I’ve never thought of Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins as brothers-in-arms. I figured that as the two last surviving jazz Olympians, they must share a certain measure of mutual respect, but I never thought their music sounded terribly related. After all, Ornette made his mark pushing jazz away from the rigid harmonic framework of Tin Pan Alley standards and bebop charts; Sonny made his mark as one of the greatest explorers of that framework—the Platonic ideal of jazz soloist. Yet as the two men played—Ornette excising the melody from the changes with a surgeon’s unflappable precision; Sonny probing each note with a new gusto for experimentation—I realized their music came from a similar place: a deep devotion to melody, to song, to voice above all else.
A few years ago, I heard the Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark give a talk after a screening of Musician, a documentary chronicling the avant-gardist at work. At one point, an audience member asked Vandermark to reflect on his influences, and he obliged saying he came out of Sonny Rollins and his explorations of melody and rhythm far more than he did John Coltrane and his experiments in harmony. In an oversimplified history of jazz, it’s common to view Coltrane as the great innovator and Rollins as the more traditional virtuoso who couldn’t get hip to the times. (Rollins's 1959 - 1962 hiatus from performing is usually chalked up to his feelings of inadequacy in the face of Coltrane and, to a lesser extent, Coleman). Vandermark, though, was arguing against the idea of Coltrane as revolutionary and Sonny as establishment hold-out. Sonny’s music wasn’t less innovative; it just came from a different place.
Ornette Coleman, like Vandermark and Rollins, is first and foremost a melodist. Ornette’s “harmolodic” approach uses melody as the music’s foundation—harmony and rhythm are built on top of it. It’s very different from a typical bebop improvisation, in which the musician develops his solo over already determined chord changes and rhythms. Much of Sonny Rollins's music follows the more traditional approach, but he's always been pushing against its boundaries. From early in his career, Rollins has favored bands without a piano, an arrangement that builds a more malleable harmonic framework. In these bands—his famous sax trios, especially—Rollins shapes solos that are full of subversions, jokes, and quotes. He never sounds concerned with wrapping up his ideas before the next chorus.
It's this preference for space that reveals the deep affinity between Rollins and Coleman. Both players helped move jazz from the rigidity of the AABA song structure to the wide-open free jazz of the 60s and 70s. That Coleman pushed this development more radically and brashly seems increasingly unimportant. On Friday night, side by side, jazz's sax kings were clearly on the same quest.Brooklyn Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe. I’d never known the story of how he got the name until I happened upon an excerpt from Miles Davis’s autobiography on Sonny's official website:
"One day, me and Sonny were in a cab...when the white cabdriver turned around and looked at Sonny and said, `Damn, you're Don Newcombe!'' Man, the guy was totally excited. I was amazed, because I hadn't thought about it before. We just put that cabdriver on something terrible. Sonny started talking about what kind of pitches he was going to throw Stan Musial, the great hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, that evening..."Is there any jazz musician today who looks a lot like a famous professional athlete? And if, say, a great young bassist was a dead ringer for Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, how many of today’s jazz fans would get it when the bassist billed himself as “Big Papi”?
Plus: The first video to surface from the concert. (It's Sonny playing "Global Warming," which is called "Global Morning" on the set list.)
A bizarre TMZ-stalks-LiLo-style video of Ornette Coleman leaving the Beacon: