Tuesday, September 20, 2011

OC for YOU

Been re-reading Peter Niklas Wilson's Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music -- a more useful tome than John Litweiler's more encyclopedic Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, and less chatty and self-referential than Howard Mandel's Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz (Christ, I hope my writing doesn't come across like that, although I suspect it does) -- and listening to OC again, hearing new things (or hearing old things differently) with the perspective of having played in HIO for two years. (I'll admit I find it a little embarrassing that we were nominated for a Dallas Observer music award in the "Jazz Act" category -- are there really not enough of those in Big D to fill out the ballot? -- but I'll go along with Dennis Gonzalez, who sez "HIO is jazz is improv is etc.")

While Herb Levy reminds me that OC's major contribution to jazz was changing the way the members of an ensemble interact, it's the blues cry of Ornette's solo voice -- the closest instrumental simulacrum I've heard to the sound of human lamentation -- that I find most compelling about his music, along with the playful and almost folkloric quality his melodies often have. Those qualities tend to get lost in the dense thicket of solo voices that are present in much harmolodic music (OC's term for an idiosyncratic approach to music that he's explained at length in fairly obfuscatory language in various interviews over the years), whether it's in the everyone-playing-all-the-time cacophony of the double quartet on his epochal 1960 recording Free Jazz, or the incessant guitar chatter of his '70s-and-later electric band Prime Time.

Listening with modern ears to the recordings of Ornette's music made under pianist Paul Bley's leadership at L.A.'s Hillcrest Club in 1958, or even the first couple of Atlantic albums featuring the "classic" Coleman-Cherry-Haden-Higgins quartet, it's hard to understand why this music was so controversial when it was new. (David Lee's 2006 book about the Coleman quartet's 1959 arrival in New York City was entitled The Battle of the Five Spot; audience members were so polarized by the music that they sometimes resorted to fisticuffs.) While Ornette's compositional and harmonic materials were undoubtedly different (no Tin Pan Alley chord changes for soloists to run), his ensemble's instrumentation, rhythmic thrust and procedures (opening and closing thematic statements bookending strings of solos) were basically those of a bebop band. I suppose the lesson is that to a player or listener who's committed enough to a certain set of conventions, anything that deviates even slightly from those conventions _doesn't register as music_, a perceptual anomaly that persists today in regard to anything new or different.

Wilson highlights one marked exception to structural orthodoxy from the Hillcrest Club recordings: the tune "Crossroads," in which a fast, notey theme punctuates unaccompanied solo statements from the horns and piano. The tune was re-recorded in 1959 (and released on 1970's The Art of the Improvisers) as "The Circle With the Hole in the Middle," with rhythm accompaniment behind the solos. By the time Coleman recorded again, eight months later, drummer Billy Higgins -- a hard drug user, like all the quartet's members save its leader -- had lost his NYC cabaret card and with it, the ability to work in nightclubs. Ed Blackwell, whom Ornette had met in L.A. in the '50s, came east to fill the drum chair with his lively and multidimensional blend of New Orleans parade drumming and masterful Max Roach-inspired swing.

"Beauty Is a Rare Thing," recorded in August 1960 and released on that year's This Is Our Music, represents a great formal leap forward for Coleman. Besides the introductory and closing thematic statements, the entire piece is a freely improvised dialogue, without steady reference to linear time. The openness of the sonic space they inhabit predicts the group dynamic of the trio Ornette would lead from 1962 to 1966, after Haden had left the group for a spell in Synanon while Cherry and Higgins went off to work with Sonny Rollins. (Cherry subsequently traveled around the world with a portable repertoire of compositions, performing with local musicians wherever he went, while Higgins became a house drummer of sorts for Blue Note Records.)

Ornette performed a single 1962 engagement at New York's Town Hall with bassist David Izenzon, a melodic player equally adept at arco and pizzicato attacks, and drummer Charles Moffett, an old ally from hometown Fort Worth. The trio toured Europe in 1965 and 1966 and a number of live recordings from those tours have been released. Their concerts juxtaposed trio sets with performances of Ornette's compositions in European art music forms, and (at Town Hall) Ornette's performances with an R&B group.

