Tag Archives: Jazz

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Ornette ColemanScience Fiction Columbia KC 31061 (1972)


Science Fiction might be Ornette Coleman’s last really great album.  It is a doozy.

In some respects, this is one of the last original statements of the musical approach Ornette had taken starting in the late 1950s.  Many of these songs open with a “head” with two performers playing a composed line in dissonant unison.  Then the songs open up with the performers playing in less coordinated ways.  But that approach only accounts for a portion of the album, mostly in the middle part.

The opener “What Reason Could I Give?” is something different from the traditional Coleman song structure.  Instead of a more structured head that gives way to less structured collective improvisation, the entire song is organized around unison playing.  Every one of the performers, with some slight exception for the two drummers who must accept the more limited tonal palettes of drum kits in exchange for unobtrusively skittering rhythmic attacks, seems to be guided by a close and commonly structured composition that tries to balance the tone, volume and overall intensity of performance.  A singer (Asha Puthli) provides an inherent focal point because of the lyrics, though really they are not “in front” of the other performers in any real way.  This type of song structure seems like a more fully realized version of things Ornette had hinted at in the late 1960s, when he started working with Dewey Redman, but never really mastered.  This song is fluid, engaging…convincing.  And the balance never falters.

An open secret to Ornette’s music is the way he integrates composition and improvisation.  Performers are not simply cut loose to play whatever they want.  Ornette was a composer above all.  Yet his way of composing presented the opportunity for his compositions to seem to dissolve away amid the improvisation.  Paradoxically, the only way the improvisation can structure itself to overcome the compositional elements is through the compositions themselves.

So, starting with “Civilization Day,” Ornette is back to a kind of bop group combo formation that opens the song with a form of unison playing that leaves specific spaces in place.  After the initial statement of the songs theme, the drums drop out, and then solos are traded.  The bass (Charlie Haden) is very insistent throughout.  It provides the strong urging of a regular beat that undercuts what would otherwise be an oppressive intensity from the wailing of the wind instruments.  The next song “Street Woman” sort of combines the approaches of the first two.  The bass takes more liberal departures from a steady beat, both in a rubbery statement in the head (plus a similar closing to the song), and in a prominent mid-song solo.

The title track launches straight into no-holds-barred skronking from basically the entire group, but then is overlaid with a heavily echo-processed spoken vocal recitation that is delivered as broken, almost independent declarations, bolstered by the sound of a baby crying.  While the sudden presence of the vocals threatens to subordinate the skronking to a secondary role of just background noise, the disassociated nature of the spoken pieces, broken up further by the baby crying, deny those vocals the chance to take on the central focus of the song.  Ornette uses misdirection.  He structures the song to return to the premise built up by the first tracks just when the song seems to reject that premise.  Its is a brilliant move.

“Rock the Clock” again opens right into a bunch of skronking from the wind instruments, but with Ornette on violin playing scratchy, abrasive and high-pitched bowed sounds, then an electric bass gives the song a touch of the sound of the jazz-rock fusion movement — very funky.  Between the bass and the violin, two extremes sit together, taking opposite approaches (pulsed beats on bass, extended tones on violin)  yet kind of create a meaning through their juxtaposition.  This proves to be a great performance of a song that would become standard in the Coleman repertoire.

“All My Life” basically establishes the template for what Ornette would do with his Prime Time band in years to come.  Puthli returns on vocals.  However, this formulation lacks the immediacy of the opener “What Reason Could I Give?”  Each performer seems to hold in place so as not to disturb the others.  All together, nothing moves forward.  It is as if the compositional framework amounts to no more than a very constrained set of rules governing how each performer must relate to the others (as to tone, volume and overall intensity).  The content each performer delivers seems to get reduced to fluff — sort of like a theorist coming up with a complex mathematical equation to model some principle but working it through with only “easy” and unrealistic numbers to make the formula easier to compute.  But “Law Years” ups the ante.  It has a catchy hook, ending with a staccato “bah-doo-bah-da-doo-dah,” first introduced on Charlie Haden’s bass, that seems to stop short of a full resolution, like a person walking then suddenly stopping only to lean forward, through momentum, almost forcing this person to keep walking.  The drums and bass pummel the listener with a drive that is unrelenting.  It adds to the immediacy of the solos.  The title “Law Years”, a kind of pun intimating “lawyers”, is sort of an aggressive challenge cloaked in a nostalgic look back at a bygone time of order.  It is an expression of anti-legalism.  Yet it is delivered through performances not too far off from what Ornette’s groups had been doing for a decade.  This was just a more aggressive and militant expression of it.

