coleman took up the trumpet and violin and writing for larger ensembles.

When his orchestral work Skies of America was recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, his work during the rehearsals and recording earned him a standing ovation from the orchestra.

Naked Lunch

He has since played and recorded with musicians as varied as Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band, the Master Musicians of Joujouka, Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia.

At Friday's Barbican concert he added two Indian musicians - percussionist Badal Roy and voclaist Probaker Karaker - to his own trio.

At the Barbican on Monday he is playing the music he helped with Howard Shore score for David Cronenberg's film Naked Lunch, based on the Beat text by William Burroughs.


With his own small group and the BBC Concert Orchestra he will play live to a projection of the film.
David Cronenberg
Naked Lunch: filmed by David Cronenberg

Published in 1959, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch is one of the key books of the Beat movement and its surrealism was imaginatively realised by director David Cronenberg.

Howard Shore - who scored a number of other Cronenberg films - recorded the soundtrack with Ornette Coleman in London in August 1991.

Burroughs, who died in 1997, dropped in to listen.

Tickets for Monday's event sold out long ago.

But then, a sell-out is the one thing that is predictable with Ornette Coleman - as for the music, the septuagenarian just keeps on delivering the unexpected.

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