Paul Bley: Walking Woman

Vicious. That's the word. With Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves holding down the low end, Sun Ra's not-so-secret weapon Marshall Allen and trumpeter Dewey Johnson launch a firestorm of sound. Leader Bley is more than up to the task, as he tosses back comments from behind his keyboard. A couple of near-unison squeaks from the horns, and Bley takes off on a long solo that sees him engage in a blistering call-&-response workout with Gomez. The entire band comes in for a short restatement of the head, giving a very Ornette-ish feel to the proceedings. People who have a knee-jerk reaction to free jazz should be directed to this track, as it's both technically thrilling and seriously fun.

November 10, 2008 · 0 comments

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Fred Frith: No Birds

Guitarists have always brandished their instruments like weapons. But when Fred Frith arrived on the scene it was like AK-47s had just hit the street. He could do some nasty stuff with his axe, and in his hands the guitar seemed capable of evoking the noise of industrial machinery, the metal-clashing clamor of colliding cars, the mind-numbing brrrrr of dying household appliances, and the relentless buzz of a dental drill looking for an exposed nerve among your back molars.

Frith's classic "No Birds"—the longest track from his essential Guitar Solos release—displays how brilliant this artist could be at his finest moments. He crafts eerie, quasi-orchestral sounds from his guitar, a modified 1936 Gibson K-11. Midway through the track he plays two modified guitars simultaneously—they were laid out on a table, neck to neck, with their bodies pointing in opposite directions—and the results take us far outside the realm of conventional chordophone music. Decades have passed since this record was made, but it still stands as a signpost at the outer limits of solo instrumental performance.

October 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Just For You

"Just For You" is one of the more puzzling entries in the Coleman discography. The track features trumpet and alto sax playing simultaneously, yet in the album credits (and all the discographies I've seen), Dewey Redman is noted as playing tenor sax only on these sessions. Therefore, one might infer that Redman sat out this track while Ornette overdubbed either alto or trumpet. At first, the altoist's tone does in fact sound pretty Ornette-ishthat is, until you listen to the other tracks on the album, when it becomes clear that despite the vague similarities, the sound you're hearing was very probably produced by a different musician playing a different horn with a different mouthpiece. Despite what the credits and discographies say, this is almost certainly Dewey Redman playing alto for one of the rare times in his recording career.

That said, the relatively brief (4:14), gloomy ballad is hardly one of Coleman's best efforts. The melody and countermelody are attractive in a rather saccharine kind of way. Ornette's rambling, noodling, note-cracking trumpet solo goes nowhere. Jimmy Garrison's equally meandering arco bass seems almost entirely disconnected from Ornette, as does Elvin Jones's uncharacteristically low-decibel percussion. The best thing about the track is actually Redman's straightforward interpretation of the countermelody. It's the only solid ground in 4+ minutes of aural quicksand. This is by far the weakest track on Love Call.

September 30, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Airborne

"Airborne" is in many ways what listeners in the late '60s had come to expect from Ornette Coleman: a tuneful, sequentially ascending major-key melody that leads into a fast, swinging solo section based on an ambiguous tonality. What's different from his past music can be attributed to his choice of sidemen. Elvin Jones is far more aggressive than previous Coleman drummers. During Ornette's solo, Jones and the saxophonist are clearly equalsimprovising in tandem, sharing the foreground while bassist Jimmy Garrison alternately breaks up the time and anchors the pulse. Tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman is a muscular soloist, his tone caustic and often overtone-laden; his exalted level of creativity and energy is on the same plane as the rhythm section's.

Love Call and its companion album, New York Is Now!, have often gotten short shrift from critics who can't seem to wrap their ears around the stylistic dissonance between these and earlier Coleman groups. Approached without preconceptions, however, it's hard to understand how this can be considered markedly inferior to any but a few items in Ornette's discography.

