Among Ornette Coleman
's periods of relative quiet, the turn of the 1960s into the 1970s may well be the most frustrating. More than three years of musical lifefrom the final Blue Note sessions of April-May 1968 to the release of Science Fiction
on Columbia in 1972remain shrouded in mystery and obscurity. Every recording made under Coleman's name during this period was done live; worse, all are either unavailable or unauthorized (to slightly varying degrees), forcing fans to hold out for rare original LPs, purchase cheaper quasi-bootleg CDs, or even resort to extra-legal means like internet downloading. This is highly unfortunate, in part because their collective mental energy would be better spent willing for an official release of the 1973 Morocco tapes, but also because at least two vital documents of Coleman's careerclassics, evenexist in this out-of-print grey area.
Ornette ColemanOrnette at 12
1969Ornette at 12
is one such classic. The 32-minute album consists of all that remains of a May 1968 performance at Berkeley, CA, and feels in many ways like a direct continuation of what Coleman was doing at Blue Note. The rhythm section of Charlie Haden
on bass and Coleman's son Denardo on drums (first heard on his father's 1966 Blue Note recording, The Empty Foxhole
) returns, as does tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman
, fresh from Coleman's New York Is Now!
and Love Call
(both Blue Note, 1968) sessions. Indeed, on the opening "C.O.D.," Redman takes the first solo and appears to pick up where he left off on New York is Now!
's "The Garden of Souls"aggressive yet deeply eerie playing replete with deliberate overblowing and speaking/singing through the instrument for multiphonic effect. Coleman also turns in an inventive alto solo on "C.O.D." before switching to trumpet for "Rainbows." Despite an almost prototypical sing-song theme and trace elements of Texas blues in Redman's solo, something sinister lurks in Haden's uncharacteristic reliance on arco and Denardo's exceedingly free approach to tempo (or, more accurately, lack thereof)a nervous energy further honed by his father over the course of two careening trumpet solos. The mental image summoned forth is closer to falling shrapnel than anything resembling a rainbow.
"New York" is the album's free "ballad" statement. It suits Denardo's unconventional drumming just fine, and indeed he appears to audibly grow in confidence as the track progresses. His contribution to the record as a whole is a cut or two above his much-derided (at least at the time) turn on The Empty Foxhole
; the technique is sharper, the communication with Haden clearer and more idea-filled, even while his relative inexperience continues to serve his father's purposes in the form of freedom from ingrained musical cliché. The closing "Bells and Chimes," finds Ornette mounting his own assault against tradition as he picks up his violin and saws his way through a defiant piece of free jazz which nevertheless resonates around an unmistakably bluesy and practically catchy line. There must be at least a fans for whom Coleman's violin playing is a source of endless fascination. At this stage in his career, it was so outwardly lacking in discipline, so unlike his alto in tone and texture that he seems to have tapped into some previously unreachable corner of his inner being in order to make it possible.
The angst at times implicit in Ornette at 12
reaches a boil in Crisis
. The title, of course, suggests something amiss in Coleman's world or in ours; the LP cover, depicting the American Bill of Rights in flames, establishes a direct connection to the social turbulence of the late sixties, and an exceedingly dark mood pervades every track, in outbursts of chaotic noise and in moments of recoiled tension. Unusual in its political bent if not its very anguish, Crisis
is the product of another university appearanceNew York University, March 1969. The previous lineup of Ornette and Denardo Coleman, Redman and Haden is back, augmented by cornetist/flautist Don Cherry
, who alters the group's dynamic in immeasurable ways. Actually, he only get one proper cornet solo, on "Comme Il Faut," but it very much defines the track, seeming to cry out in the most wounded yet somehow elegant of tones. "Space Jungle" opens to the unexpected (and unaccompanied) strains of the double Indian flute, a reflection of Cherry's then-burgeoning interest in a World music as yet undefined.
Three of the album's five tracks eschew traditional solos. The plaintive "Broken Shadows" employs a constantly repeated theme over which Cherry, Redman, and Ornette trade obbligato passages to rather soul-stirring effect. "Trouble in the East" and "Space Jungle" are collective improvisations (though the former suffers from particularly poor recording quality). By contrast, Haden's "Song for Che" is given a more conventional treatment than it received on the bassist's own Liberation Music Orchestra
(Impulse!, 1972). In his book, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life
(William Morrow, 1993), John Litweiler calls the Crisis
version "the finest performance of this loveliest of all Haden songs." Those more accustomed to LMO
version may be inclined to disagree; without the ahead-of-its time folk-song sample, and with less room for Haden's solo to breathe, the piece loses something of its Latin essence. It becomes instead a blowing vehiclewhich is not to say that Coleman and Redman are not up to the task. Coleman, in particular, provides a spirited solo.
Ornette ColemanFriends and NeighborsFlying Dutchman Records
marked the end of an exceedingly brief tenure with Impulse!. 1970's Friends and Neighbors
, released on the Flying Dutchman label and reissued on vinyl in 2011, is now the most easily obtainable Coleman recording of the periodeven while (apparently) remaining (technically) unauthorizedbut also, unfortunately, his least inspiring. Perhaps the imposing heights reached on Coleman's Impulse! sides make a certain amount of disappointment inevitable, but Friends and Neighbors
represents an oddly traditional retreatall swinging exuberance maintained by a constant beat, with relatively little in the way of collective improvespecially surprising given its status as the sole available document of Coleman's short-lived Artists House in Soho, a sort of failed experiment in combining music and living space. Redman and Haden return, Cherry is gone and Ed Blackwell
replaces Denardo. The African polyrhythms in Blackwell's musical DNA shine through in playful interaction with Coleman's alto on "Long Time No See," an album highlight if not a redeeming moment following the embarrassing amateur chorus on the title track ("friends and neighbors; that's where it's at").
Ornette ColemanLive in Paris 1971