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Jazz great Ornette Coleman's philosophy drives a career that's lasted nearly six decades

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com
Jazz artist Ornette Coleman brings his two-bass quartet to Austin. Son Denardo, a drummer, plays in the band. Peter Morgan

Ornette Coleman, who performs at Bass Concert Hall tonight, has one of the great résumés in jazz.

Playing for nearly 60 years might do that by default, but Coleman (to be fair, he graduated to simply ‘Ornette' status long ago) is inarguably one of the legends, a jazz lifer who spent more of his career innovating than not, who opened up new musical avenues for himself and the people he played with.

This is a man who not only assembled a few of the iconic bands in jazz history — his piano-free quartet from the late 1950s, his mid-'60s trio work incorporating violin, his pioneering electric band Prime Time, for three examples — but has played with everyone from the Grateful Dead to Yoko Ono to Lou Reed.

This century, he has started receiving the sort of lifetime-achievement awards that come to an artist in winter.

In 2004 he was awarded The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize; in 2007, a Grammy award for lifetime achievement and the Texas Medal of Arts (Coleman was born in Fort Worth). This year, he received a honorary doctorate in music from the University of Michigan.

But he still plays, still innovates, still makes brand new music every night.

‘I spend lots of time learning how to play better and how to write better,' Coleman said from his home in New York. He speaks softly and delicately. ‘There's a deeper concern about expressing ideas as a human being.'

His comments can seem gnomic, but there's a clear through-line – the subjectivity of sound, the notion of sound as communication first and foremost, even if we can't ever quite agree on what the sound is saying.

‘Let's put it this way: A sound has more than just one meaning,' Coleman says. ‘There's a quality of knowledge in music.'

This certainly fits with his experiments in harmony and melody. Coleman's work is suffused with often-gorgeous melodies that fly by or are subsumed by the most abstract improvisations.

‘For some reason, sound and music is the most alert way of experiencing something,' Coleman says. ‘The emotion becomes part of it, what you are going through in that moment. You don't tell sound what to do; it tells you.'

These days, Coleman is touring with his double-bass quartet — Tony Falanga on upright bass, and Al McDowell on electric. His son Denardo is his drummer. His last album was 2006's excellent ‘Sound Grammar.' No word on whether he will return to the studio any time soon, but he doesn't sound too worried about anything beyond his next note and what it does or doesn't mean.

‘One thing that I understand about myself is that what I'm trying to be is just human. I don't have to worry about being all these other people. That alone will have some value and meaning. So far it's been going pretty good.'

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926

Ornette Coleman Quartet

When: 8 p.m. today

Where: Bass Concert Hall (23rd St & Robert Dedman Dr. 477-6060)

Tickets: $26, $38 and $42