The closer (“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper”) is sort of a throwaway, not really up to the rest of the album.  It frequently verges on indistinct soloing without the conceptual force of the best songs before it.  Ed Blackwell gets to pummel the drums a bit.  But a lengthy drum solo doesn’t quite seem like the best way to cap an album like Science Fiction.

Ornette Coleman – Change of the Century

Change of the Century

Ornette ColemanChange of the Century Atlantic SD 1327 (1960)


The Shape of Jazz to Come gets more fanfare, but Change of the Century is just as classic. It’s got too many catchy songs to say otherwise. “Ramblin’” and “Una Muy Bonita” have Ornette Coleman at his most lyrical. Coleman and his group are confident. The feeling that they could do anything proves true.

Much of the album leans toward bop, but when Coleman includes “Bird Food” you know the influence is intentional. There is more to music that pre-set harmonies and predictable song structure (A-A-B-A fits better into a Fred Flintstone catchphrase than into this album). The Coleman Quartet lets out some things that wouldn’t suit the confines of traditional jazz. Comfort is not the point. These things were inexpressible unless Coleman could break free.

The oft-made comparison to Jackson Pollock’s painting style is still worth repeating. These motherfuckers had the gravy. Insides-out. Calling them “sloppy” technicians is missing the point. Change of the Century fails by conventional standards because conventional standards had failed the group. So if you can get past blaming who for what, this is a hip slice of music.

Charlie Haden turns in a brilliant performance here. Apart from the tremendous songs, he makes the album unforgettable. Haden needs to be particularly pointed out. He earned that honor, no jive.

Ornette Coleman was as monumental a force as there was in Twentieth Century music. His albums don’t come better than Change of the Century. This makes a cornerstone of any record collection.

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime Time – In All Languages

In All Languages

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime TimeIn All Languages Caravan of Dreams Productions CDP85008 (1987)


The landmark contribution Ornette Coleman made to jazz was in disengaging improvisation from a verse/chorus format built around repeating harmonic structures, and turning it into something that seems to continuously move forward, as Paul Bley explained in a September 2007 interview with Andy Hamilton in The Wire magazine.  Bley said,

“There was an article in Down Beat in something like 1954, in which I mentioned that jazz had reached a crisis and that AABA form had too many As, and not enough CDEFG.  So I began working with groups where we would play totally free, and that led to a kind of dead end, because ‘totally free’ didn’t necessarily allow you to continue.  A totally free piece is a totally free piece, end of concert. ***  [But Ornette] suggested ABCDEFGHIJK, in which repetition was anathema *** It wasn’t totally free because totally free was A forever, metamorphosing.  It was a form that took hold, because you could finally return to the written music, and the audience had something to hold on to.”

It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think the Second Viennese School and Anton Webern) than dixieland, swing, bop, or any other movements within jazz or blues.  It also echoes Jacques Attali‘s notion of “composing” as a historical phase in the development of the political economny of music that breaks from “repetition”.  Ornette told interviewer Howard Mandel (The Wire, June 1987),

“I always tell everybody I’m a composer who performs.”

