Ornette Coleman – Skies of America

Skies of America

Ornette ColemanSkies of America Columbia KC 31562 (1972)

Skies of America is one of the most perplexing — and frustrating — albums in the Ornette Coleman discography.  For one, it was recorded with significant technical and logistical restrictions: the performance would not fit on a single LP and had to be edited for release; it was recorded in the UK and local musicians union rules prohibited Ornette’s desired staging (which would have included his regular band alongside a full symphony orchestra); and rehearsal time for the symphony was limited to the point of inadequacy.

This album was an unmistakable signpost that Ornette was having what can only be described as delusions of grandeur.  The humility that was always one of the most attractive features of his music was receding.  In his early career he sought to find any avenues to pursue his music, first by finding musicians who would play with him, then to having paying gigs and some recognition by other musicians.  Those things seemed like enough for him for a while, though he was notoriously fickle about compensation and sought to sidestep the music industry through self-staged performances like the famous Town Hall 1962 concert.  Now he seemed to be seeking external validation and acceptance by the musical establishment, the general public, and the bourgeois.  These weren’t exactly humble goals.  By the end of the 1970s he seemed genuinely convinced (according to his mangers at the time) that he should achieve popular fame to equal that of any pop superstar, and also that he should earn millions of dollars (as he noted in interviews).  If these things don’t seem to bear directly on the music, a quick comparison of his recordings from a decade earlier reveal significant departures, and these are plausible explanations for them.

The music itself is what is typically called “third stream” music: a synthesis of jazz and classical music, usually in the form of completely notated, scored music that resembles the improvisations of jazz.  Ornette has mostly written music for a full symphony that sounds a bit like what his small jazz combos played, with him soloing in brief passages.  Yet a nagging issue with the score is the orchestration.  It makes scant use of the possibilities of a full orchestra.  Mostly the players play homophonically, with the entire orchestra moving in unison (for what it is worth, conductor John Giordano re-orchestrated the entire piece in the mid-1980s, with Ornette’s assistance, and that version was performed multiple times).  This brings up a number of contradictions.  Ornette often spoke about “unison” as a principle of his music, but in the jazz context that meant having independently improvising players choosing to work cooperatively, whereas in the symphonic context it meant merely a kind of dictatorial power over the score that the entirely symphony plays.  Also, using a full symphony seemed decadent, and the same results could seemingly be achieved using a smaller chamber group.  For instance, Ornette had composed other (and underappreciated) pieces for smaller chamber groups, like “Dedication to Poets and Writers” (on Town Hall, 1962) and “Forms and Sounds” (on The Music of Ornette Coleman).  In some ways, these things seemed less like musical achievements than social grandstanding, with Ornette putting a feather in his cap to say that he had commanded the sorts of resources necessary to have a full symphony perform a composition. Moreover, the insertion of Ornette playing jazz saxophone solos on a few songs seems to add little to the piece, other than to insert Ornette as a distinct and individual personality into proceedings that are otherwise dominated by the collective sound of the orchestra — though “The Men Who Live in the White House” does point to his light, airy later-career performance style.  The syncopation added by the symphonic percussionists at times also seems a bit clumsy.

In all, this is a problematic recording to say the least.  The underlying compositions do have merit, which does shine through.  However, the way it was realized and recorded leaves much to be desired.  In hindsight, this was a sign that the 1970s were going to be rocky when it came to Ornette Coleman recordings.

My own view of the album tends to vary widely depending on when I hear it.  I can listen to it and think that Ornette is a complete dilettante, and another time listen to it and think it is inspired if still hampered in how it was recorded.  My feelings are mixed.  I can say that I find a 1987 bootleg recording of a live Italian performance of a re-orchestrated version of the piece to be far superior to this one.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced

Are You Experienced

The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced Reprise RS 6261 (1967)