My favorite Coleman-Izenzon-Moffett performance is the 1965 one from Fairfield Hall in Croydon, a London suburb, which featured "Silence," another track highlighted by Wilson, in which episodes of alternately explosive and expository playing by the group are interrupted by intervals of negative sonic space (and in one instance, Ornette's response to a heckler's demand to hear the bebop standard "Cherokee"). During these years, Ornette also took up trumpet and violin, applying highly unorthodox techniques to each instrument. In the late '60s, he'd first employ his pre-teen son Denardo on drums, to the puzzlement of the jazz world at large.

The first Coleman music I encountered was made by the late-'60s quartet in which tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, another Fort Worth native, replaced Cherry in the front line and Haden and Blackwell returned to the rhythm section. When I was at SUNY at Albany in the fall of '75, my roommate and I used to go to the campus library and listen to the 1969 live album Crisis!, much to the chagrin of our fellow students, who couldn't believe that we were listening for our own pleasure, rather than for some class. I'd first become aware of Ornette in 1971-72, reading reviews of Twins (a compilation of '59-'61 outtakes like Art of the Improvisers) and Science Fiction (the then-current album that featured all of Ornette's '59-'60 collaborators along with Redman and trumpeter Bobby Bradford) in Creem.

I was prepared to hear that music by Zappa's conductions of the Mothers of Invention on Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Captain Beefheart's anarchic sax solos. By the time Science Fiction was waxed, the "energy music" inspired by John Coltrane's late-period work had opened up possibilities for improvisers (Redman's vocalizing through his horn, for example) that made some of the classic Coleman quartet's recordings sound almost quaint in comparison. Haden perhaps unintentionally evokes Hendrix with his wah-wah bass on "Rock the Clock." When the musos are in full flight, they sound more like a teeming cityscape than the rustic lope of Free Jazz. (The title to the last track on Science Fiction sums it up: "The Jungle is a Skyscraper.")

Released in 1976, Dancing In Your Head (the first OC record I bought when it was new) upped the ante and widened the frame. Inspired by Ornette's 1973 encounter with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco, "Theme From a Symphony" (aka "The Good Life," a sprightly theme from Ornette's symphony Skies of America) found its creator immersed in a kind of R&B-based trance music. Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee's guitars, Rudy McDaniel's bass, and Ronald Shannon Jackson's drums created a dense, hyperactive clangor that evoked the spirit, if not the letter, of both Free Jazz and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. Body Meta, recorded at the same sessions, presented shorter and more dynamically varied tunes, but suffered from the compressed ugliness of Ellerbee's distorted guitar sound. Later, Ornette would expand the group to include a second bassist and drummer (Denardo, post-college graduation) -- sort of a "double quartet" minus the second horn.

Ornette recorded prolifically through the early '80s, playing on original (and unrecorded) Prime Time guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer's debut album as leader; a series of duets with Charlie Haden (a player who's worked in a variety of contexts, always with a deep sound of great lyrical beauty); the most coherent and unified Prime Time statement, Of Human Feelings, a series of digitally-recorded first takes; and a surprisingly successful collaboration with rustic pastel guitarist/OC fan Pat Metheny, whose contributions to the project were uncharacteristically robust. Ornette became a fixture at Fort Worth venue Caravan of Dreams, releasing records on their label, including the superlative In All Languages, featuring the classic quartet and Prime Time -- both their sounds now familiar as heartbeat -- playing the same tunes across two LPs, and the video of Shirley Clarke's 20-years-in-the-making documentary Ornette: Made In America.

I never made it to Caravan when Ornette performed there in its heyday; I was busy Guarding Freedom's Frontier (stationed at Carswell) and starting a new family, and I lost the thread after 1988's Virgin Beauty. Although I remained a fan of Ornette and his alumni Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Blood Ulmer, and Shannon Jackson, I missed out on Tone Dialing, Sound Museum, Sound Grammar, and Ornette's MacArthur genius grant, Pulitzer Prize, and Bonnaroo performance. I still think of him as the greatest musician of my lifetime, though, one whose achievement combines constant reinvention with a consistency of sound and inspiration that runs through his entire body of work.


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