Coleman wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

The term “harmolodics” has caused much consternation, because Ornette has never fully defined it — though he has long claimed to be working on a book (yet unpublished) that will explain the theory in detail.  Some aver that “harmolodics” is a made-up term that has no meaning in music theory; it’s just a term Ornette arbitrarily uses to describe his music after the fact.  This view tends to find support in the many vague descriptions Coleman has given over the years, like one to John Szwed (The Village Voice, July 22, 1997), where Coleman stated that “harmolodics allow[s] a person to use a multiplicity of elements to express more than one dimension at one time,” adding that “harmolodics means the loss of a style in music.”  Yet in an interview he gave Andy Hamilton (The Wire, July 2005) Ornette stated:

“The sound of the piano is not the note of the piano.  The note of the saxophone is different to the sound of the saxophone.  The note you hear is not the sound of the instrument.  It’s the idea of the notes that you hear being applied to the instrument.  To this very day, I’ve been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments [per Hamilton, these are “typified by clarinet (Bb); flute, oboe and all stringed instruments (C); alto sax (Eb); and French horn (F)”].  I call that harmolodics.  So when I found that out, I started analyzing what people call melody for ideas.  But melody and ideas are not confined to any instrument . . . , you don’t have to transpose ideas.  ***  Harmolodics is where all ideas — all relationships and harmony — are equally in unison.”

Hamilton summarizes this approach in music, which is expressed by Coleman in his later years in the context of transposition and non-hierarchical inter-performer dynamics, as an “extreme sensitivity to nuances of timbre . . . ” and where “the quality of a musical interval is more important than the relation of the interval to any possible key centre . . . .”  In short, that could be described as merely the rejection of pre-determined temperament, which has been accomplished long before Coleman arrived.  But Hamilton’s rather technical interpretation still doesn’t positively and objectively define the boundaries of what Coleman actually does with his music, at least not in a way that allows other to make “Harmolodic” music without reference to a Coleman recording or performance.  It merely points out some things the music is not.  The jury may still be out on what Harmolodics really means, and it is even possible that the strength of Harmolodics is that it can’t be explained, but suffice it to say that Ornette Coleman consistently uses the term to describe his musical outlook — one he has developed to shake off the arbitrary confines of 20th Century Western musical forms and notation.

In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, Coleman explained his goals in music:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

This is important in suggesting that Coleman’s Harmolodics may be as much a political statement that is applied to music as any sort of concrete artistic practice.  He continued,

“In fact, the music that I’ve been writing for thirty years and that I call Harmolodics is like we’re manufacturing our own words, with a precise idea of what we want those words to mean to people.”

Coleman then questions his interviewer,

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  That quote is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  This also ties in to something sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written about with respect to autodidacts (people who teach themselves things), who are typically shunned and rejected by people trained in “legitimate” modes of discourse that are associated with dominant groups and institutions.  This is because autodidactism is commonly (implicitly) perceived as a threat to those dominant groups and institutions — threatening their ability to reproduce themselves and regulate the status of members of those groups.  John Litweiler‘s bio Ornette Coleman a Harmolodic Life (1992) recounts stories of Ornette feeling ill when he realized how much his own methods differed from accepted norms when studying with Gunther Schuller and of the numerous physical beatings Ornette suffered at the hands of those threatened by his new techniques when starting out as a musician.

