Ornette to be

Contrary to popular belief, there are still a handful of jazz musicians with recording contracts who enjoy taking chances. But most of the acts that fit this description, including Other Dimensions in Music, Test, and the Matt Wilson Quartet, are indie-imprint signees forced to toil in relative obscurity--and those few major-label instrumentalists with a similar sense of adventure tend to tread lightly for fear that they'll be banished to the farm leagues too. Take James Carter, a gifted saxophonist inked to Atlantic Records. He recently issued Layin' in the Cut, a scorching electric set featuring Marc Ribot and Jamaaladeen Tacuma that opens up new and exciting possibilities for his playing. But in an apparent attempt to reassure his corporate overseers that he hasn't completely lost his senses, Carter put the disc out in conjunction with Chasin' the Gypsy, an infinitely safer (and more accessible) tribute to the late guitarist Django Reinhardt.

That's not to suggest that Gypsy is merely a marketing ploy: Carter is a traditionalist by nature who likely enjoyed tipping his hat to Reinhardt every bit as much as he did shredding notes alongside Ribot and Tacuma. But he's also something of a jazz historian who undoubtedly understands that most performers who went to majors thinking they could focus on art to the exclusion of commerce were quickly disabused of that notion.

Exhibit A: Ornette Coleman.

Like plenty of this country's greatest musical talents, saxophonist Coleman hasn't been well served by record labels. Over the years, the Sultan of Skronk has bounced from one firm to another with the rapidity of an Allen Iverson dribble. And while there's been no shortage of companies willing to sign him--for the prestige, y'know--such outfits tend to drop his contract like a steaming goat cluster when the profits fail to accrue. As if Coleman were ever gonna have a hit single...

Coleman's history with Columbia is typical. Reps at the label, which provided Miles Davis with a home during several of his ultra-memorable developmental periods, brought Ornette on board in 1971 and told him to do his thing. But when Coleman responded with Science Fiction and Skies of America, two of his most idiosyncratic efforts (which, in his case, is really saying something), the suits had second thoughts. In 1973 he was cut loose, along with Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus, and Bill Evans. Journalist James Isaacs, in a 1982 essay, likened this move to "the 1961 New York Yankees suddenly placing Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle on waivers."

Now that we're in the Age of Digital, an epoch in which even decades-old flops can be milked for profits, Columbia accountants have finally discovered some bottom-line value in Coleman's curiosities--hence their decision to reissue Skies of America and Science Fiction, which has been retitled The Complete Science Fiction Sessions because it sports extra tracks made available a decade later under the title Broken Shadows. But while the company's motives for doing so can't exactly be described as pure, the results are auspicious indeed. Neither of these salvos reaches the heights of Coleman's late-'50s/early-'60s work for Atlantic--if you don't own The Shape of Jazz to Come or Change of the Century yet, you have some catching up to do--but they provide a portrait of an artist totally willing to go out on a limb he knows damn well won't keep him aloft for long.

The concept behind the recordings on Sessions, a double CD, was to reunite Coleman with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, all key collaborators from earlier periods. But thanks to Coleman's craggy personality, the results can hardly be described as nostalgic flashbacks to a time when he and his minions were turning bop inside out. Although "What Reason Could I Give," disc one's opener, features a raft of esteemed alumni, the song is dominated by the pairing of Coleman's sky-touching melodicism and the ethereal vocals of Asha Puthli, who manages to hold her own in some extremely august company. The tune doesn't have much shape; it's a three-minute fragment that does a fast fade just as it seems ready to take off. But for such a seemingly minor excursion, it sure manages to stick in your head.

Not every track on the first pulls off this trick. For instance, "Civilization Day" (presented in two different mixes) is such an effective blowing session, with the notes played by Coleman and Cherry flapping against each other like panicked birds in a phone booth, that it's unfortunate to discover "Rock the Clock" and two versions of "Street Woman" taking similar tacks. Likewise, the more composerly "Law Years," featuring some of Haden's most preternaturally intuitive thumping, precedes similar ditties such as "The Jungle Is a Skyscraper" and "Country Town Blues" that don't quite reach its level. But the title track, built around the apocalyptic intonations of poet David Henderson, is a jarring, unforgettable epic, and "All My Life," again starring Puthli, affords the listener an opportunity to hear Coleman and crew attempting something very much like a standard jazz ballad, but with just enough twists to make it feel fresh. Gorgeous stuff.

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.

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts