Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ornette: Made In America

My friend Joe, a music producer and hardcore jazz expert, once told me that most people don't "get" jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman on first hearing. Indeed, it took Joe several years to form an appreciation of the musician, whom he now considers his hero. Joe even took an Ornette Coleman class at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University last year.

As a recreational jazz fan, I'll have to admit that Ornette Coleman's music is quite challenging. It's not accessible "smooth jazz" at all. Rather, Coleman's music is discordant, dissonant, cacophonic, and a bit grating as far as my nerves are concerned.

I decided to check out Ornette: Made In America, a recently refurbished 1984 documentary, just to see what all the fuss was about. The film is structured around a 1983 concert where Coleman's band performed with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Shirley Clark, the director, made a film that visually matched Coleman's music. The documentary isn't straightforward or even all that informative. Instead it focuses on improvisation, going off in many elliptical tangents - flashbacks, voiceovers, interviews, psychedelic visual effects - totally incoherent yet somehow perfectly suited to Coleman's groundbreaking and uncategorizable musicianship.

Did it change my mind about Coleman? Yes, in a way. The music seemed so indecipherable at first, but by the end of the movie I felt like I was listening to Stravinsky. Perhaps I was beginning to understand Coleman's genius.

See it for yourself. The documentary in currently showing at IFC Film Center.

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