Harmolodics may, possibly, be explained in terms of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan‘s theories regarding three orders of The Real, The Imaginary and The Symbolic, inasmuch as Ornette attempted to avoid the burdens of conformist and limiting social norms through a passion for The Real.   The Real in this instance is the elusive core of the ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. that is the subject that the musical discourse is about, ultimately a lack constituted by those ideas, thoughts, feelings.  The Symbolic is the musical expression as such, the written or performed notes and sounds.  The Imaginary is the ideology — Harmolodics — that mediates between The Real and The Symbolic, a kind of fantasy or dream that subjectivizes material experience.  In this formulation, Harmolodics may be something of an attempt to break free of socially-imposed limits on the structuring of human thought by pre-existing musical notation and structures in the Symbolic order (what Lacan called “the Big Other”, a sort of colonization of thought that creates but also limits the scope of desire), and find more space that overcomes a lack of free, diverse and unique expression, through new fantasies (Imaginary constructs) that facilitate a connection between the symbolic musical notes and sounds (which create a desire to express something through them) and a kind of unattainably direct reality, what he various refers to as “thoughts” or “ideas” or “emotions”.  Harmolodics would therefore be a kind of myth of freedom.  It was radical because it challenged the idea that the existing system of Western music created a justified order, or provided freedom already.  Ornette never completely breaks from the socially constructed symbols of musical form.  He is still trying to express something through musical sound, just like the pre-existing musical order professes to do.  He did try, however, to use music to express something real outside musical symbolism, and yet impossible to express directly.  In this way, Harmolodics might be seen as evincing a super-Platonic “notion that empirical reality can ‘participate’ in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through” the spatio-temporal reality and appear in it, while recognizing that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.” (to quote Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing 2012).  So, in some sense, Harmolodics allows Ornette to revisit all sorts of common topics with a fresh perspective, or, as the case may be, from multiple perspectives.  A kind of constellation of symbolic representations can thereby imply the inexpressible ideas or feelings that emerge at the breakdown of those musical symbolizations.  This may be why the apparently contradictory nature of Ornette’s Harmolodics is actually its greatest strength.  For Ornette, the dream (Harmolodics) embedded in his new musical forms was a means to inscribe ideas, thoughts and emotions with more democratic, egalitarian, and, self-determined contingencies into music.  In this way Harmolodics gives the appearance of being just another musical theory, just another purely technical program for putting together sounds in a “musical” way, which masks the political objectives bound up in it.  Going back to Paul Bley’s characterization, about making repetition anathema, this is the way a black man who lived through Jim Crow America could envision expression in a different sort of society, a free one, by imagining the possibility of change and reconstructing musical forms to suit those possibilities.  This was a rejection of those symbolic limitations of musical forms or styles that deny change, rather than a perpetuation of the inherent stasis of something like European contrapuntal music (a symbolic order), for instance, or even the tonal centers of be-bop jazz or the formalized rhythm of swing jazz.  These ambitions or dreams are not immediately realized through music, but they make it possible to conceptualize a movement in that direction.  All this pushes toward fulfilling the lack of freedom and free expression.  What Bley describes as “totally free” is usually anything but that, and instead music that falls back on disavowed or unacknowledged mental hangups and limitations.  Ornette jumps right past that problem by putting forward Harmolodics as a guiding principle that both establishes a set of rules and laws for musical performance and at the same time suggests transgressing those very rules and laws.  There is an endless back-and-forth baked into Harmolodics in this way.

At its best, Ornette’s music addresses a lack of freedom in a way that does not simply revel in a completely anarchic morass that pretends to be the complete fulfillment of freedom, as if all limits on freedom are simply instantaneously shed and overcome.  Instead it makes constant recourse to melody, syncopation, and other compositional details that provide a kind of guidance, fractured by techniques that in fact often go beyond socially accepted stylistic forms, complete with squawks, conflicting solos, and irregular beats.  This might be what Ornette means when he talks about the melody not being the lead, because in the ideology of Harmolodics the melody is just a symbolization, a kind of secondary aspect tied to mere technique, and not the “note” or the idea that is what is inscribed into the music through melody, and other techniques like harmony, etc.  In its most utopian aspect, the tension between out of reach democratic egalitarianism and the limitations of socially accepted music forms in a racist, restrictive society is mediated by the dream of passing boundaries and evolving in a way that does not simply reproduce the existing music forms, and by extension, the limited kinds of ideas, thoughts and feelings they tend to engender.  Freedom, in this conception, is therefore not a state, a condition that finally overcomes constraints preventing its realization, but rather a process, already graspable, that can never be fully resolved.  The only thing to do is patient, simple work along these lines.

