He’s probably the last guy you’d expect to see at a Grateful Dead show — the last guy you’d expect to see at a big arena rock show, period. But the veteran jazz saxophonist, composer and iconoclast Ornette Coleman specializes in the unexpected. And for Coleman — a soft-spoken man who has confounded and dumbfounded the jazz world for three decades with his fiercely personal playing and fearless exploration of music’s outer spaces — wading through the rowdy sea of blue denim and rainbow tie-dyes at New York’s Madison Square Garden during one of the Dead’s fall-1987 shows was just business as usual.
Coleman, together with his son and drummer, Denardo, and fellow jazz revolutionary Cecil Taylor, was there at the invitation of the Dead’s bassist, Phil Lesh, a student and fan of avant-garde music in general and Coleman and Taylor in particular. Guitarist Jerry Garcia, too, is a Coleman devotee. And Coleman himself was aware of musical similarities between the Dead and his own group, Prime Time — each group has two guitarists and two drummers (Prime Time has two bassists as well), and each emphasizes both melody and look-Ma-no-limits improvisation.
But the saxophonist was not prepared for the display of Deadhead ecstasy. “I was so overwhelmed by the audience,” Coleman says with undisguised awe in his lisping, boyish voice. “They have total dedication. They’re 100-percent Dead fans. They could have done anything up there and those people would have screamed.”
Indeed, Coleman says it was refreshing for him and Taylor, long considered pariahs by the jazz mainstream, to see “a successful band playing in a way where whatever they decided to do, that audience wasn’t going to walk out. I thought, ‘Well, we could be friends here.’ Because if these people here could be into this, they could dig what we’re doing.”
That’s not just wishful thinking. Ornette Coleman — recently voted Best Jazz Artist in the Rolling Stone Critics Poll for the second year in a row — has scored his biggest commercial success ever with Prime Time’s 1988 album Virgin Beauty. The LP, on CBS’s Portrait label, went to Number Two on Billboard’s jazz chart and has sold more in its first year of release than any previous Coleman record. More than a few Deadheads invested in Virgin Beauty solely because of Jerry Garcia’s presence on three tracks. But it’s a safe bet they were pleasantly surprised by Prime Time’s infectious propulsion and the emotive strength and striking warmth of Coleman’s sax statements.
“His playing has a real purity about it, a real beauty,” says Garcia, whose percolating guitar style fits nicely into the deceptive density of Prime Time’s simmering polyrhythms and layered melodies. “I think it’s very accessible. But the setting against which it occurs is real dense. Ornette’s music is strangely simple and difficult at the same time. The notes are not difficult. But the harmonic relationships that linger behind them are really deep.”
Those “relationships” form the core of Coleman’s controversial musical ideology, which he calls harmolodies. For Coleman, melody, key and meter are interchangeable in composing and improvising. “The melody can be a rhythm note,” he says. “It can be a key note. The time can be the melody. It’s like the difference between spelling cat with a k or a c. It still sounds the same. To me, that is the tool in harmolodies, how to convert sound into your own language.”