Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ornette Coleman [extended]

  • Dancing in Your Head [Horizon, 1977] A
  • Body Meta [Artists House, 1978] A-
  • Of Human Feelings [Antilles, 1982] A+
  • Opening the Caravan of Dreams [Caravan of Dreams, 1986] A-
  • Song X [Geffen, 1986] A
  • In All Languages [Caravan of Dreams, 1987] A
  • Virgin Beauty [Portrait, 1988] A
  • Tone Dialing [Harmolodic/Verve, 1995] A-
  • Sound Museum: Hidden Man [Harmolodic/Verve, 1996] **
  • Sound Museum: Three Women [Harmolodic/Verve, 1996] **
  • Colors [Harmolodic/Verve, 1997] A-
  • Song X: Twentieth Anniversary [Nonesuch, 2005] A
  • Sound Grammar [Sound Grammar, 2006] A
  • Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street [BGP/Flying Dutchman, 2013] A
  • Ornette at 12/Crisis [Real Gone Music, 2017] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Dancing in Your Head [Horizon, 1977]
Some may have hoped the greatest saxophone player alive would go the Weather Report route on his first small-group record since 1971, but I'm reminded more of the programmed synthesizers of Eno and Philip Glass. Basically, the record consists of charged repetitions of one motif from Coleman's symphony, Skies of America. The difference is that where most such music aims for a hypnotic effect, Coleman wants more: a sustained and formally satisfying version of the kind of galvanic intensity John McLaughlin used to create at climatic moments. He gets it, too. A

Body Meta [Artists House, 1978]
Hidden in Coleman's dense electric music are angles deep enough to dive into and sharp enough to cut your throat. This isn't quite as dense or consistent as Dancing in Your Head--"Fou Amour" does wander. But "Voice Poetry" is as funky as James Chance if not James Brown. And "Home Grown" is as funky as Robert Johnson. A-

Of Human Feelings [Antilles, 1982]
Ornette's pioneering Dancing in Your Head was completely unrelenting, his ancillary Body Meta somewhat amorphous; Blood Ulmer's records are jagged, Shannon Jackson's uneven. Which makes this album, cut three years ago with five young musicians who have gotten even better since, a breakthrough if not a miracle: warm, listenable harmolodic funk. Most great lyric artists shore up their effusions with irony, but the way this music confounds mind-body dualism should provide all the release from tension anyone needs. The teeming intellectual interplay of the rhythms is no less humane than the childlike bits of melody. And the way the players break into ripples of song only to ebb back into the tideway is participatory democracy at its most practical and utopian. A+

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time: Opening the Caravan of Dreams [Caravan of Dreams, 1986]
Only the second LP by the harmolodic funk originators, this was recorded live at the well-appointed Fort Worth avant-garde emporium in 1985, and it's a live album for sure--it lacks the studio-engendered beginning-middle-end that focuses Of Human Feelings and for that matter Metheny/Coleman's Song X. When it threatens to break altogether "free," its risks seem more like entropy than thrills and chills. But it's a live album showcasing one of the great improvisers, as well as musicians who never sound more authoritative than when following his orders. A-

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X [Geffen, 1986]
I've always regarded Metheny as a harmless, well-meaning talent whose interests are as far from mine as, I don't know, Nino Rota's. It was nice that he admired Ornette, but his jazz was still way too tame. Well, never mind--this collaboration is the best pure jazz album Coleman's made since I started keeping track in the early '70s. No rock moves, and no funk, harmolodic or otherwise--it's all sweet lyricism, sonic comedy, and headlong invention. Metheny obviously doesn't deserve top billing, but he holds his own, especially on guitar synth, where his duet responses, ensemble parts, and choo-choo noises all fit in. And while rhythm stalwarts Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette make everything swinging, it's Metheny's taming effect that keeps the music in trim. A

In All Languages [Caravan of Dreams, 1987]
Packed by their eternal leader into ten cuts averaging 3:22, Cherry-Haden-Higgins surge hotter at fifty than they ever dreamed old or new, as if harmolodic funk is an essentially structural principle, inhering more in the constraints of song conception that in the electric pulse. It's the Quartet disc that evokes the dense flow of Of Human Feelings, which leaves Prime Time room for patches of free cacophony as daunting as the Quartet in its youth. Defining both bands is the natural iconoclasm and indefatigable lyricism of the fifty-seven-year-old rebel who's probably the most widely respected musician in the world, and who somehow doesn't get any less amazing as a result. A

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time: Virgin Beauty [Portrait, 1988]
If the quietest of the Prime Time records--lyrical, sublimely reflective, autumnal at times, even Milesish when Ornette picks up his trumpet--ain't rock and roll, that doesn't mean it isn't "rock." The pulse pulses, and Jerry Garcia, never exactly King Kickass, fits right in. The tuneful themes show off Ornette's pop feel, and while Garcia has rarely comped or noodled more purposefully, it's the unsung Charlee Ellerbee or the equally unsung Bern Nix who does the tighten-up beneath "Bourgeois Boogie." In and around the themes Ornette improvises a whole lot of saxophone without once showing off. He's beyond that now. A