In Goethe‘s Faust, a professor makes a wager with Mephistopheles that he can live without christian morality and not regret it.  As Faust is dying and poised to lose the wager, he wishes he could live to keep trying.  At that point angels come to save him, saying, “He who strives and ever strives, him we can redeem.”  (Goethe, Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy). Ornette’s wager is that he can live without European musical forms and symbolization, and the narrow range of thought and emotion they embody, and not regret it.  He can’t fully succeed.  Like Bley said, Ornette’s music is not totally free.  But he strives and ever strives.  And above all, he strives to eliminate the mental hangups that that suggest limits on musical practice that were never there.  This is what made Ornette among the most important figures in modern jazz.  But there is the caveat that his Harmolodics is a kind of empty theory, that doesn’t have any particular subject.  The democratic ends he tries to express in his compositions are just one possibility, and in a society that is already free his music could be used to move toward oppression.  Well, it could also end up wallowing in nothing more than entirely circular quagmires of supposedly self-evident emotional truths, even if no more than empty narcissistic, hedonistic, self-indulgent platitudes.  In other words, it could end up reverting to the endless metamorphosing that Paul Bley described, albeit shifted to endlessly cycle over egotistical personal experience.

The album In All Languages was a double LP, with one disc featuring Prime Time and the other Ornette’s reunited 1960s Quartet.  Many of the same songs were recorded with both groups, including probably the most notable new song “Latin Genetics.”  Listening to both versions allows comparison and contrast, particularly with respect to the different rhythmic textures and phrasings.  It would be hard to call this one of Ornette’s best album-length efforts.  The sterility of the recording sounds oppressively dated just a few decades out.  But the in making an effort to tie together the “classic” style of his 60s Quartet with the very different approach of Prime Time in one work, it highlights how Ornette’s early work looked forward towards something that was just beginning — a something slightly vague and unspecified — while Prime Time was something of a declaration of victory — perhaps a bit premature — that the democratic future of music had been achieved.

Directions in Music By Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew

Directions in Music By Miles DavisBitches Brew Columbia PG 26 (1970)


There is no question that Bitches Brew is a milestone of that beast known as “jazz fusion”.  What continues to astound is how odd it really was.  This was heralded for it efforts to introduce rock influences to jazz music.  But this sounds like no rock record of its age, or any other.  Miles went on to record far more “rock” sounding albums, like A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  This things was something else entirely.  It presents a modulating soundscape with hardly any points of reference.  No matter what angle you approach this from, its massive sound just overtakes your any contextual references brought to the table.  You can hear Miles play trumpet, but amidst the washes of keyboard, guitar, horns, bass and drums, the whinnies and blurts coming out of Miles’ horn sound other-worldly.  The sheer number of players that are heard and the amount of raw material spliced together to form the the finished product was something new for a “jazz” album.  What it ensures is that the textures continually shift.  I somewhat rarely throw this on my stereo, but when I do I’m always surprised.  There seems to always be another layer to the music waiting to be discovered.  The density of the vision is great, because you can pick out any song, jump in at just about any point, and find one of those perfect notes.  Those are the notes that feel like the culmination of the massive sonic fabric that surrounds them.  And to think that “fusion” was a fairly new concept when this album came together, it’s a remarkable thing indeed that the creativity and power of the album is at a maximum throughout.  Don’t bother looking for missteps.  For the most part, this album defined the 1970s in jazz.  That might have been for the better early on, even if it was for the worse after around 1975 when Miles went into temporary retirement.  There probably is no other artist or group that reached the heights Miles did with this form.  Sure, others made major contributions and achieved great things.  But Miles was able to take the basic idea here and take it many different directions over the years with countless lineups.  You’ll probably either hate this, or love it to the point of addiction to the relentless, harrowing journey Miles will take you on through the rest of his activities in the 70s.

Paul Bley Quintet – Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Paul Bley QuintetComplete Live at The Hillcrest Club Gambit 69272 (2007)


Wow.  In short, what you have here is pretty sloppy packaging of some great music.