September 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: The Garden of Souls

It seems almost an article of faith among critics that New York Is Now! and Love Call are among Ornette Coleman's lesser works; more than one scribe has panned them outright. Listening with fresh ears, it's hard to understand why. Both contain marvelous music. As the first track of New York Is Now!, "The Garden of Souls" introduced listeners to Ornette's latest foil, Dewey Redmana tenor saxophonist with a rasping tone and soulful manner, whose oblique solos complemented and shadowed Coleman's. Redman's tenor fills out the ensemble, his husky tone burnishing the balladic theme statement, his focused improvisation adding more physicality to Ornette's concept.

Most of the criticism heaped on this music is aimed at bassist Jimmy Garrison, and, to a lesser extent, drummer Elvin Jones, whose main crime seems to be that they weren't Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. Garrison tends to engage Jones more directly than he does Ornette, making him, one supposes, more conventional than some of his predecessors with ColemanDavid Izenson and Scott LaFaro, especially. But Garrison did the same thing when he and Jones backed John Coltrane. Elvin conversed with Coltrane; Garrison held down the bottom. That also happens here to good effect: Elvin listens closely to Ornette, mostly following the saxophonist's meandering whims, while Garrison listens for Elvin's cues and responds accordingly.

Thanks mostly to his choice of sidemen, the mood of the performance is darker than is typical for Ornette, but that just adds to its uniqueness. Garrison and Jones were different from Ornette's prior accompanists, all right. That doesn't make them bad or even unsuitable. Vive la difference. This is top-notch stuff.

September 24, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Sound Gravitation

Ornette Coleman took a step or two in a new direction with The Empty Foxhole. Whether or not it was a direction worth pursuing is something listeners must decide for themselves. The inclusion of his 10-year-old son as the drummer raised quite a ruckus when this record came out. Young Denardo was clearly his father's son: his iconoclastic (can a 10-year-old be an iconoclast?) approach on this freely improvised track disdains any semblance of time-keeping, instead accenting and responding to what his dad and Charlie Haden do on violin and bass, respectively. Ornette's violin technique consists primarily of scraped double-stops and very fast, serpentine lines. There's little melodic definition; it's mostly an exploration of timbre and texture. Haden mixes it up with Coleman & Son, while his fluttering pizzicato serves as an important organizing element. Denardo clearly has big ears and quick reflexes. Everything he plays relates to what his elders are doing. On some of the album's other tracks, he's forced into something of a conventional role, which doesn't suit him at this point. He's much better equipped to play absolutely free, as he does here with some success. This is a very noisy performance, more akin to '80s-era non-idiomatic free improvisation than jazz. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe not even for Ornette. On his next two Blue Note albums he used Elvin Jones.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: The Riddle

"The Riddle" is an almost 10-minute collective free-bop improvisation with a brief, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it melodic tag on the end. Taken at a medium-up tempo, Ornette plays much of it in a jittery double-time. Supported by drummer Charles Moffett's bop-derived flights of freedom and bassist David Izenson's supple plucked bassline and guttural arco, Ornette's solo is a paradigm of what stream-of-consciousness improvisation can accomplish. He has so internalized the component parts of this style (which he invented, by the way) that he's able to manipulate it to communicate any effect: technical, emotional or otherwise. That means playing ahead, behind or right in the middle of the beat; grasping a tonal center or rejecting it entirely, for as long or as briefly as he wants; making one cry or laugh. "The Riddle" makes clear just how far Ornette had progressed in the 2+ years he was away from the jazz scene. Not only did teach himself to play two new instrumentstrumpet and violinhe'd also improved as a saxophonist. Here he plays with more confidence than ever. His silence in 1963-64 begat an even more joyful noise in '65.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Snowflakes and Sunshine

