Ornette Coleman

Sound Museum–Three Women

Sound Museum–Hidden Man


By Peter Margasak

Most discussion of the two new Ornette Coleman recordings has focused on the presence of piano, and understandably so: apart from the insignificant keyboard presence on last year’s Tone Dialing, Coleman has steered clear of piano since 1958–the year of both the legendary Hillcrest Club recordings with Paul Bley and the fruitless participation of Walter Norris on Coleman’s debut, Something Else! Because it’s a tempered, chordal instrument, the piano often straitjackets aharmonic exploration, in many ways the essence of Coleman’s music. Geri Allen’s simpatico contributions to both editions of Sound Museum do amount to something of a watershed for that reason, but more striking than the involvement of a bona fide chordal instrument is that it’s been used in the fulfillment of Coleman’s harmolodic promise: as he writes in the rather impenetrable liner notes, “The four players of Sound Museum are expressing their opinions free of the leader.”

Coleman’s harmolodic theory has never been clearly elucidated–he’s been promising the definitive explanation in book form for decades–but it comes down to all the players in a group focusing exclusively on melody. The written composition serves as a root for independent strands of simultaneous improvisation. Coleman’s epochal Free Jazz (1960) hinted at truly free playing, but there are several tunes on the new albums that actually deliver it.

Sound Museum also marks the first acoustic Coleman recordings since the uneven reunion of his classic quartet–with the late trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins–on In All Languages (1987), the double album which found the quartet and Coleman’s all-electric outfit Prime Time interpreting many of the same tunes. Prime Time–ostensibly pairs of drummers, electric guitarists, and electric bassists–came closest to operating without a safety net on In All Languages and 1979’s Of Human Feelings: guitarists Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbe and bassists Al MacDowell and Jamaaladeen Tacuma played propulsive lines independent of one another and of Coleman’s dominant alto saxophone, but the pervasive funk rhythms of this group necessitated, at the very least, a steady pulse. So while drummers Calvin Weston and Denardo Coleman (Ornette’s son) managed complex polyrhythms and odd time signatures, they never completely wriggled free of the beat.

Prime Time’s biggest failing, however, has been the cluttered sonic quality of its recordings. Even when all four stringed instruments embarked on their own respective paths, trying to make out who was playing what was like trying to pluck one snake out of a writhing pit. Despite an array of effects, the guitars and basses occupied the same limited dynamic range, and rarely displayed a sense of space. The acoustic group heard on Sound Museum–Ornette, Denardo, Geri Allen, and bassist Charnett Moffett–seems to understand that a silence can be as provocative as a piercing sax squeal.

Coleman has rerecorded his compositions many times in the past, but Sound Museum takes the idea to its logical extreme, in part to illustrate the creative possibilities of harmolodics. With one exception on each record, Hidden Man and Three Women contain the same 13 songs. (The exceptions are downright weird, especially in this context. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” on Hidden Man, is a stiff quasi-gospel number with straight-up piano and rhythm-section accompaniment; “Don’t You Know By Now,” a vocal number with Lauren Kinhan and Chris Walker on Three Women, sounds closer to slow-jam crooning than loose-limbed jazz singing.) In some cases the solos vary; in others even the basic arrangements are different. Nearly half have been recorded before, one as early as 1965. To compare the new versions to past ones is to trace Coleman’s long route to musical freedom.

Jazzers have often used free or near-free passages to create a tension that’s soon resolved, but that’s never been Coleman’s method. In fact his music has always threatened to allow chaos and density to cancel out the better effects of his experimentation. On “Biosphere,” first recorded by Prime Time on In All Languages, the guitars play beneath Ornette’s alto with considerable knotty independence, but the mix and the compressed range result in a stream of sound that, coupled with the machine-gun percussion, seems downright static. But the new versions on Sound Museum are more fluid and organic sounding. Rumbling improvisations give way to the composed melody a minute or two into the performances. On the Three Women version a furious bass solo dissolves into a prickly run by Allen before the full group joins in; and even as the four voices move independently, they work together toward the dramatic resolution provided by the written melody.

Form can be as restrictive as harmony, and here Coleman has further pushed the music’s structural envelope without lapsing into amelodicism. His 1986 collaboration with guitarist Pat Metheny, Song X, is the source of “Mob Job.” The original is a gently swinging gem on which Metheny plucks soft accents for Ornette’s gorgeous solo while the rhythm section–Haden, Denardo, and second drummer Jack DeJohnette–swings behind them in a linear fashion. On the Three Women version it’s Allen who states the regal melody, while Moffett searches on bass and Denardo’s straight-ahead swinging escalates into increasingly turbulent bashing. On Hidden Man the performance is calmer, with Allen alternating between delirious Monk-isms and the jittery anticipation that laces “Better Get It in Your Soul” by Charles Mingus. (On both versions Ornette again stays out of the fray for a minute or so.)

It’s on some of the new tunes, such as “Stopwatch” and the calypso-tinged “P.P. (Picolo Pesos),” that the players truly let go, shifting densities, tempi, phrase lengths, and attacks at will. Whereas free improvisers long ago jettisoned the fixed usage of these elements in favor of an emphasis on pure interaction and textural relationships, Coleman’s still working in pursuit of the melody, and so the music remains accessible; indeed, it’s gloriously tuneful.

Coleman isn’t introducing any radically new concepts or dabbling in new media here–no orchestral ambitions like on Skies of America or misguided rapping like on Tone Dialing; rather, he’s turned his energies back to innovations that largely had been absorbed into jazz’s working vocabulary. What’s most remarkable about Sound Museum is just how far Coleman can push those old concerns: they sound new all over again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Austin Trevett.