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The Bad Plus’ Dave King on the Soaring Spirit of Ornette Coleman

Jazz probably hasn’t seen a more compelling or contentious figure than Ornette Coleman. Expanding the boundaries of “free jazz” with radical inventiveness, a polyglot infusion of musical traditions and techniques, and an impossible-to-define musical philosophy called “harmolodics,” he has sparked furious opposition during his half century of performing and composing. An angry musician once punched him in the face during a gig at the New York club the Five Spot (the site of another scuffle prompted by a Coleman performance), and the great Miles Davis once suggested he was “all screwed up inside.” But Coleman’s joy-filled jazz, unshakable spirit, and insatiable musical curiosity have forever altered the trajectory of modern music. His cross-genre collaborations include albums made with artists ranging from Jerry Garcia and Pat Metheny to musicians from Morocco and Nigeria. With more than 50 recordings to his credit, he’s earned a spot in DownBeat’s Hall of Fame (1969), a MacArthur “genius” grant (1994), and the adulation of countless musicians who have taken inspiration from his pioneering will.

The Festival Dancing in Your Head—named after Coleman’s 1977 recording Dancing in Your Head and copresented with Headwaters Music—celebrates such Ornette-style sonic exploration. This year’s diverse lineup includes three bands that carry on in Coleman’s footsteps, if not through aural similarity than through a commitment to open, experimental, and forward-looking jazz—the Grammy-nominated the Bad Plus, the globe-trotting Minneapolis trio Happy Apple, and the Bad Apple, a fusion of the two formed for this festival. Drummer and Minneapolis native Dave King is the common denominator of all three groups. On the occasion of Coleman’s 75th birthday, King recently spoke with Philip Bither, McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, about Coleman’s singular vision and the long shadow he casts on improvised music.

Philip Bither:

I’ve been talking with Denardo [Coleman] for eight years about doing a festival dedicated to his father’s work. It’s so exciting that it’s finally happening and that you guys are so central to it. Can you tell me what Ornette Coleman means to you as an artist and a musician?

Dave King:

Well, he’s probably the most important single musician to both of these ensembles—especially the Bad Plus. We actually just recorded a piece of his music off Science Fiction for our record Give. We recorded “Street Woman,” and we really tried to do it our way. I hope that if he ever hears it, he’ll see it as the ultimate tribute to him—how we approached it honestly and with belief in our idea, instead of trying to copy him, which is futile anyway. His music is very mysterious. It’s such difficult music to elaborate on because it’s “other” music. He tries to explain it through these very esoteric concepts.

PB:

I was going to ask if you could give us your explanation of Coleman’s theory of “harmolodics.”

DK:

Harmolodics! See, it’s not possible to explain… . All I know is, it’s so deeply rooted in honesty. It’s the most natural music, but impossible to comprehend intellectually at times. You can tell these guys spent so much time together… . There’s no way anyone could be substituted in those bands. You couldn’t walk in and say, “OK here’s this music.” They didn’t use charts. I think they really just played together …

PB:

Ornette’s original quartet [with Don Cherny, Charlie Hecker, and Ed Blackwell]?

DK:

Yeah. You could use some computer software now to try to slow those heads [a song’s main melody] down, to actually figure out if it’s some sort of muscle-memory scenario that he has going or what he’s doing. It remains a mystery. And that’s what makes it so beautiful and powerful—the mysti-cism involved in all of what he’s trying to do. It’s beyond any curriculum in a university. Which is what I think has been a problem in a lot of improvised music—trying to form some sort of curriculum to teach it when, at the high-est level, it’s not teachable, so you’re just chasing this carrot. It becomes this thing where you feel like a failure if you can’t live up to that, instead of creating something of your own. Which is what Ornette is all about. We’re approach-ing it not thinking about Ornette at all. We’re just playing this thing honestly. I think that’s what his whole thing is all about. Of course, he put up with brutal criticism. Still does. I mean, death-threat-level criticism. And that’s another great thing: if you get ripped on, then you’re like, “Well, Ornette gets ripped on.” All you need to do is align yourself with him. He’s not penetrated by any external force. And that’s what’s so beautiful.

PB:

So, as a person, he’s been an influence on you, in terms of how he’s lived in the world?

DK:

Exactly. He lives poetically and nonjudgmentally—it makes the music that much more strong. Ornette’s music is about joy.

PB:

Look at the span of Ornette’s career—he moved from that off-bebop, early, quartet kind of world into Western classical music with his orchestral masterpiece Skies of America and then into the Of Human Feelings era, where he decided to embrace funk and pop in a completely off-kilter way. Then there were his collaborations with world musicians. He embraced all music …

DK:

It’s the same wherever he goes. It’s this weird hybrid of his music and the way he relates to what he’s inspired by… . Ornette is almost universal in that way, where everything filters through… . It always sounds like his music. You never say: this is Ornette’s fusion period; this is Ornette’s funk period. You can hear that with Herbie Hancock. Even though it’s brilliant, you can say, “This is Herbie getting into fusion and rock.” With Ornette you never hear about that. Science Fiction—you don’t listen to that and go, “Oh yeah, this is his fusion record.” He’s got, like, babies crying and wah-wah pedal bass. It’s unmistak-able that that’s Ornette music.

PB:

Do you remember the first time you heard Ornette?

DK:

I got the Free Jazz record, which is not the most listenable. I was about 19 when I started to really dive into free music and try to make sense of it… . I had listened to a lot of the 1980s free musicians, and I had also listened to some Albert Ayler, but I really hadn’t tackled Ornette yet. For me, the connec-tion is really the use of the delta bluesy …

PB:

And Texas sound?

DK:

Exactly. You hear Fort Worth come out of it [where Coleman was born in 1930], you hear Texas come out of it. That’s music I’ve always been deeply connected to… . The way we look at it in the Bad Plus, we were raised in the land of the 18-wheelers. My parents are from North Dakota; my dad was a farmer. There’s this part of it that’s rural that connects with you, where you don’t have to qualify yourself like “Man, I was born in Mississippi.” Ornette’s music seems as if it’s this universal language, if you want to accept it. So when I first heard that aspect of it—like Ramblin’—I was like, “OK!” Because he’s combining the two ideas as no one had ever done. Of course, there’s deep blues in all of jazz, but not as absolutely. He’s literally playing slide guitar lines in the midst of these strange birdcall hummingbird [sounds] and then these quasi-bebop speed melodies.

PB:

Your comment earlier about people trying to define harmolodics: it’s almost as if the music theorists are chasing after a phantom. Like his music is pre–music theory and post–music theory, because once you try to pin it down so much you lose the humanity.

DK:

It’s true. It’s like a tree or something. You’re standing in a redwood forest and what are you going to do? Are you going to try to define the math of this scenario, are you going to just bask in the joy of it? When you listen to it, it’s proud and beautiful and strong. There’s nothing aggressive about it; there’s nothing dominant—there’s none of that energy to it. It’s singing.

Dave King on Lake Calhoun, Minneapolis

Photo: Cameron Wittig

Ornette Coleman

Photo: Courtesy University Musical Society, University of Michigan