Ten-and-a-half minutes of high-energy, wholly improvised Free Jazz, "Snowflakes and Sunshine" features Ornette employing his (then) newly acquired violin and trumpet chops. As could be expected, Coleman's hardwired auto-didacticism led him to approach the instruments idiosyncratically. Unlike his sax melodieswhich are often diatonic, and in any case deal with standard intervals more often than nothis violin line is chromatic to the point of being microtonal, alternating scraping double-stops with lightning-fast squiggles. His trumpet playing is similarly expressionistic, if not quite as chromatic. Coleman's technique on both instruments is coarse, yet he clearly has ample means to express himself. David Izenson's rapid-fire pizzicato bass all but disappears in the shadow of drummer Charles Moffett's tom-toms and bass drum, though he lends the music a palpable momentum. Moffett displays why he might have been Coleman's most exciting drummer. His beat is steady, as the surrounding accents and rhythms are in constant flux. This music is restless and unrelenting. Though it lacks almost entirely the grace that characterizes Ornette's sax-based music, it possesses its own feral beauty.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Dawn

A ballad, Ornette-style. The aching theme meanders, never resolving or coming to rest exactly where you think it should. Ornette's alto and Izenson's arco bass begin with a tightly wound, presumably improvised introduction. The composed melody is a bit sentimental, stopping short of being maudlin. Like many of Coleman's ballad themes, it vaguely suggests something one might have heard before without being openly derivative of anything specific. In his solo, Ornette is spectacularly successful in holstering his chops and concentrating on lyric invention. Izenson bows in cello range, his gently expressive vibrato in apt service of liquid melody. Moffett's manner of accompaniment and placing accents is unconventional. Rather than simply snap shut his hi-hat on 2 and 4, for instance, he'll obsess over it with his sticks, subdividing the beat in unpredictable ways, while maintaining the pulse. The rhythm section is highly attuned to Ornette, interpreting his slightest suggestion as a command, following him in every directionmelodically, rhythmically, harmonically. A classic performance by a classic band.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Faces and Places

Compositionally, "Faces and Places" is of a type with such earlier start-and-stop, bebop-ish Ornette Coleman tunes as "Folk Tale" from This is Our Music or "Forerunner" from Change of the Century. In execution, however, there are differences, one being the absence here of Don Cherry. Whereas the older recordings had the trumpeter on hand to spice up the ensembles and provide another solo voice, now Ornette's alto is the lone horn. As a consequence, Coleman seems to play longer than on his quartet recordings, which is not a bad thing. He ratchets up the intensity to a higher level, due in part, one suspects, to the extended solo time and the fact that it was recorded live. Another reason is the presence of drummer Charles Moffett, a grittier player than Ed Blackwell, his immediate predecessor in the band. Moffett's ride cymbal is heavier, his accompaniment patterns and fills generally more raucous and active. In contrast, bassist David Izenson plays so soft (or is so under-recorded), he's nearly inaudible at times, though one can feel his presence as lighter, more surface-oriented than previous Coleman bassists such as Charlie Haden or Jimmy Garrison. That said, Izenson's style certainly doesn't dampen the energy. If anything, his technical facility increases the sense of drive. This performance has a more visceral kick than much of Ornette's prior work, and is a fitting introduction to a new stage of his career.

September 18, 2008 · 0 comments

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Joe Farrell: Collage for Polly

I never really got into the art of Jackson Pollock. To me his abstract art was a bunch of nonsense. I mean how creative was it to stand over a big canvas and randomly drip paint onto it? I sort of looked at free jazz the same way. Free jazz has never really been in the bag of jazz music I reach into to. I am sorry to say I find much of the music of the free school to be no better than hearing a group of drunken revelers tooting away on their party noisemakers.

