Metheny fans who hadn't already caught the clues on 80/81 (ECM, 1980) or Rejoicing (ECM, 1984) were in for an electric shock when they hit play on the original Song X back in 1986... and more than a few copies immediately landed in resale bins as a result. The truth, not exactly a mysterybut still a surprise to those who considered Metheny a marshmallow man at heartis that the guitarist has always been tied into the music of Ornette Coleman. He worked with Coleman's rhythm section and Coleman-inspired saxophonist Dewey Redman, he played Coleman's tunes, and he tapped into the primeval harmolodic source at its most rugged and open.
But the frenzied madness of the title track, which greeted listeners in 1986 with a scrabbling, cacophonous collective rush to the top, left no doubt whatsoever about what was about to happen. Song X celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year with a reissue that features six previously unreleased tracks as well as dramatic improvements in sound. All of that goodness serves merely to underline the fact that this is a stone classic of modern jazz which has seen neither peer nor sequel.
Metheny's lush, effected guitar playing provides a helpful tonal contrast to Coleman's often raw, sometimes sweet voice on alto. Because both instruments constantly intertwine and roam lines in parallel, they're easily distinguished, which is absolutely key. The sometimes blistering speed of Metheny's lines, or their occasional stop-start spurts, resolve clearly.
The easy swing of "Mob Job" harkens back to the deceptively simple themes and counterthemes that Coleman's first groups explored around the turn of the '60s; the sentimental lyricism of the soft, rounded lines on "Kathelin Gray" convey an oddly warm sentimentality. But fiery frag-fests like the title track and the utterly insane thirteen-minute "Endangered Species" are more the rule than the exception. At certain times you have to pinch yourself and remember that there are only two drummers. (Jack DeJohnette and Denardo Coleman, now fully grown up.)
The really exciting thing about this reissue is the extra material: five tracks (plus a fragment) that show off different angles. "Police People" is more connected to the swinging blues that has always rooted Coleman's work, and the surreally calypso-like "The Good Life" actually has a pretty straightforward feel-good message. Elsewhere the bonus cuts seem to more clearly distinguish "solo" from "accompaniment," to the extent Coleman's music makes that possible in the first place.
Marshmallow heads heed my warning, if you haven't gotten the message already: stay away from this thing. But as for the rest: if you're willing to have your mind blown open by the possibilities of harmolodic guitar, you will find no other energy source so radiant, intense, or vibrant. Plug in.
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