His music influenced John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. Leonard
Bernstein proclaimed that his was the best music he’d ever
listened to. Students at Juilliard study him, and critics
don’t know what to make of him.

As a saxophonist, composer, violinist and trumpet player,
Ornette Coleman has never fit into a singular musical category. On
Friday, the controversial Coleman appears at Hill Auditorium with
his distinctive brand of jazz.

Coleman’s performance, honoring the self-taught
musician’s 74th birthday, marks the end of a weeklong
celebration of icons in American music and art. His appearance at
Hill speaks to the commitment of the University Musical Society
staff, who have been working to bring the MacArthur
“Genius” grant winner to Ann Arbor for four years.
Although the surrounding educational events have been canceled,
Friday’s concert promises to be memorable, prompting a level
of media interest rivaling that of a group such as the Royal
Shakespeare Company.

Coleman’s unusual ensemble, which includes two double
basses — played by bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga
— and drummer Denardo Coleman, who was first heard on his
father’s recordings at the age of 10. The various members
have played with such esteemed acts as The Rolling Stones, Laurie
Anderson, Bill Frisell and Tom Waits. The strength of the band is
integral to Coleman’s approach to music: Each instrument is
treated as a solo, although there are no actual solos, which
results in complexity and layers of sound. “Ornette’s
music is thick and dense,” says UMS Programming Manager Mark
Jacobson, “but the discerning listener can break down the
melodies.”

Based on a theory he calls Harmolodics, the equality of
instruments is not the only thing that differentiates
Coleman’s jazz. He also abandons the traditional restrictions
on rhythm and improvisation bound to chord progressions. These
innovations have led reviewers to label the music “free
jazz,” although the resulting music is far from chaotic; on
the contrary, Coleman’s music is demanding, intelligent and
well-rehearsed. While these distinctions may imply that the music
is purely cerebral, Jacobson describes it as “very emotional,
rich, melodic … it’s soulful.”

Friday’s performance offers a chance to hear not just a
unique ensemble, but unique compositions, written specifically for
Ann Arbor audiences. Says Jacobson, “If you’re into
music and miss this concert, you’ll be kicking yourself 10
years from now.”

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