The packaging:  Well, to begin with, the cover and liner features a photo of Ornette Coleman that must have been taken close to 50 years after the music was recorded.  Then the tracklist is messed up completely.  Track number five is labeled “When Will the Blues Leave?” and track seven labeled “Ramblin'”, while track five is clearly “Ramblin'” and track seven is clearly “When Will the Blues Leave?” when you play the music.  Then, there is the fact that this is credited as an Ornette Coleman record.  Strictly speaking, these recordings were made at gigs led by Paul Bley where Ornette and Don Cherry just sat in.  But, Ornette does steal the show, there are tons of Ornette’s compositions here, and Bley was so profoundly influenced by Ornette that maybe it’s only slightly misleading to call the album Ornette’s own.

The music:  Awesome.  Previously released on Paul Bley/Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry/Charlie Haden/Billy Higgins: The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet and Coleman Classics, these live recordings show that, musically, Ornette was leaps and bounds ahead of what his problematic first studio album suggested.  The landmark contribution Ornette made to jazz was in disengaging improvisation from a verse/chorus format built around repeating harmonic structures, and turning it into something that seems to continuously move forward, as Paul Bley explained in his September 2007 interview in The Wire magazine.  It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think Anton Webern) than the hard bop and cool jazz traditions still in vogue in 1958.

In truth, the sound quality here approaches that of a bootleg.  Billy Higgins and especially Charlie Haden sound quite muddy in the mix, and Bley is hardly audible when comping — only becoming distinctly clear when taking solos.  Yet the horns come across quite clearly.  Don Cherry is in a surprising form, playing with a delicacy on “How Deep Is the Ocean” rarely associated with him.  But Ornette is really front and center here, showing why he is known as one of the greatest stylists and soloists.  Well, perhaps Ornette’s talents aren’t quite as popularly recognized as they should be.  Bley once described the negative reaction to the music at the Hillcrest Club, which catered to a predominantly black, working-class audience.  He exaggerates some (audience chatter and even applause is audible on the recordings), stating that when his band with Coleman and Cherry took the bandstand:

“Several things happened almost at once.  The audience en masse got up, leaving their drinks on the table and on the bar, and headed for the door.  The club literally emptied as soon as the band began playing.

“For the duration of that gig, if you were driving down Washington Boulevard past the Hillcrest Club you could always tell if the band was on the bandstand or not.  If the street was full of the audience holding drinks in front of the club, the band was playing.  If the audience was in the club, it was intermission.”

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (1999), p. 63.

But then, Goethe offers the following in his travelogue Italian Journey, Part One (1816):

“One gets small thanks from people when one tries to improve their moral values, to give them a higher conception of themselves and a sense of the truly noble.  But if one flatters the ‘Birds’ with lies, tells them fairy tales, caters to their weaknesses, then one is their man.  That is why there is so much bad taste in our age.”

In quite a later age too Johann.

James Carter – Conversin’ With the Elders

Conversin' With the Elders

James CarterConversin’ With the Elders Atlantic 82908-2 (1996)


A great many people play classic jazz tunes like “Parker’s Mood,” “Lester Leaps In,” “Naima,” and “Moten Swing.”  Precious few put out albums with those songs set beside the likes of Anthony Braxton‘s “Composition #40Q” and Lester Bowie‘s “FreeReggaeHiBop” (AKA “Ska Reggae Hi-Bop” as recorded by Bowie with The Skatalites) and find ways to make each and every performance dazzle.  But James Carter does just that on Conversin’ With the Elders.  Working with an assortment of elder statesmen of jazz from whom he has drawn inspiration, he is never intimidated for a second.  His tone is brash as always.  Yet what marks this album as something special is that it connects Carter’s music to a sense of context.  Nicholas Boyle, writing an introduction to a Selected Works English-language edition of writings by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, said that “Goethe — it is especially evident in his novels — was aware that the meanings that make up our lives may come from outside us.  *** [W]e find ourselves by giving up the search for ourselves and finding instead the world — a world which is there for us . . . .”  And so it would seem with James Carter too, for he is never bound up with distancing himself from tradition.  He instead positions himself within a continuum represented by the songs and collaborators he works with.  He is of course a recognizable force within that continuum, such as how he at times fractures the familiar melodies of some of these songs and squawks his way through the more conservative material, but it is precisely by working with, rather than against, the bits and pieces of musical history you have here that he achieves something much greater than just another futile attempt to make a complete break with that which came before.  In that sense this is the final frontier of music, where everything is put on the table and what was already there can’t be ignored.  Music like this actually takes more effort and maturity than something created in a bubble, because it requires equal parts deferential respect and confident innovation.  Oh, and it just sounds great!  This is a lot more interesting than hearing some supposedly out-there musician playing what amounts to the same thing over and again and just calling it “free” or some conservative partisan painting himself or herself into a very tight corner of rigid post-bop reconstructions.

