Bleat Poet

More unruly fusion than a reactor in Pyongyang: Ornette Coleman

You wouldn't know it from reading the jazz press, but Ornette Coleman--the alto saxophonist who coined the term free jazz--has primarily played fusion music for the last 30 years. Which is to say, most of his recording career and perhaps much, if not all, of your life. In fact, the 70-year-old has been playing over cheesy synth fills longer than Stereolab has been around, and he remains one of the oldest friends in jazz to honest-to-God guitar solos (even if this often involves two guitars soloing in three different directions).

Coleman's status as a fusion pioneer has been obscured for a couple of reasons. First, consider the jazz world's wondrous shock at hearing those initial acoustic LPs from the late Fifties and early Sixties, a time when small groups rarely recorded atonality, let alone a true sonic wildness. Initial impressions this adulatory die hard, though Coleman's early aims--to escape the pouty dominatrix of the chord change, to let multiple soloists overlap--carried over to his electric recordings. Further, fusion remains pretty much a dirty word in jazz orthodoxy, even as its status continues to rise among dance DJs and young people who wouldn't listen to jazz even if you gave away free pacifiers with every CD. It hasn't helped that those who've come to represent the genre within jazz tend to be balding, ponytailed types who think stretching the envelope is getting Michael Brecker to jam on the Charlie Brown theme.

What both clubbers and codgers miss is that Coleman's fusion isn't merely a combination of jazz and popular forms, but of music and the ideals that inform the very practice of freedom. After all, a band unit isn't a bad model for a state, oppressive or otherwise (consider the paramilitary structure of government-backed soukous bands in Mobutu's Zaire). And harmolodics, Coleman's other well-known coinage, is really just democracy in musical action, with melody, harmony, and rhythm given equal franchise, and band members given equal footing. If such ideological passions mean Coleman occasionally misfires, collaborating with trend hoppers a decade past-date (such as his liaison with body piercers during his Tone Dialing performances of a few years ago), that's the risk one takes when attempting to reach beyond the musical realm to make philosophical connections. Ornette's individualist themes are Melville's--the subjective response of the individual to nature and society.

Perhaps the main reason Coleman's best fusion music remains relatively unconsidered is its lack of availability--a result of record-company neglect (though Ornette's own hard-ass negotiations often haven't helped). Which makes the recent reissue of three immensely important commercial flops from the Seventies something of a revisionist event: Finally, we can place Ornette in the tradition of the radical yippies, where he squarely belongs. All three sets are fusions in every sense, though not always electric. Skies of America (Sony Legacy), a 1972 date with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham, is an ambitious attempt to bridge jazz and classical traditions, to establish jazz as "serious" music once and for all. This might seem unnecessary today, but it was only a few years before Skies that the Pulitzer committee actually withdrew an award for Duke Ellington, doubting the legitimacy of his life's work.

Less lofty, the Columbia recording sessions that produced the 1971 records Science Fiction and Broken Shadows attempted to merge rock's sounds with older jazz forms, which by then included free jazz. Compiled now as a two-CD set titled The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (Sony Legacy) this music flew the freak flag pretty high, resembling something like the experimental psychedelic rock of the United States of America (who also released flop albums for Columbia). For the sessions, Coleman added pianist Cedar Walton (chords!) and guitarist Jim Hall (more chords!) to his regular cast, and while Hall wasn't one for the wah-wah pedal, bassist Charlie Haden did wah-wah his upright. Perhaps thinking of the singles market, Coleman handed singing chores to the little-known, psychedelic Indian vocalist Asha Puthli. Yet for all that outreach, the music is surprisingly introspective.

The real breakthrough came with Coleman's subsequent sessions for the 1977 A&M record Dancing in Your Head (Verve/A&M), now rereleased under the same title. Much has been made of Coleman's time with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and while it was no doubt a corker of a party, the Moroccan-heavy track that wound up on the album is poorly recorded and pretty forgettable. (The same goes for the newly released bonus track from those sessions). But the two takes of "Theme From a Symphony" (which could double as Coleman's "52nd Street Theme"--it's on Science as "School Work" and Skies as "The Good Life") take an utter joy in their innocent amateurism, a quality that remains largely anathema in jazz.

Remember, late-Seventies avant-garde musicians were bending over backward to show that they understood the tradition, as if making music were another form for a math test. Ornette, on the other hand, was hand-shaping a group of musicians in his philosophical image, and the results are full of a noisy, joyous sounds--thanks in no small part to raucous drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. In its way, this 1977 music is the epitome of punk rock, if you can ignore its utter lack of aggression.

To this day, Coleman remains the avant-garde player that moldy figs will accept most easily, so compellingly plaintive is the Texas bluesiness on his keening alto. Even Wynton Marsalis, whose affection for free jazz parallels the Cuban émigré community's feelings for Janet Reno, has offered more than grudging praise. But Coleman's celebrated, soulful leanings are probably the least interesting aspect of his career. (The same goes for Bird and Hendrix, too, as long as we're on the subject.) After all, there are plenty of horn players who can approximate the blues--it's usually the first thing one is taught to do. It is Coleman's application of a bluesman's ear to freaky pursuits--his compositional break with jazz preconceptions--that will strike him in iron, and fuse him to our core.

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