Of course, I respect all musicians and must leave room for the fact that the free music I didn't like may be above my head. What does this say about the free jazz I do like? Is it simpler? Is it less free? What does it say about me? Am I not very smart? I don't really know. But searching my memory for the few times I have enjoyed any music from the genre, something does become clear. I don't seem to be able to handle it when the musicians are all on top of each other playing directionless themes and disparate forms. I do have a good ear, and the music has to get pretty damn complicated to lose me. But I prefer the free jazz excursions in which individual players can be clearly heard. That occurs in "Collage for Polly." The tune which is not a tune is constructed in such a way that each player is given space to make a statement. Echo and reverb dominate the open spaces because that was what was available to the players in 1970. This collage is almost more a sampling of cosmic sound effects than any form, free or not. But they are cool sound effects. How can you not be interested in hearing four of the most renowned and inventive jazz musicians of their day (and now) express themselves in such an unencumbered way? It is also always a plus for any free jazz piece to be short in length. In this case we are talking 2 minutes. Perfect.

Epilogue: It turns out that some years ago I was at a business convention in Chicago and attended an event at the Art Institute of Chicago. With gin and tonic in hand, I started roaming. I came across a Georgia O'Keefe. Then I saw the famous American Gothic. I turned the corner into a very large room to find myself standing in front of a HUGE Jackson Pollock. I stood and stared for several minutes. The damn thing was fascinating. I found myself analyzing each drip and jagged line. In my mind I could see a tired but inspired Pollock applying the gallons of paint. I realized then and there that Pollock was a great artist and that we should always keep our minds open to any art and that includes free jazz.

September 16, 2008 · 0 comments

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Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman: Endangered Species

The opening remark by Pat Metheny's Synclavier guitar and Ornette Coleman's alto sax is eerie and foreboding. When the rest of the band crashes in seconds later with Haden's rumbling bass and the double-barreled attack of DeJohnette's and Denardo's drums, the anticipated punch to the gut is realized. The strangeness of the song isn't the totally free and frantic way it's played. Rather, it lies in the sense that there is some method lurking beneath all that madness. While Metheny is making glorious noise on his axe, Coleman settles into his familiar harmolodic statements, acting as the eye of a violent storm.

"Endangered Species" is not some token nod to balls-out jazz meant to mollify Metheny critics; Metheny is fully invested in this song. And Coleman, reinvigorated.

September 13, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: What Reason Could I Give?

Ornette Coleman's groups in the 1960s and early '70s that included Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Dewey Redman and others were pivotal to me as a musician in that they seemed to bridge the gap between my early love of folk and rock with the more abstract and highly improvisational elements of jazz. There's a folksy quality to Ornette's music that seems to reflect the early days of jazz when the music was guttural and instrumentalists played lyrical melodies with voice-like tones. On Science Fiction, he used the studio as an instrument, more so than on many of his previous albums. This tune incorporates vocals (from Asha Puthli) in a seamless way. It takes guts to envision this kind of music.

July 01, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: First Take

It is certainly no coincidence that the development of the rhythm section coincides with the progression of the great jazz bandleaders. This unwritten codependency is indispensable to jazz history. Ornette Coleman launched a series of firsts with Free Jazz, not least importantly the collectively improvising "double rhythm section" that ironically stripped away everything except the bare minimum of bass and drums. Also note- worthy is the reputation of section mates LaFaro, Haden, Higgins and Blackwell as consciously melodic players, contrasted by their intense, seemingly random playing here. But behind the occasional chaos of "First Take" ultimately lies the same melodic players searching for and finding their melody, forever legitimizing the option to be "set free."

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments

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Ornette Coleman: Focus on Sanity

Sanity might have seemed the issue for some when this was first unleashed to the world in 1959. Colemans work was so groundbreaking and divisive that it seemed you had to pick sides, and consequently he was hailed as a genius or condemned as a charlatan. This performance has all the elements of his early work that I love. The alto and cornet state the jagged, short opening theme followed by Haden and Higgins in duet for two minutes. The theme is restated to demarcate the start of Colemans solo and then again for Cherry and Higgins. None of these themes is quite the same, and yet they surely exhibit a continuity that is a signature of this great artists canon.

May 19, 2008 · 0 comments

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