Anthony Braxton – Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Trio (Victoriaville) 2007

Anthony BraxtonTrio (Victoriaville) 2007 Victo VICTO CD 108 (2007)


A performance at the 2007 Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville by Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Trio.  The group performs in conjunction with the SuperCollider program running on a computer.  Braxton smokes!  He has with him a large assortment of saxophones, including the monster contrabass saxophone.  Look to this as one of his finest personal performances of his later career.  The other members play well, though Halvorson does better yet on Quartet (Moscow) 2008.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements – The Tao of Mad Phat (Fringe Zones)

The Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones>

Steve Coleman and Five ElementsThe Tao of Mad Phat <Fringe Zones> Novus 63160-2 (1993)


Steve Coleman.  There are perhaps few figures in 1990s jazz quite as pretentious.  He indisputably was a central figure of that time.  So many, from his now well-known early cohorts like Cassandra Wilson to later figures like Vijay Iyer, have taken influence from him.  He practiced a style of music he called “M-Base”, short for Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations.  Now, okay, I just called it a style.  Coleman has this to say on the matter: “Music critics have constantly stated that M-Base is a musical style and this is not true.  Since the beginning of time critics have by and large been unable to deal with any creative expression.  M-Base is a way of thinking about creating music, it is not the music itself.”  Mmmm, right, okay Coleman.  M-Base merely fits the accepted definition of “style”, but he say it’s not a style.  I guess this just puts him in the same category as teenage garage bands that sound just like The Stooges but refuse the connection and insist they are totally unique man!  You know, the kind of adolescent posturing that tries to talk a big game but does not deliver at nearly the same level, though, in fairness, is perhaps just due to being inarticulate and lacking self-awareness–dooming them to repeat musical history.  But that aside, Mr. Coleman should go read Science and Sanity by Count Alfred Korzybski, who famously said “the map is not the territory”, and then reflect on the fact that a table is not a table, it is merely something that is collectively understood by the word “table” and the word is not the thing itself.  Now that I’ve sufficiently blown your mind, writing more about Coleman and this album is probably a fucking waste of time, but, frankly, I don’t give a shit.  Come back and read the rest later.  I’m making a goddamn point here and it needs to be made.  Coleman has often used a trick much like many modern economists and their veneer of mathematics used to conceal their faulty assumptions and circular logic (or like Ornette Coleman with his “harmolodics” for that matter), which hides some rather simple ideas behind a bunch of technical jargon and big words.

Tao of Mad Phat has to be among Coleman’s best efforts from the 90s.  It was recorded “live” in studio before a small, select audience (not unlike Beach Boys’ Party!).  The hallmarks of the man’s sound are all here: lots of electric instruments and synthetic sounds.  The focus is on shifting rhythmic textures, with things like melody a mere by-product of the rhythms.  But then there is “Incantation”, which features a number of guest spots rather than his usual backing band, and which feels different in many respects from the typical M-Base style.

The basic sound though is kind of cyclic.  It’s like James Brown and Maceo Parker, sort of.  Though the focus on rhythm gives the music a narrow objective that lacks the daring of Miles Davis‘ funky fusion of the 1970s that took the limitless possibilities of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic music and applied them to jazz.  Steve Coleman usually took the sonic textures of fourth-tier 1980s funk and incorporated them into a jazz setting.  The tendency was to produce listless schlock like Black Science.  But Tao of Mad Phat isn’t listless at all.  The atmosphere provided by the staged “live” setting gives the band a chance to stretch and adjust their rhythms in a fluid manner, without the claustrophobic search for perfect meter, pitch and other distractions to spoil things.  For a change, performance takes precedence over theory.

