Monday, September 13, 2010
ORNETTE COLEMAN: The Music of Ornette Coleman - Forms and Sounds
A friend of mine told me about the first time he heard The Shape of Jazz to Come: “I had heard that this was just the most out-there thing ever, like it was going to be totally off the wall. I was surprised that it was so tame. Once I got over that initial disappointment, I got into it.”
Ornette Coleman’s reputation as an iconoclast precedes him, but despite the accusations of charlatanism once lobbed at him by purists and formalists, and despite the inaccessibility of his out-jazz progeny, his music is usually very approachable. If anything, his emphasis on melody over all else means listeners predisposed to pop music will know exactly what to listen for.
Usually, anyway. The leap from Ornette Coleman the horn-playing bandleader to Ornette Coleman the composer is not an easy one for most listeners to make. While his classic small group records on Atlantic and Blue Note have grown in stature, his forays into Third Stream music are still approached as curiosities. “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” It took years for conventional critical wisdom to realize he did, at least as a free-jazz innovator. For most of us, the jury is still out on Ornette Coleman the composer. Maybe we just haven’t caught up with him yet.
To put it in context, Forms and Sounds was made in the spring of 1967, between the Golden Circle trio records and the Love Call/New York is Now sessions. Skies of America was still few years away.
The first side is a collaboration with the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet called “Forms and Sounds” in which short passages for woodwinds are linked by unaccompanied trumpet interludes in a strange variation on the call-and-response format. The woodwind passages hover and chuckle and never quite settle into anything cohesive, which is probably on purpose. He knows what he’s doing, right? As Ornette says in his liner notes: “The music on this record is performed by classical musicians playing the compositions of one whose musical life has roots in jazz.” That musical life, rooted as it is in jazz (and the blues, for that mater) had by 1967 grown into something quite distinct: the hovering, unsettled sound of Ornette Coleman Music, and Ornette Coleman Music is always distinctly Ornette Coleman Music. His gnarled melodies are perfect for rowdy, careening free jazz, but don’t translate particularly well to this setting.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the trumpet solos are more pleasing than the sections composed for the winds. Ornette Coleman’s music is about players operating spontaneously, not ensembles working in structured tandem. Even his classic quartet records from the late 1950s and early 1960s, though they contain attentive, responsive dialogue within the group, are designed to give soloists as much free reign as possible. Isn’t that the whole point of chordless jazz? And isn’t that why Ornette and Don Cherry are so upfront in the mix on The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century while the rhythm section is so frustratingly buried? According to reputation and hearsay, Ornette never told the members of this quartet what to play; he simply demonstrated the head of a tune and let them do what ever they wanted. Some of that free reign is given to the instrumentalists performing “Forms and Sounds” (the score allows them to change register at will) but it’s a far cry from the pulsing, immediate jubilance of Coleman’s best work. His trumpet playing at this stage was not as spry as his sax playing, but that works in his favor, slowing him down so his trademark melodic twist is more bluesy than usual.
“Saints and Soldiers” is a piece for string quartet. It sways and it spirals and never lands on anything. Like most Coleman pieces for strings, we’re left holding our breath. Just before the six minute mark the sway is interrupted by abrupt sawing. I think that part is supposed to be the “soldiers” but who knows? After that, trembling strings melt into mush, alternated with angular, lurching motifs. Listening to it, I find myself wishing the music would either launch into deranged Penderecki territory, or smooth out into a lovely Arvo Part cascade. What we get is a middling waiting room of sound. There are intriguing motifs and ideas, but they lack the structure that could make them powerful. Yes, I just complained that music by Ornette Coleman is too unstructured. The irony is not lost on me.
My favorite track here is not coincidentally also the shortest. “Space Flight” has a pop-song running time and a splattering, angular energy that reminds me of John Adams’ “A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” It belongs on your “Best of Ornette Coleman” mixtape. The rest of the album remains a curiosity. If this music had been made by someone who wasn’t also one of my musical heroes, I don’t know that I would pay much attention to it. I have faith, though, that Ornette Coleman always knows what he’s doing, even if I don’t always understand or enjoy it.