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Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary approach to composition and improvisation has yet to fully assimilate into American music culture. Sure, the semistodgy Jazz at Lincoln Center (aka Wynton’s kids) recently featured Coleman’s electric and acoustic ensembles, and Coleman turns up in nearly all of the standard jazz reference sources. But people talk about his work more than they listen to it; they certainly don’t hear it on jazz radio very often.
This absence seems more than a little ironic, because whatever vintage of Coleman you prefer—the recordings made by the groundbreaking crew featuring Coleman, bassist Charlie Haden or David Izenson, and drummer Ed Blackwell; or the later, electric-based efforts of his Prime Time ensembles—it’s astonishingly clear that the work of the Fort Worth, Texas, native remains faithful to jazz’s roots as well as to the genre’s expansion into what some folks call “world music.”
Like so many musicians today, Coleman rejects the labels we continue to affix to the music. In the liner notes to the newly reissued version of 1976’s Dancing in Your Head, he writes that “any person in today’s music scene knows that rock, classical, folk, and jazz are yesterday’s titles.”
Having freed himself from those ideological shackles, Coleman assembles on Dancing two joyous, questing variations on a theme from his Skies of America symphony alongside two takes of another Coleman original, “Midnight Sunrise,” which was recorded in Morocco with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in 1973 and also features the late music critic Robert Palmer on clarinet.
Coleman has dubbed his method of composition and improvisation “harmolodics,” and for all his well-meaning but cryptic definitions of the term, I can no more explain it to you than I can tell you what jazz is. Yet it’s clear when listening to both takes of “Theme From a Symphony” and the haunting “Sunrise” that listening to the ensemble approach is, at its best, a lot like watching the Lakers navigate coach Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.
Sometimes the theme makes its way back to the leader’s blues-drenched alto saxophone work; sometimes bass guitarist Jamaladeen Tacuma picks up on the rhythmic pattern but plays it in another key; sometimes guitarists Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee intersperse it between rhythmic comping that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Brown ensemble.
In short, repetition and consistent blues flavor make this performance—voila!—less frightening and more accessible than you might expect. Beneath it all, Coleman and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson overdub percussion tracks that shimmer like Berber jewelry and point once again to the worldly funk ‘n’ roll so vital to this
“Sunrise” finds the leader’s skittering, sometimes plaintive sax scampering alongside and sometimes dallying a step or two behind the equally keening reed and percussion work of the Master Musicians. For some listeners, this performance will go together about as well as pesto and collard greens. But Coleman’s liberation from format again works to his advantage here. He isn’t a well-meaning interloper but someone with an avid interest in the ensemble’s expansive but in-the-pocket approach. It is somewhat otherworldly—not likely to be reprised on the airwaves any time soon—and beautiful.
Science Fiction, recorded during Coleman’s brief stint with Columbia Records and released in 1971, features the “classic” Coleman ensemble with the late trumpeter Don Cherry (and, on some cuts, trumpeter Bobby Bradford), bassist Haden, drummers Billy Higgins and/or Ed Blackwell, and the still-undervalued tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, putting the listener more in the mind of New York’s sprawling urban sensibility than Dancing’s world gutbucket.
Still, Coleman’s wide artistic swath retains its integrity and sounds especially arresting throughout the ballad “What Reason Could I Give,” in which vocalist Asha Puthli’s airy, heartfelt delivery soars above master drummer Blackwell’s wide but direct swing (shades of the Master Musicians’ work) and the brass choir of Cherry, Coleman, and Redman, which swoons like a heart in love.
The Complete Science Fiction Sessions also contains outtakes from these 1971 sessions, and what might surprise purists are the presence and contributions of “mainstream” pianist Cedar Walton and guitarist Jim Hall. They are most notably featured on a 12-bar blues by Coleman titled “Good Girl Blues.” Forgive vocalist Webster Young’s so-so performance and revel in Hall’s melodic contours, Walton’s conventional but emotional accompaniment, the delicious rhythmic drive of Haden and Blackwell, Coleman’s impassioned squalls, and an unidentified woodwind ensemble. This seemingly disparate crew adds a kind of Debussy-at-the-juke-joint sensibility to the performance, but, like the music heard on the balance of Science Fiction, Coleman never traffics in diversity for diversity’s sake. Diversity is simply Coleman’s view.
You can hear a more brooding side of Coleman’s pen on the 1972 symphony Skies of America, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, which has also just been reissued. The quirky theme he used for Dancing in Your Head forms a movement entitled “The Good Life,” in which the saxophonist laces his solo contributions with his characteristic extroversion. But the overall feel of Skies is that of a composer who has probably given the richness, horror, and contradictions of American—hence world—existence more thought than most politicians. And the blues, joy, and ominous rumblings heard throughout Skies tell us more about ourselves than any census data ever will. CP