The Jim Hendrix Experience’s debut album is a great one.  Released in significantly different forms in the UK and US — get one of the expanded versions from the CD era that include all the UK and US tracks, plus the complete early singles (with both A- and B-sides), resulting in more than what either the US or UK original stand-alone versions offered.  There is a strong influence from electric blues traditions, but what makes this album special is how it goes well beyond tradition.  In fact, the confident psychedelic edge throughout the album makes clear that Hendrix and his band are committed to the counterculture.  This album could really only have been made at the specific time that it was made.  It conveys a sense of inevitability, like the counterculture was poised to win and let all the freaks (and everybody else) be themselves, unhindered.  Hindsight shows that over the next fifty years the other side claimed almost all the victories, and from that perspective the hippie vision of the Jimi Hendrix Experience seems almost like a quaint relic.  But there is nothing frivolous about how the band plays these songs, which have that blues feeling but often a kind of macho swagger, curiously put to use in service of less macho notions, all done in a way that is quite earnest in is own way.  This represents the attitude that will almost be necessary if the tables are to turn and the countercultural vision rekindled.

“The Wind Cries Mary” has a dreamy romanticism not unlike Bob Dylan‘s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  “Purple Haze” is the overtly druggy freakout.  “Fire” and “Fox[e]y Lady” are kind of libidinal rockers, and some of the better known album tracks (released together as a single later on).  Along with “Hey Joe,” these are some of the most recognizable rock songs of the period.  They have been played on the radio consistently even decades later.  Yet there is more to the album than just a few highlights.

“3rd Stone From the Sun” is a kind of swirling sonic odyssey, which tends to rob the social status quo of its power by invoking cosmic imagery that places human struggles on just one “stone” in an increasingly accessible solar system (this was the “space age” after all, and this song probably qualifies as afro-futurism).  The blues stuff like “Red House” (only on the UK version), plus “Manic Depression” and “I Don’t Live Today” convey a sense of struggle, and a lack of naivety, without succumbing to hopelessness or discouragement.  The perspective is of acceptance of struggle and hardship as part of achieving something beyond present circumstance.

It is the often thunderous — and sometimes sweetly tender or mystical — guitar riffs that separate this from a lot of psychedelic rock of the day.  This doesn’t sound like trifling stuff.  It is big, sweeping, decisive, dramatic.  It is also worth mentioning that it isn’t just Hendrix that makes this album great.  Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell make substantial contributions, be it Mitchell’s penchant for loose, supple, jazzy drumming that adds dynamism or Redding’s steady bass lines that complement without ever detracting from Hendrix’s leads.

I guess you could say I’m Hendrix-normative when it comes to rock guitar.  I listened to Hendrix albums extensively as a teenager, and came to accept him as a standard bearer for what it meant to be an excellent rock guitarist.  Looking back, it seems reasonable to take that approach.  There are other ways of playing guitar, inside or outside the rock idiom, but anyone who can play as well as Hendrix (not the same way, but as well) is indeed a talented player.  There is no shortage of opinions claiming Hendrix as literally the best electric guitar player.  But there is no reason to object to that!

Ornette Coleman – Dancing in Your Head

Dancing in Your Head

Ornette ColemanDancing in Your Head Horizon 21 / A&M SP-722 (1977)

Here’s an album that finds Ornette Coleman, in many ways, reversing his musical approach.  Perhaps that’s unfair, or not strictly accurate.  This album points to the limits and hypocrisies embedded in Ornette’s musical approach all along, or how his musical approach could falter.

Howard Mandel wrote in his book Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz:

“Creating harmolodic music involves, for Ornette, restructuring the interplay of aspects of organized sound that in jazz and other genres produce a dynamic tension.  Musicians may seize any tone as a harmonic resolution, freed from the tyranny of fixed chord sequences and their closely related substitutions, the requirement of adhering to  a schedule for passing through whatever chords and substitutions are prescribed to accompany given melodies.  Ornette desires lightning rhythmic response to the structural realignments that can be inferred from melodic variation.  This means each and every member of his ensembles is expected to be listening to each and every other member, to be ready to react to what any and everyone is doing melodically and harmonically (the two being horizontal and vertical expressions of the same pitched material) and rhythmically, while hewing one’s own path through a composition.

