By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
While the Broken Shadows portion of the program certainly didn't deserve to collect dust for as long as it did, it's necessarily less noteworthy than the material that wound up on Science Fiction. That's especially true of the two tracks spotlighting singer Webster Armstrong: "Good Girl Blues" is a too-simple R&B rouser of the sort Coleman played during his formative years, while "Is It Forever" is a bit banal. But if "Happy House" and the deep, deliberate "Elizabeth" aren't chockablock with surprises, they find Coleman in fine form, and "Written Word," a previously unreleased number, contains an idiosyncratic stop-and-start intro and a free-floating Coleman solo that calls to mind a stone that skips across the surface of a lake without ever falling in.
By contrast, Skies of America weighs a ton. A symphonic effort that pits Coleman against the London Symphony Orchestra as conducted by David Measham, the piece is plenty ambitious, with Coleman making an overt attempt to match Charles Ives movement for movement. But even most Coleman worshipers concede that it's something less than a triumph. In his notes for Skies, John Litweiler, author of Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, a bio that's well-researched and intelligent (though somewhat dry and bookish), lays out some explanations: Coleman had originally planned to incorporate his quartet into the orchestra but was prevented from doing so by arcane British union rules, and he had to cut the work to fit it onto a single vinyl platter. However, his self-consciousness (he's clearly trying a bit too hard) and the stiffness of the orchestra itself are arguably bigger factors. Simply put, the LSO doesn't swing; when Coleman improvises over its slabs of sound, he seems like a sprinter offering to race a bunch of guys stuck in quicksand. Guess who wins.
Yet for all its flaws (including muddy sound quality), there are some fascinating moments here. A number of familiar Coleman themes sneak into the flow, including snippets of "Street Woman," "All My Life," and "School Work" (all featured on Science Fiction), and trying to do them justice temporarily jolts the orchestra to life. Likewise, the juxtaposition of Coleman's flights of fancy with the earthbound symphony--heard to best effect on "The Artist in America" and "Foreigner in a Free Land"--makes for a bracing incongruity. At these moments, Coleman suggests a party crasher at a stuffy private club, which, in a very real way, he was.
Now 70, Coleman is a grand old man of jazz, and he's routinely name-checked by the likes of saxophonist Carter and his brethren in the Young Lion's Club. But truth be told, few of these folks are following the trails he blazed, in part because they led to financial points of no return. The Complete Science Fiction Sessions and Skies of America still sound bold today because most current jazzers stay well back from the edge, whereas Coleman loved to dance along it. Sure, he fell sometimes, but he's still alive. And so is his music.