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Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman's still as fresh, original, and relevant as ever.

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
More than 40 years ago, saxophonist Ornette Coleman shook up the jazz world with a bold new improv method he called harmolodics. Essentially, his concept erased the bounds of a composition's melodic trajectory by substituting in-the-moment fluidity for the usual adherence to chord changes. The approach encouraged soloists and accompanists to explore rare combinations of melody, rhythm, harmony, and timbre. Beyond extending the possibilities of improvisation to unheard-of heights, Coleman's harmolodics theory helped spawn the avant-garde innovations of the '60s and early '70s, many of which are still being investigated today.

While controversy dogged him and mainstream success proved elusive, Coleman pushed forward undeterred, developing his vision on numerous recordings and in concert. In the past decade, however, the 72-year-old has finally received props, netting a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and having a major showcase of his work at Lincoln Center. But recently, Coleman's output has waned -- his last album was 1997's incandescent Colors -- leading some critics to wonder if he's still relevant.

Of course, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Though too few and far between, Coleman's contemporary performances -- free yet focused, soaring without screaming, bent but never broken, stunningly beautiful -- sound as fresh and original as in the past. But beyond the music, Coleman stands as a beacon for those who believe that jazz today can be something else tomorrow.

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Sam Prestianni


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