This is a fairly astute description of Ornette’s music, at least into the early 1970s.  But Max Harrison wrote in A Jazz Retrospect about Ornette’s symphonic piece “Forms and Sounds” that “[w]hatever indeterminate procedures are written into the Sounds and forms [sic] score do not work, and he does not appear to have grasped that the demands and consequences peculiar to this kind of activity do not parallel those implicit in a jazz solo’s indeterminacy . . . .”  This is essentially a criticism that Ornette’s theories are incomplete, and they do not account for or explain the implicit assumptions of the particular musical habits he and his (small) band members had internalized.  This became apparent in the 70s when Ornette’s Prime Time band tended to draw its members from the ranks of a variety of post-rock-and-roll scenes, rather than from the fairly homogeneous bebop backgrounds of his earliest groups.  Harrison goes on to say that the “Forms and Sounds” recording “drifts on steadily, departing from nowhere and arriving nowhere: when there is no change of emphasis there is no scope for expression.”  This is much like saying the “dynamic tension” is missing.  Even if that commentary is perhaps overly harsh (if not completely wrongheaded) with regard to “Forms and Sounds,” it is the sort of criticism that could well be leveled at Dancing in Your Head.

An analogy that might be made here is to the long-standing philosophical debate over so-called positive and negative freedoms.  Under common definitions, negative freedom tends to mean “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints” while positive freedom tends to mean “the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.”  While Ornette often claimed to be opening up possibilities in his music, to free the performers to play as they chose, this sometimes seemed confined to negative freedom, in that Ornette did not externally impose restrictions on others in the band but he also did not urge any fundamental insights.  Did the other musicians use that negative freedom to pursue any fundamental purpose that is of any interest to listeners?  Did Ornette need to pursue positive freedom in order to make his groups’ music interesting, and was that aspect missing from his theoretical explanations of how his music operates?  These are significant questions when looking at the substance of Ornette’s music.

Ornette had made music before based on a freedom principle and an egalitarian attitude toward improvisation.  Though into the 1970s there was more aggression in his music, and he sometimes seemed a bit jaded and humorless. The egalitarian impulses are also subdued, and, at times, also his humility.  Ornette assembled his Prime Time band using many musicians considerably younger than him, and often without any jazz pedigree.  This tended to mean the musicians were extremely deferential to him.  Ornette was kind of like the group’s master, or guru, and everybody else followed him.  John Litweiler, in his useful and informative biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, makes some important observations about these recordings (and those of the follow-up Body Meta):

“Although Ornette’s own phrasing is considerably more symmetrical than in the past, with a great many sequences and repeated licks — he gravitates naturally to three-note phrases that accent strong beats, and to longer phrases that begin and end on downbeats — his improvising is by far the most varied, mobile and melodic of the group.  The net effect of these recordings, then, is of an alto soloist of uncommon stamina accompanied by rhythm players who take their cues from him and whose strong-beat accenting affects his own rhythmic organization.”

Litweiler continues by saying that the other players use Ornette’s lines for inspiration, and the influence of rock on their playing makes them “less rhythmically free than Ornette’s early players, and their roles are in a sense more restricted.”  This is not at all like what Mandel described — every other musician may need to listen, especially to Ornette, but Ornette wasn’t listening and reacting to the others much, aside from a very generalized shift in his rhythmic phrasing.

On Dancing in Your Head, performances by the electric jazz combo Prime Time are paired with one track of Ornette (and the critic Robert Palmer) playing with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka.  While Ornette saw this meeting of western jazz with the ancient sufi trance music of the Master Musicians as transcending parochial boundaries, and returning to an engagement with dancing audiences largely absent from the cerebral and sedentary audiences for avant garde jazz, there is an unacknowledged flaw in seeing this as transcendent, revolutionary music.  Really the relationship of other musicians deferring to Ornette is simply reversed from that of Prime Time, with him now deferring to the Master Musicians.  More troubling is the way that such deference potentially implies a silly longing for a return to “traditional values.”  The Master Musicians are exclusively male, and membership is hereditary.  They represent, in some ways, a pre-modern, aristocratic/feudal/guild approach to music-making.  So is this musical expression dependent upon hierarchies, like the traditional ones that have oppressed women (etc.) for millennia?  And hadn’t Ornette’s own bands largely lacked female membership (other than a few isolated exceptions)?  And hasn’t Ornette made various homophobic comments in the press through the years?  Doesn’t Ornette’s passion for musical freedom ring a bit hollow from this perspective? (Just as with certain other anarchist figures?)

