IN PRAISE OF ORNETTEAgain, I'll say it: this blog has been going for over 8 years, there's more than 600 entries, and yet I've written next to sweet FA about one of my fave musicians of them all. This time 'round, it's Ornette Coleman. Along w/ Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy, he was the first "jazz" musician who made a dent in my psyche. I'd known of the guy since high school - rockers as disparate as the Minutemen and the Grateful Dead sung his praise - but I'm not going to bullshit you and claim that I was a jazzhead at such a crisp age. Fact is, until I was 21, when I first bought recordings by Ayler, Sun Ra, Dolphy and Ornette, I didn't know jack-shit about it, other than the names I was meant to check out. As w/ some of the other giants of the genre who recorded heavily, whether their lives were long or brief, such as John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, etc., the discography of Ornette Coleman is a can of worms well worth opening, but if you don't know where to begin, you may need a guide to help you through. That's not necessarily where I come in - shit, there's a thousand sites out there doing exactly the same thing - but at this stage I'm just gonna ramble and see where this post takes me...
Ornette was born in Texas in 1930 - that'd make him 82 right now - and like many from his era renowned for their pioneering work in the jazz field, he actually made his start as a professional musician in the early R & B scene. Coltrane first honked a horn to the great blues shouter, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson; Ornette blew the brass (that's the alto sax, although he has, since the '60s, also dabbled in violin and trumpet work) for the west coast R & B guitarist/singer, Pee Wee Crayton (there's a cool CD of his works - sans Ornette - on Ace here). And so it goes... he struck a recording contract w/ Atlantic in the late '50s and recorded a slew - or 6 of 'em - classic records for the label in a brief period. Featuring the likes of the great Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins within his crew, he cut ace discs such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change Of The Century, Free Jazz and This Is Our Music, records which made jazz squares run for the hills and turned the whole genre upside down and onto its ass. Listening to these recordings now, especially after being exposed to hard-arsed Euro-blasters such as Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker for umpteen years, or even Ayler's Spiritual Unity from just a few years later (a record which marked an even stronger departure from jazz-as-we-know-it than any of Ornette's earlier discs), they kinda make you wonder why everyone was so afraid of the guy (they sound like a totally logical extension of the musical innovations of Charlie Parker to me: bebop w/ a higher energy level), but I guess those were different times.
The most exceptional platter from that era is 1961's Free Jazz, a disc which gave a name to the genre (by accident) and features a unique set-up: a "double-quartet" who belt out a sea of collective improvisation, each quartet playing out of a different speaker. It was, is and forever shall be one of the great recorded head-fucks of all time, features the likes of Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and Scott La Faro (later to join Bill Evans' trio) in its mix and there are few other records in the world of "jazz" you need more than it. There's also two other records from the period well worth grabbing yer mitts on: The Art Of The Improvisers and Twins, both released belatedly at the dawn of the 1970s and both of which contain various odds & sods recorded but never released from the Atlantic period. The Water label from San Fran reissued these on CD back in 2008, featuring Byron Coley liners as a sweetener, and they're excellent accompinaments to the official, "thematic" LPs from '59-'61.
After his Atlantic contract was up, Ornette's catalogue went through various labels for the next decade and a half. He released Town Hall, 1962 in that year for the ESP-Disk label, and despite the imprint's rep as the be-all and end-all of '60s avant-jazz, it's one of Ornette's less interesting recordings, featuring a trio on 2 tracks and an attempt at a "classical"/string recording on the other. Whilst not "bad" by any stretch, unless you're a completist, you don't need it (I, of course, still own the fuckin' thing). There's some cool Ornette discs on the Blue Note label from the '60s: At The Golden Circle Stockholm, volumes 1 & 2 (live dates from Sweden featuring a trio from 1965); the excellent Empty Foxhole from '66, featuring his 10-year-old son Denardo on drums and Ornette on sax/trumpet/violin; as well as Love Call and New York Is Now!, both from 1968 and featuring the likes of Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones (from Coltrane's original quartet) as the rhythm section.
He also cut a few ace discs for the Impulse! label, the best of which is Crisis, a live LP from '69 recorded at NYU, featuring the stellar line-up of Ornette/Denardo/Cherry/Redman/Haden, the instrumentation of sax/trumpet/bass/drums as well as clarinet, cornet and Indian flute (the latter two from Cherry) and the whole band at their most fiery, politicised peak. That old red, Chuck Haden, even let his freak flag fly w/ his composition, "Song For Che". There's other hot tracks such as "Space Jungle", "Trouble In The East" and "Broken Shadows", and for my money, this is another of the absolutely essential platters which matter. And here's the caveat: so far as I can tell, this has not ever been released on CD, and if it has, it was probably only ever in Japan and you'd have to pay through your teeth to procure it. Good luck. I scored an original LP from a dumb-fuck "friend" about 15 years back who traded it for something I didn't want (I forget what it was). If only there were more suckers like that around... Backtracking a touch, one disc from the mid '60s - 1965, to be precise - well worth yer time & trouble is Chappaqua Suite. Originally recorded as the soundtrack to the Conrad Rooks film, Chappaqua, it was never used (Rooks really liked it, so much so that he thought it would "overpower" the film), although briefly issued on record then deleted by Columbia. It's since been reissued several times (I have a '90s 2CD set on a European label; don't ask me, it's buried under a pile of shit in the spare room), and it's a good thing indeed. Pharoah Sanders makes an appearance and the use of an orchestra never distracts from the high-energy blowing.
