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Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

Derek Taylor By

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Jazz and Classical music have always been uneasy bedfellows and Third Stream pairings of the two have rarely, if ever, resulted in unqualified successes. The blurred boundaries between the genres are commonly drawn along the lines of improvisation; the assumption being that jazz is an improvised music and Classical composed. This convenient divider becomes immediately problematic in that Classical music, particularly in the case of modern strains, often employs improvisation too. The timely reissue of Coleman’s Skies of America points out that these genealogical debates are ultimately immaterial and what matters most is the music itself.

Interestingly Skies of America wasn’t Ornette Coleman’s first recorded foray into the blending of Classical and Jazz song structures. His contributions to Gunther Schuller’s ‘Variants on a Theme By Thelonious Monk’ hold that distinction. In common with that earlier effort Skies suffers from an unwieldy blend of composed charts and improvised solos. Coleman is like the general who has finally amassed an army worthy of his brilliant stratagems and then squanders their resources in an all out frontal assault. Hearing the orchestra fume and gesticulate across his symphonic palette is thrilling through the first several harmonic freefalls. But the music soon develops an acute lack of dynamic range between sections. Much of the time the orchestra members sound ill at ease relinquishing their classical training and embracing Coleman’s harmelodic precepts willingly. From the opening title piece the music moves along a dense melodic itinerary peppered by monosyllabic bursts of color and frenzied volleys between horns and strings. A two piece percussion section comprised of drum kit and timpani rumbles along murkily beneath. Coleman’s alto (which doesn’t appear until halfway through the program) and the phalanx of orchestral instruments sound very much like David and Goliath, and like the Biblical parable the former's nimble horn wins out.

A further factor that compounds the problem is the way in which the entire work is broken up into bite-sized episodic fragments, presumably in an effort to make it radio-friendly. Just as a theme begins it is upended and replaced by an often-dissonant successor. Even with the remastering job done by Columbia’s engineers for the reissue the recording clarity also leaves much to be desired. High points occur when Coleman’ horn breaks through the waves of symphonic polyphony and begins improvising on familiar melodies grafted from his jazz-based compositions such as “School Work” and “Street Woman.”

In sum, the ambitious grandiosity of the project is one of its principal detractions. A case of too much crammed into too little space. In addition, as John Litweiler’s informative liners point out, the session suffered a string of logistical setbacks both in terms of planning and execution. All of these elements conspire to make this disc important in a historical sense, but less so from a listening standpoint. Still, these foibles aside, it is a fascinating artistic turning point in Coleman’s career and is worth investigating.

Tracks:Skies of America/ Native Americans/ The Good Life/ Birthdays and Funerals/ Dreams/ Sounds of Sculpture/ Holiday For Heroes/ All of My Life/ Dancers/ The Soul Within Woman/ The Artist In America/ The New Anthem/ Place In Space/ Foreigner In A Free Land/ Silver Screen/ Poetry/ The Men Who Live In the White House/ Love Life/ The Military/ Jam Session/ Sunday In America.

Players:Ornette Coleman- alto saxophone, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Recorded: September 9, 1971, England.


Title: Skies of America | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Columbia Records


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