Shock of the Old

Two reasons why today's jazzers are afraid to go where Ornette Coleman went before.

Contrary to popular belief, there are still a handful of jazz musicians with recording contracts who enjoy taking chances. But most of the acts that fit this description, including Other Dimensions in Music, Test, the Matt Wilson Quartet and local hero Hugh Ragin, are indie-imprint signees forced to toil in relative obscurity -- and those few major-label instrumentalists with a similar sense of adventure tend to tread lightly for fear that they'll be banished to the farm leagues, too. Take James Carter, a gifted saxophonist inked to Atlantic Records. He recently issued Layin' in the Cut, a scorching electric set featuring Marc Ribot and Jamaaladeen Tacuma that opens up new and exciting possibilities for his playing. But in an apparent attempt to reassure his corporate overseers that he hasn't completely lost his senses, Carter put the disc out in conjunction with Chasin' the Gypsy, an infinitely safer (and more accessible) tribute to the late guitarist Django Reinhardt.

That's not to suggest that Gypsy is merely a marketing ploy: Carter is a traditionalist by nature who likely enjoyed tipping his hat to Reinhardt every bit as much as he did shredding notes alongside Ribot and Tacuma. But he's also something of a jazz historian who undoubtedly understands that most performers who went to majors thinking they could focus on art to the exclusion of commerce were quickly disabused of that notion.

Exhibit A: Ornette Coleman.

Like plenty of this country's greatest musical talents, saxophonist Coleman hasn't been well served by record labels. Over the years, the Sultan of Skronk has bounced from one firm to another with the rapidity of an Allen Iverson dribble. And while there's been no shortage of companies willing to sign him -- for the prestige, y'know -- such outfits tend to drop his contract like a steaming goat cluster when the profits fail to accrue. As if Coleman was ever gonna have a hit single...

Coleman's history with Columbia is typical. Reps at the mega-imprint, which provided Miles Davis with a home during several of his ultra-memorable developmental periods, brought Ornette on board in 1971 and told him to do his thing. But when Coleman responded with Science Fiction and Skies of America, two of his most idiosyncratic efforts (which, in his case, is really saying something), the suits had second thoughts. In 1973 he was cut loose, along with Keith Jarrett, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans. Journalist James Isaacs, in a 1982 essay, likened this move to "the 1961 New York Yankees suddenly placing Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle on waivers."

Now that we're in the Age of Digital, an epoch in which even decades-old flops can be milked for profits, Columbia accountants have finally discovered some bottom-line value in Coleman's curiosities -- hence their decision to reissue Skies of America and Science Fiction, which has been retitled The Complete Science Fiction Sessions because it sports extra tracks made available a decade later under the title Broken Shadows. But while the company's motives for doing so can't exactly be described as pure, the results are auspicious indeed. Neither of these salvos reaches the heights of Coleman's late-'50s/early-'60s work for Atlantic -- if you don't own The Shape of Jazz to Come or Change of the Century yet, you have some catching up to do -- but they provide a portrait of an artist totally willing to go out on a limb he knows damn well won't keep him aloft for long.

The concept behind the recordings on Sessions, a double CD, was to reunite Coleman with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, pocket trumpeter Don Cherry and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, all key collaborators from earlier periods. But thanks to Coleman's craggy personality, the results can hardly be described as nostalgic flashbacks to a time when he and his minions were turning bop inside out. Although "What Reason Could I Give," disc one's opener, features a raft of esteemed alumni, the song is dominated by the pairing of Coleman's sky-touching melodicism and the ethereal vocals of Asha Puthli, who manages to hold her own in some extremely august company. The tune doesn't have much shape; it's a three-minute fragment that does a fast fade just as it seems ready to take off. But for such a seemingly minor excursion, it sure manages to stick in your head.

Not every track on CD one manages this trick. For instance, "Civilization Day" (presented in two different mixes) is such an effective blowing session, with the notes played by Coleman and Cherry flapping against each other like panicked birds in a phone booth, that it's unfortunate to discover "Rock the Clock" and two versions of "Street Woman" taking similar tacks. Likewise, the more composerly "Law Years," featuring some of Haden's most preternaturally intuitive thumping, precedes similar ditties such as "The Jungle Is a Skyscraper" and "Country Town Blues" that don't quite reach its level. But the title track, built around the apocalyptic intonations of poet David Henderson, is a jarring, unforgettable epic, and "All My Life," again starring Puthli, affords the listener an opportunity to hear Coleman and crew attempting something very much like a standard jazz ballad, but with just enough twists to make it feel fresh. Gorgeous stuff.

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