Wow... this is taking longer than I expected, but I guess you don't chew up over 50 years of records in a mere soundbyte. He also released two unreal LPs for Columbia in '71: Broken Shadows and Science Fiction. These are available as a handsomely packaged/priced twofer c/o Sony, packed w/ bonus cuts. Like Crisis, they feature Ornette & crew at their most "out" and political, particularly Science Fiction (a disc I included in my Top 100 Albums Of All Time list I hope you ignored about 5 years back), which has the blaster, "Rock The Clock" in its fold; whilst Broken Shadows even features the presence of the slightly more staid jazz six-stringer, Jim Hall (though his presence is felt, and it's good). By around 1973, Ornette started incorporating electric instruments to his set-up, not in a slick-dick fusionoid sense, but very much within a jagged, Beefheartish and, dare I say, "proto-No Wave" style. The great James "Blood" Ulmer joined the ranks on guitar, he experimented w/ 2 drummers, electric bass and the kind of polyrhythms which would give anyone less a headache. He called it "harmolodics". If you can figure out what the fuck "harmolodics" really are, then you're doing better than me. More importantly, he released two excellent discs in 1976 showcasing this style, and you can still get 'em: Dancing In Your Head (A & M, of all labels; they also issued Don Cherry's mind-bending Brown Rice that same year: they musta had someone w/ a brain in their jazz A & R dept. at the time) and Body Meta, issued on Coleman's own Artists House label (who also released James Ulmer's awe-inspiring Tales Of Captain Black LP in 1978, featuring Ornette. I wrote about it here. It is a record every home should own and one which, for one fuggin' dumb reason or another, remains out of print: a travesty of historical proportions, especially since the only version of it being available in living memory was the Japanese CD on DIW which DIDN'T EVEN REPLICATE THE MIND-FRYING ARTWORK OF THE ORIGINAL. But allow me to exit these parentheses and get on w/ the task at hand). Where was I? Dancing In Youyr Head... there are 2 tracks w/ his basic band at the time (featuring Bern Nix on guitar and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums), "Theme From A Symphony" parts 1 & 2, which demonstrate this angular, shuffling jazz/rock style to great effect, as well as a track recorded w/ the Master Musicians Of Jajouka, which also features the revered (at least by me!) musician/writer Robert Palmer on clarinet (that's the Palmer of Deep Blues, not the pop/soul vocalist... do I need to explain this?). Body Meta? Same deal, except there's no Jajouka track, and I probably like this more as a recording: the scattershot rhythms fly in so many directions, the songs move at such a frantic pace - it's busy - but deeply satisfying. These records are remarkable documents from a musician who was always looking for new and exciting modes of expression and, more importantly, getting it right. "No Wave" as a genre, scene, sound or idea had barely formulated itself by the year 1976, and yet Ornette Coleman, so far as I see it, beat every single one of those pretentious a-hole junkies to the punch and then some.
And then there's the 1980s... releases are more thin on the ground from this period onwards, both in terms of actual recordings released and also in terms of those I own and/or have heard. I am only in possession of three of 'em: 1985's Song X, a surprising collaboration w/ permed-out jazz honky guitarist, Pat Metheny, which has a terrific energy running through its veins; 1995's Tone Dialing, a disc which received great kudos at the time and does possess moments of greatness, but from memory (I haven't listened to it in a decade or more) also contains a few unfortunate stabs at "rapping" from a guest vocalist; and 2006's Sound Grammar, a great, back-to-basics quartet effort (feat. Denardo on skins) which doesn't sound too far removed from his late '50s recordings.
Like I said: you don't sum up a 50+-year career in a mere soundbyte. There's a dozen or more "official" recordings I haven't covered here (the '80s Caravan Of Dreams records w/ his No Wave unit, Prime Time, which are supposed to be good; his soundtrack to Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, et al), but you'll have to fill in the gaps yourself. Regardless, what's been mentioned above will keep you off the streets for a while. There's also a few cool bootlegs floating around; one I can recommend highly is Live In Paris 1971 on the Spanish Jazz Row label: a hot quartet live show packed w/ energy and pretty mint recording quality.
Now where did all this lead us? Nowhere in particular. If Ornette died 30 years, he'd still have cemented his rep as one of the great originators of 20th-century music. He's still alive and playing among us. He even did a show in Sydney a few years back (I missed it), one which attendees speak of in high reverence. Like Miles Davis, he was always finding new ways of self-expression, and this course he took - much like Miles similarly did from he 1950s-1970s - saw him criss-crossing the music world in all manners. For Miles, it went from the cool to the Gil Evans period to the classic quartet to the electric phase. When Ornette first started making a name for himself, Miles came out in the press and derided his music as tuneless rubbish, but Miles always was an asshole, god bless him. He later retracted that statement and claimed to be a fan. Whatever. Ornette was ahead of the pack, always. Listen to those electric LPs of his from the mid '70s: they sound like Rough Trade-style "post-punk" or Eno's No New York 2 to 3 years before those scenes gestated then blossomed. He led the way for all the blasters in the '60s through his 1950s innovations: that's a fact. Pay the man some goddamn respect!