There is the other issue of the “spirituality” of Coleman’s music.  This album avoids much direct expression of it in the performances.  It’s noticeable mostly in the titles of the songs.  Part of this element comes from a very vaguely Pan-Africanist view of the African diaspora, with similarly vague allusions to Asian religions.  The Afrocentrist elements were hardly unique to Coleman, as this was the era of One for All and that whole aesthetic.  While there is something noble, perhaps, in Coleman’s intentions, most often the problem is that stacked next to, say, Pandit Pran Nath or lots of other purely religious music, Steve Coleman’s stuff just…sounds…so…cheesy.  He comes across as the guy with statutes of Buddha, the Virgin Mary, and Ganesh in front of his house, because, well, he values all religions, and he shows it with plaster lawn ornaments.  It seems slapped on top, without deep foundations in the music.  Here at least, that whole aspect of the music is pretty easily disregarded.

I can’t exactly say I’m a huge fan, but this is a pretty good album, and it’s worth it if you have an interest in the upside of some of the most stultifying forces of the halcyon days of 1990s jazz.

Miles Davis – Big Fun

Big Fun

Miles DavisBig Fun Columbia PG 32866  (1974)


It is somewhat amazing to think that despite the intense creative peak Miles Davis achieved in the early 1970s, On the Corner from 1972 was the last proper studio album he consciously assembled for roughly ten years, until The Man With the Horn in 1981.  Everything in between was either archival in nature, a live recording, or, like Big Fun and Get Up With It, an amalgamation of leftovers spanning a period of many years.  When it comes to Big Fun, rather than taking the rather disparate material — from the moody, atmospheric “Great Expectations/Orange Lady” and “Lonely Fire” from the late-1960s Bitches Brew era to the grinding rock of “Go Ahead John” from the Jack Johnson period to the murky, paranoid, Eastern-flavored “Ife” that was recorded following the On the Corner sessions — and either accepting the incongruity or else massaging the material in the editing process to homogenize it, Davis and producer Teo Macero take a third path.  What happens is that they take raw material as if in a highly elemental form, and Macero uses studio effects and cut-and-paste techniques to transform a lot of it into something different than any of its origins.  This is perhaps most apparent in the harshly chopped and distorted editing of guitarist John McLaughlin‘s solo(s) and Jack DeJohnette‘s drums on “Go Ahead John.”  This was remarkable stuff.  The editing process was a conscious and audible part of the final work.  There were precedents.  Modern composers had made similar experiments.  For instance, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (whom Davis greatly admired) stitched together national anthems for his Hymnen, and Steve Reich chopped up a spoken word sample to create Come Out previously.  But Davis and Macero were taking those techniques and trying to apply them to popular music.  This was meant for the masses!

Often relegated to at best a second-class status, Big Fun is a better record than that spotted critical history suggests.  Yet it also isn’t the most immediately impressive entry into the long line of great 70s fusion albums from Miles.  Most listeners will perhaps want to put this further down the list of Davis albums of the period to check out.  But bear in mind that if anything from the period hooks you, you will almost inevitably seek out the rest, and Big Fun definitely earns its place in that search.  This has a more agitated and fiery flavor than the earliest of Davis fusion efforts in the late 1960s, but also a more ambient quality than much of the dense and funky early/mid 1970s recordings.  If there was a way to convey the tumult of the times, this would have to be it though.  It’s a record that isn’t always satisfying, at least not for more than moments.  If that sort of approach isn’t for you, then the album won’t necessarily be for you.

Wynton Marsalis – Black Codes (From the Underground)

Black Codes (From the Underground)

Wynton MarsalisBlack Codes (From the Underground) Columbia FC 40009 (1985)


Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored.  He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz.  And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole.  Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be.  And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that.  But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success.  In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it.  This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me.  I still have to admit that this is a good album.