Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Art of the Improvisers

By Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Given the current penchant in jazz circles for ancestor worship, it's hardly surprising that Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman have garnered more publicity and acclaim this year than virtually any other musicians--Pulitzer Prize-winner Wynton Marsalis excepted. Since Armstrong and Coleman are among the select few whose instrumental approach and personality single-handedly changed the music's direction, you might even label them jazz's Alpha and Omega. Armstrong was jazz's first great recorded virtuoso, while many consider Coleman the music's last innovator. Although these two might seem worlds apart stylistically, 1997 has seen a celebration of both men's accomplishments.

Armstrong, the subject of a recent high-profile biography by Laurence Bergreen, changed the way trumpeters (and virtually all other musicians) viewed their instrument; he played and sang with a majesty and sonic brilliance previously considered impossible. From his earliest days with King Oliver through the '30s and early '40s, Armstrong was the star among stars. Whether he was hitting incredibly high notes, scatting, or engaging in dramatic dialogues with fellow musicians, he shattered assumptions about what jazz musicians could play, how fast they could play it, and how consistently creative they could be. Even during the '50s and '60s, after his alleged peak period, he could still play strikingly beautiful trumpet choruses or elevate insufferably mawkish melodies with moans, ad-libs, and verbal twists.

Somewhere along the line, Armstrong evolved into what many in the jazz world detest: a pop star. Coleman, on the other hand, is Armstrong's opposite. He was widely viewed as a renegade when he emerged as a player, composer, and bandleader during the late '50s. A mostly self-taught, former blues and R&B artist, he ignited a firestorm among players, fans, and critics from the outset. His earliest aggregations featured his own whirling, splaying alto sax solos, along with equally unorthodox work by trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden. Coleman upset many listeners because he didn't adhere to the standard bebop/hard-bop manner; he made sudden breaks, incorporating squawks, broken lines, and distortion. Sometimes he'd conclude in a different key than the one in which he'd started.

Coleman was the principal architect of a movement that urged independence from established notions about harmony, melody, and song structure. The mid-'60s manifesto Free Jazz featured Coleman leading two units that merged into one sprawling ensemble on a pair of lengthy, wailing opuses. For one audience, the LP represented jazz's pinnacle; for another, it was the music's demise. Coleman switched gears in the '70s, creating what he dubbed "harmolodic" electric fare. He renamed his band "Prime Time" and incorporated dual guitarists, bassists, and drummers. Explanations of the harmolodic concept inevitably disintegrate into confusing rhetoric about shifting tonal centers and rhythmic cores; in essence, the harmolodic player melds harmony and melody into a nexus in which all the musicians respond to what they hear without being locked into a chordal framework.

In the last decade or so, Coleman has composed a symphony, written a multimedia work with parts for rappers and dancers, and recorded with the late Jerry Garcia and the Master Musicians of Joujouka. He has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, and this year, he was granted membership into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Freedom songs Ornette Coleman with recent collaborator Joachim Kühn. Photo by Austin Trevett.


The accolades and tributes to Armstrong and Coleman have triggered a wave of reissues and, in Coleman's case, some new releases. With Armstrong, the most exciting development is the discovery of some long-lost material. This year's JVC jazz festival featured a performance of eight compositions that were unearthed during an extensive search at the Louis Armstrong Archive in Flushing, N.Y. The songs were culled from some 650 reels of audio tape and 240 acetate discs, the bulk of which remain unreleased.

Meanwhile, three masterful Armstrong reissues came out earlier this year: The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve), The Great Chicago Concert: 1956 (Sony/Legacy), and The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA). Verve has issued the Fitzgerald/Armstrong material many times in piecemeal fashion, but never the complete date. Hearing the two verbally joust with each other in a remarkable version of "Mack the Knife" is unforgettable. The Chicago two-disc set is mostly rote New Orleans material; still, almost no Armstrong collection is totally worthless, and there are enough good moments on the Chicago concert to balance the mugging and hokum that had become part of his stage show by this time.

The Complete RCA Victor Recordings is a more satisfying collection. Highlights include "Laughin' Louie," a 1933 big band date in which the entire ensemble eventually disintegrates into mad laughter (thanks in part to Armstrong's insistence that everyone light up joints). Also included is a remarkable 1930 collaboration with Jimmie Rodgers in which the Blue Yodeler's aching country wails are countered by some of Armstrong's most mournful laments ever.

Coleman himself was the subject of a different sort of retrospective this year: A four-night celebration at Lincoln Center this past July featured a performance of his "Skies of America" symphony by the New York Philharmonic, a revival of his original '50s quartet, and performances by Coleman with both Prime Time and his multimedia aggregation.

After a lapse of nearly seven years, the saxophonist has been busy once again making new recordings. He now has his own label, Harmolodic Records (distributed by Verve), which has just issued the outstanding live duet Colors. Here Coleman is paired with pianist Joachim Kühn, whose pensive style is reminiscent of former Coleman colleague Paul Bley. Recorded earlier this year, the CD also includes some Coleman trumpet and violin solos that are alternately striking, out-of-key, raw, and bluesy. His alto solos are less furious and more thoughtful than in the past, with less honking and blaring and more smooth phrases. That said, his playing is no less idiosyncratic and personal; it has only grown tighter, more expansive, and richer over the years.

For those searching out past Coleman work, much of it is still available. His entire Atlantic catalog, which encompasses his best pre-harmolodic work, is now available in a huge boxed set, The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Atlantic/Rhino). Besides Free Jazz, the box also includes such no-holds-barred sessions as Ornette on Tenor and The Art of the Improvisers. Among more recent recordings, In All Languages, a 1987 set that marked the first time Coleman's acoustic and electric units were combined together on record, will soon be reissued by Harmolodic. Of particular note here is the work of late drummer Eddie Blackwell, whose bombastic, futuristic take on New Orleans second-line rhythms reaffirms what a loss his death was.

We can only hope that the attention showered on Armstrong and Coleman this year will generate a renewed determination among jazz's current class to seek fresh directions and to emphasize individual distinctiveness. Even when working in the most generic, rigidly idiomatic settings, Armstrong never lost his singular voice, nor his ability to express something unique within his solos. Regardless of how esoteric the setting, Coleman's alto, violin, and trumpet work simultaneously addresses jazz/blues history and suggests provocative trends for its future. Numerous remarkable players have emerged in the '80s and '90s, but their imagination lags behind their technical brilliance. The music of Armstrong and Coleman--along with that of Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and all the idiom's other masters--merges creative and instrumental excellence. That's precisely what today's players, who lean so heavily on past conventions, have failed to do.


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