Tone Dialing [Harmolodic/Verve, 1995]
After a spate of productivity in the late '80s, this genius hasn't released an album in seven years. But the layoff hasn't affected his m.o.--through 16 cuts that go on about as long as the double-LP In All Languages, he's neither stale nor overflowing. As is his practice, he leads with dynamite: an opening charge, a poetry-with-jazz rap that fits together so well the words don't matter, a restful West Indian ditty, some rearranged Bach, and a gloriously oversampled collage that orchestrates "unmusical" sound into improvisatory ground. After which he spends 40 minutes demonstrating his undiminished ability to create beauty out of what would have been called chaos before he changed the world's ears. I don't claim to love it all. But I take exception only to the tabla thing. A-

Sound Museum: Hidden Man [Harmolodic/Verve, 1996]
not the ideal place to get to know him ("Macho Woman," "City Living") **

Sound Museum: Three Women [Harmolodic/Verve, 1996]
nor to continue your acquaintance--or is it the other way around? ("City Living," "Macho Woman") **

Ornette Coleman/Joachim Kühn: Colors [Harmolodic/Verve, 1997]
Having divided his career between better-than-average fusion records that still weren't anything to write reviews about and explorations of his moderately prodigious classical chops, Kühn proves a serviceable helpmeet to genius. On this live-in-Leipzig duet album his pianistics comprise an exotically European environment for Ornette's transcultural sound and melody--a bracing change and a damn fine handle whether crashingly atonal or liltingly romantic. A-

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X: Twentieth Anniversary [Nonesuch, 2005]
Right, the same damn jazz album--same damn fine jazz album--he/they released in 1986. Only the 18 minutes of bonus tracks, which include Ornette blowing changes and playing bebop, would make a damn fine EP. Instead, they sit there at the very beginning, saying, "We are the loam from which Song X will arise forthwith." A

Sound Grammar [Sound Grammar, 2006]
Looking back, we understand that Coleman was always an inspired melodist. We may even conclude that it was his melodies that made his free, harmolodic and avant-funk concepts irresistible. But at 76, he turns the page with this two-bass, two-Coleman quartet. Tony Falanga bows most ballad themes and is hornlike or maybe just cellolike throughout. Ornette's alto (though not his trumpet or violin) could also be described as cellolike, and his new compositions suit the mellow mood even when the arrangement gives Denardo Coleman room to bash and rumble. Exemplary is one of just two remakes: 1959's "Turnaround," which was a lowdown gutbucket blues on Tomorrow Is the Question but is a whimsical chamber-music blues here. Both times Ornette quotes Cole Porter's "Do I Love You"; here he also quotes Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer." Conceptually as major as Change of the Century (1959) or Of Human Feelings (1979) and almost as consummately executed. A

Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street [BGP/Flying Dutchman, 2013]
An orphan in Coleman's many-labeled catalogue, this 1970 recording is often overlooked in favor of his somewhat earlier live-in-Stockholm Golden Circle albums on Blue Note, a more reputable imprint than Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman. It had sat unplayed amid my vinyl for 40 years. But when I gave this Eurozone-manufactured CD a trial spin, I fell hard. The Golden Circle records have great moments (the lyrical "Antiques," the site-specific "Faces and Places"). But they're chamber music. This has the overheard quality of a jam, with Coleman's time-tested Charlie Haden-Ed Blackwell rhythm section beefed up by Dewey Redman, whose tenor is always there to add some body when Ornette picks up a trumpet or violin. Cacophonous title track to theme-and-variations "Long Time No See" to trumpet feature "Let's Play" to two-sax "Forgotten Songs" to blowout "Tomorrow," it's all keyed by a very multigenerational chorus singing or if necessary chanting "Friends and neighbors, that's where it's at." A

Ornette at 12/Crisis [Real Gone Music, 2017]
Released 1969 and 1972, Ornette's lost Impulse albums were recorded live at Berkeley May 1968 and NYU March 1969. Dewey Redman's tenor sax roughs up the alto/trumpet/violin-wielding leader, Charlie Haden bows darkly more than he plucks staunchly, and the drummer is 12-year-old Denardo, rumbling irrepressibly all over nine titles that are sometimes also tunes--"New York" and "Broken Shadows" cross-referential, "Song for Ché" a dirge to remember. It sounds good because what Ornette doesn't? But you hardly notice Don Cherry returning on the second album, and while you can hear what a magnificent player Denardo will become, he's here partly because he isn't yet--Ornette wanted a bottom more untethered than the mere magnificence a grooving Ed Blackwell would soon provide on 1970's Friends and Neighbors. The late '60s were politically turbulent times, and good for Ornette for trying to tell the truth about them. But in the end, that wasn't the kind of truth that set him free. B+

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