Its been an Ornette Coleman month. It started with Song X, his 1985 session with Pat Metheny which got the remix/bonus track CD treatment in August, and this gave me the itch to rifle through the stack of Ornette CDs and records in my archives.
Ornette has played in a variety of contexts (duos to octets, with singers, poets, orchestras and accompanists ranging from the subtle beboppers to the massed guitars of Prime Time) but the format is usually the same. A piece will start and end with the same short, off-center, usually jolly melody. What almost always follows the opening statement is Ornettes solo, which can vary in length (almost all cuts in In All Languages come in around four minutes, while in _Ornette! _or At the Golden Circle many songs exceed ten minutes) but consistently follows a free association path, starting from the tonal center of the melody but deviating into other keys and moods whenever an attractive tangent comes up, returning to home base and then heading off once or twice again, before the inevitable, often abrupt and usually brief departure from center stage.
Ornettes soloing style, free of set chord changes, asks a lot of bass players. (Drummers, not to slight the several greats whove accompanied Ornette, have it relatively easy since Ornette favors steady tempos and, often, fairly passive drumming by modern jazz standards like Bill Evans in jazz or Jerry Garcia in rock, he tends to be a bass-centered soloist, in contrast to drum-centric types such as John Coltrane or Frank Zappa.) Charlie Haden, whose bass drives Song X, was the first to make sense of Ornettes music, which challenges the bassist by requiring him to mark time and follow Ornettes harmonic shifts all at once. Scott La Faro would later do it briefly with more technical prowess before a car crash stole him from us, and later players such as David Izenzon, Gary Peacock and Dave Holland also mastered it, but it was Haden who achieved the same organic bond with Ornette that Phil Lesh later developed with Garcia.
Not long after the Song X reissue, I picked up an out-of-print CD reissue of a 1966 session on Blue Note called The Empty Foxhole. This record could have been Ornettes Metal Machine Music, but today its perhaps more like his One Mans Trash, which is to say its something he did which most listeners pass by on the way to more comfortable, easily valued stuff. The source of the controversy is Denardo Coleman, Ornettes then-ten-year-old son who his father hired to play drums on this record (and some later ones). Denardo knew his fathers music well, but a prodigy he was not. He plays with the unselfconscious enthusiasm (pro) and the lack of skill (con) youd expect from a child, and the combination of him with two world-class improvisers (Ornette and Haden) is one most professional recording artists would not have considered offering.
In the liner notes, Ornette writes that I found some very new things to play from listening to [Denardo and bassist Charlie Haden] play together. By way of clarification, he writes that the highpoint was the way each of us opened up to feelings of the music and going our own way, without getting in each others way. Going our own way is an accurate description of the rhythm sections approach on The Empty Foxhole, since Haden, perhaps sensing that it would be futile to try to follow or emulate Denardo, keeps the same steady tempo he would on any other date. Ornette, too, constructs his solos in a manner much like his other work with adult, professional rhythm sections, although Denardos surges sometimes prompt the same shift from easygoing melody into anguished cries which often happen anyway in Ornettes improvisations.
Song X caused controversies for different reasons. Between the fans of Methenys mellower music who hated this record and the non-fans who called it his only good record, this album got some of the most overstated receptions of any in jazz history. When I got it back in the 80s, I didnt care for it a lot because Metheny used this occasion to indulge a taste for thin, cold guitar-synth textures, sounds which, to me, didnt sit comfortably with the older-fashioned work of Coleman and Haden. As a result, Song X became the only Metheny or Coleman album Ive ever sold to a used record store.
Listening to it now, I like it a lot more, although it still has its issues. It still gives 13 minutes over to Endangered Species, a fairly rare (for either artist) excursion into straight energy music and not one of my favorite examples of eithers work. Also, two of the bonus tracks experiment with adding Metheny-penned improv chord changes to Ornettes themes, applied with more sympathy than the structures imposed by the bebop sidemen on Ornettes first two records, but still not fitting his solos comfortably. However, now I can appreciate one factor I didnt notice back in the 80s: Metheny made the rather bold decision to improvise alongside Ornette, a player usually alone in the front line of his music, on several cuts. Word From Bird, the first cut on the CD where this happens, seems cluttered, but by The Veil its easy to hear Methenys split-second reactions to or against Ornettes lines, paving the way for the title cut (which now arrives a third of the way into the program rather than opening it), which achieves some of the same manic textures as the classic Free Jazz. Meanwhile, Trigonometry, in which each soloist is left alone with Haden and the two drummers (Jack DeJohnette and, once again, Denardo, this time mostly relegated to electronic drums and placed on the sidelines of the remix), remains proof that Ornettes improvising conception had as much life in 1985 as in 1960.
It may be a while before another Ornette month arrives. However, just as Song X changed between the 80s and today, I suspect that the next time I get around to Ornette this music will have a new set of secrets. Meanwhile, Ornettes meetings with ten-year-old drummers and otherwise-mellow guitar-synth experimenters sit in the racks, waiting to give their lessons and pleasures to a new set of record buyers.