Vermont Review: Ornette Before the Electricity: The Early 1970s

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Ornette Before the Electricity: The Early 1970s

By Benji Knudsen

In this issue’s article about the Knitting Factory’s Knit Classics series, the Vermont Review briefly provided an overview of multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman’s influence on the free-funk movement. This was a music genre that combined avant-garde jazz, funk, punk and world music and was prevalent in New York City from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. Through his new electric band, Prime Time, Ornette Coleman took his musical concept known as harmolodics and went electric (Please see article about the Knit Classics to learn more about harmolodics).

Prior to his groundbreaking work with Prime Time, Coleman was creating equally exciting work with his acoustic bands. Between 1971-1972, Coleman recorded two albums for Columbia Records. These recordings symbolized the final albums that Coleman did for Columbia booted him from the label. In the age of rock & roll, the avant-gardists were not selling the albums. The first recording session was the ambitious The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (this album was originally released as two albums – Science Fiction and Broken Shadows). For this marathon recording, there was seventeen Coleman originals as well as a supporting core cast of pocket trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell. All four of these musicians were key players in developing Coleman’s free jazz sound during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the original liner notes, Rolling Stone writer Bob Palmer explained the avant-garde vibe of the session’s music: " To play this music you have to step out of the mold your teachers taught you, out of the categories of "correct/incorrect", "formal/formless," "consonant/dissonant." There’s form all right; in fact, this is some of the most formally perfect music you’re ever likely to hear. But each tune suggests its own form, just as the physical form of each player helps the determine the form of music takes." One of the most interesting aspects of this album is the fact that a writer for Rolling Stone wrote the liner notes. One could imagine that some of the rock & roll crossover album like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters would have received writing from Rolling Stone, but Ornette’s work was too far out even for some of Rolling Stone’s readers.

The Science Fiction Sessions cover many different jazz styles. The title track is one of the session’s most bizarre tracks. It is highlighted by a full free blowing romp that has the poetry of David Henderson layered on top as well as the sounds of crying babies. "Rock the Clock" is an excellent snapshot of the free-funk that laid ahead in Coleman’s future as it combined "out" blowing with a rock and roll backbeat. This song also featured a rare appearance by Charlie Haden on an electric wah-wah bass. "All My Life" has vocalist Asha Puthli providing falsetto sounds that give the track a Sun Ra-esque feel while "Law Years" shows that Ornette Coleman could play swing be-bop just as well as anyone else. For "Good Girl Blues" and "Is It Forever", Coleman recruited singer Webster Armstrong and guitarist Jim Hall for some good old cacophonous blues while "Elizabeth" resembles a New Orleans funeral march.

Approximately eight months after the recording of the music for The Science Fiction Sessions, Ornette Coleman went into the studio for a recording much different in nature. Instead of New York City’s Columbia Studios, Coleman headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Abbey Road Studios. Instead of names such as Higgins, Hall, Redman, Blackwell and Cherry as his supporting cast, Coleman had the London Symphony Orchestra. The name of the album as Skies of America and it is a fine example of Third Stream music – the bridging of jazz and classical music forms. More than anything, Skies of America was a major avenue for Coleman’s pursuit of harmolodics. As he states in the original liner notes: "Skies of America is a collection of compositions and the orchestration for a symphony orchestra based on a theory book called The Harmolodic Theory which uses only melody, harmony and the instrumentation of movement of forms." The album is one continuous song that possesses many different colors, textures, themes and moods. All along the album, the orchestra helps evokes imagery of the "skies" while political upheaval, social struggle and economic inequality created the implied imagery for the session. Coleman always felt that his music should have an orchestrated feel to it, with each musician contributing a major part to an overall theme. Skies of America was the actual embodiment of this musical vision.

Lest it be an acoustic quartet, a full symphonic orchestra or an electric free-funk outfit, Ornette Coleman always strove to create strikingly original music. It may have been melodic at times a dissonant at others, but it didn’t matter for Coleman’s compositions were always thought provoking and intelligent. These two 1970s re-releases are a testament to that fact.