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Branford Marsalis Remembers Ornette Coleman
Author: Branford Marsalis
Date: March 2016 issue
I was 22 years old, maybe 23, when Stanley Crouch brought around a copy of Ornette’s record The Shape of Jazz to Come to Wynton’s house. He put it on, and I went, “Aw, man, turn that shit off. My ears are bleeding.” I hated it. He said, “You just can’t hear it yet. Just hold on to that record a while. I think there’s some shit in there that you could use.” I’m like, “Yeah, OK.” I listened every day, trying to figure out what was good about it. About four months in, I suddenly started hearing the music the way Ornette heard it—and then it was like my brain exploded.
He played the saxophone in a very unconventional way. I started to understand his relationship to all the music that came before him, and how he was able to use that to propel the music in a different direction. He couldn’t play that kind of vertical technique like Bird or Phil Woods or Sonny Stitt, so he developed a subset of the language out of necessity. From not having that vertical technique that we fall in love with, he came to express the music in a way that’s shockingly brilliant.
What he did that none of the other guys could figure out how to do was play bebop, or swing-based music, while avoiding four- and eight-bar phrases. Most of the greats could never do that, and today we are awash in four- and eight-bar phrase playing. But more than that, he played no patterns, played no scales; it was all blues and melody. And he played it in a very disjunctive way. He didn’t resolve in the conventional places, and because he didn’t adhere it sounded like the shit was radical and crazy—when, in fact, it was unbelievably logical.