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Ornette Coleman: The Missing Years, 1968-1972

Eric Miller By

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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 life—from the final Blue Note sessions of April-May 1968 to the release of Science Fiction on Columbia in 1972—remain 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 career—classics, even—exist in this out-of-print grey area.

Ornette Coleman

Ornette at 12

Impulse! Records

1969

Ornette 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.

Ornette Coleman

Crisis

Impulse! Records

1972

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 appearance—New 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.

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