For the most part, this music simply modulates over and over on the same basic theme, locked into a fairly static rhythm.  This is precisely the opposite of the quasi-serialism embedded in Ornette’s music for so long.  On the one hand, Ornette deserves to be commended for not limiting his music, and expanding the possibilities of what it could encompass.  On the other hand, this also lacks the qualities that made Ornette a name anyone paid attention to.  It seems almost contrarian.

When it came to synthesizing aspects of music from around the world, Ornette was a few steps behind his former musical associates like Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.  And yet, “Midnight Sunrise” with the Master Musicians is the best thing here.  That is partly because the Master Musicians are always great, independent of what Ornette contributes.  But for his part Ornette manages to perform in a way that is reminiscent of his usual highly personal style yet not completely overwhelming, like his playing often can be.  “Midnight Sunrise” is as deferential a performance as anything in Ornette’s career.  Still, “Midnight Sunrise” makes up only a fraction of the album, while an entire album like it would have perhaps opened up a space for further development of a deeper rapport between Ornette and the Master Musicians, and offered more give and take — maybe even overcoming the leader/follower dynamic.

Dancing in Your Head is another polarizing recording — some even take a masochistic view of it praising how “annoying” it is.  Although this album tends to be one of the most highly regarded Prime Time albums, Of Human Feelings and Opening the Caravan of Dreams deserve to be reconsidered as possibly superior (if still slightly flawed) versions of the bulk of this music.

Ornette Coleman – To Whom Who Keeps a Record

To Whom Who Keeps a Record

Ornette ColemanTo Whom Who Keeps a Record Atlantic P-10085A (1975)

An “odds and sods” type collection of old/outtake material recorded for Atlantic Records from sessions in October 1959 and July 1960 that wasn’t already purged from the vaults on The Art of the Improvisers and Twins.  Some blistering moments are to be found, and most musicians would die for rejects this good, but by and large the performances are flawed.  For instance, the opener “Music Always” features a listless bebop ride by drummer Billy Higgins that is stiff and leaden.  Yet “To Us” and “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2)” are high-quality cuts, the latter falling only slightly shy of the issued take of “Blues Connotation” on This Is Our Music.  Fans will enjoy this in spite of its uneven qualities (all the songs are included on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing), but there are much better Coleman albums to explore.

Sun Ra – Media Dreams

Media Dreams

Sun RaMedia Dreams El Saturn 19783 (1978)

Media Dreams was recorded in January 1978 on the same Italian tour as Disco 3000, with the same quartet but earlier in the month.  There are clear parallels with Disco 3000.  Although Sun Ra switches over to a piano toward the end of the album, most of this features him on synthesizer.  Listeners with an affinity for the daring long-form works he was regularly producing in the late 1960s will probably find lots to like here.  For instance, the opening “Saturn Research” is a particularly effective sonic experiment.  On the other hand, listeners not in tune with abstract improvisation will probably prefer other efforts with more grounded rhythms and pronounced melodies.

Sun Ra Arkestra – Hours After

Hours After

Sun Ra ArkestraHours After Black Saint 120 111-2 (1989)

Why don’t people like this more?  It’s pretty much a continuation of what Sun Ra was up to with Reflections in Blue, but also Blue Delight and Purple Night, or even The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra for that matter.  Mostly it leans on big band traditions with trademark Ra harmonic twists and rhythmic subtlety, to great effect on the first two numbers though a little less so on “Beautiful Love” with its quavering vocals.  The last part of the album gets into his more sci fi exotica stuff.  In all, the performances and arrangements are quite good — better even than some of the late 1980s albums just mentioned — and the only real drawback to this is the production, which has a sterile and flat feel that was unfortunately common at the time.