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The Jam Session: Ornette Coleman

 Wherein Glenn Brooks, Jason Staczek, Scott Boggan and Bill Kuhn get together with some choice brews to listen to the music Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman  Tone Dialing
the review

"Tone Dialing"
GB Well, this is the jam session. We're here drinking West Seattle Brewing Company ale, their Alki Ale in particular, and we're going to be listening to Ornette Coleman first. This is from his new album,  Tone Dialing.
BK And this is "Tone Dialing."
SB Very nice.
BK Excuse me, there's a call.
(music starts, stunned silence from the crew)
JS Wow.
GB There was a rude comment on a recent Wynton Marsalis jazz radio program for NPR talking about the avant garde and how some folks would just start a recording by listening to the dial tone on a phone and use that as the inspiration. I have a feeling they were thinking of Ornette at the time.
BK This is the reply.
SB Is there some bad blood there, Glenn?
GB I don't think Wynton is particularly impressed with Ornette, frankly.
BK Or anything that's been written the last fifteen years, twenty years.
GB Right. Exactly. Although Ornette's pretty much playing the same music he played thirty years ago only with an electric band behind him instead of an acoustic band.
BK This one does sound reminiscent of that old...All over the map.
GB Yeah. This is kind of a neat cut, I think, because it starts off completely chaotic and then it slowly coalesces. It's a real short cut.
JS When does that happen?
GB There you go. It's over.
JS It coalesced already?
BK You missed it, Jason.

GB This is "Guadalupe."
JS His tribute to Sonny Rollins.
GB Yeah, it does have sort of a Sonny Rollins feel. It's got that calypso, West Indian backbeat.
JS One of the backbeats.
GB Right. One of the many.
BK It's odd. This is so much more accessible than the "Tone Dialing." You don't have to listen to what's going here and it's pleasant.
GB Right.
BK There's a lot going on in the background rhythmically.
GB Yeah. Yeah. There's almost...This is a, what, eight-piece group and, uh, multiple uh...doubling up on a lot of the instruments, um, so two guitars, two bass players, two percussionists, and then keyboards and Ornette on sax mostly, but also violin and trumpet. But there's no requirement, of course, in Ornette's band that the guitars play together...
SB Yeah.
GB ...or the percussionists play together or hit the same groove. It's very free form. But they all lock in somehow. You can sort of choose what part of it you want to listen to.
BK Is all this recorded live?
GB I would think so. I don't know how you'd do it otherwise.
SB Sounds like there's more than two guitars, though.
GB There's two guitars and an electric bass. I don't know what the keyboard is doing.
SB Well he's got some synth deal thing. A squiggly synth patch.
GB Yeah.
SB Whoever mixes this must have...that would be a tough job.
GB Yeah. Denardo, Ornette's son, is the producer...
BK And also the programmer.
JS You think that's the programming of the tracks or the programming of the instruments?
GB Or the programming of some bizarre drum machine in the back that's creating something. Maybe it's all the beeps and whistles you hear. I don't know.
SB Guitars almost have an African sound or something.
GB Yeah. Badal Roy on tablas adds also a sort of an East Indian sound. Got that complex, Indian rhythmic stuff going on. It's world music of the first class. Open to anything.
(long pause)
JS So how do you suppose he communicates this to his musicians? What does he tell them, you think, before he starts?
BK He calls in the programmer.
SB Yeah, the programmer. The guy that brings the Bud.
JS I mean, you can't just say, "Noodle."
BK You can, it worked for Garcia for how long.
GB Yeah. Look where it got him.
SB And I notice that Jerry receives a "thank you" in the liner notes.
JS Is that right?
SB Yup.
GB It sure would be a treat to see Jerry Garcia and Ornette playing together. I think after Ornette sets the piece I think he just tells people do whatever you feel like. And it seems to me that there's no set arrangement that they're following, that they're all just doing what feels right to them for this particular piece.
BK Both those tracks wound up so suddenly.

"If I Knew As Much About You (As You Know About Me)"
BK This is "If I Knew As Much About You (As You Know About Me)".
GB Right. The longest title for one of the shortest songs.
GB If you just listen to Ornette you always hear that wonderful, bluesy, Texas sound. He's always identifiably Ornette no matter what else is going on around him. I think if you took that sound away from his groups, they would just fall apart. The rest of the music just doesn't...he's the one that's there pulling all the pieces together and making it sound like it belongs.
BK Has he done much work in other people's bands, or as backing or anything like that?
GB Hmm. Very little. I'm trying to remember. He was on a Jackie McLean album, I think, an old Blue Note. And he recorded some music for the soundtrack for Naked Lunch, which is the last album he actually appeared on. That was not by him. He was just playing music by someone else. But mostly it's hard to imagine him playing stuff that isn't his.
BK Well, yeah, that's why I asked that.
GB Yeah. And I think on the Jackie McLean album I think it was all Ornette compositions. He was guesting.
GB Yeah. He hasn't had an album since, of his own, since about '88.
BK How long has he been recording now?
GB First album he recorded came out in '58. '58 and '59 he recorded like four albums. That's it.

"Street Blues"
GB This is the opening cut on the album, "Street Blues," and it really does have that...
SB Nice street groove.
GB ...that street feel.
BK Oh, yeah.
GB Yeah, nice groove. I didn't have room for the jam session to put on the second cut on the album. Which is ahhh...what's it called?..."Search For Life," which is a great sort of street rap number with poetry by Ornette. But as usual with Ornette, there are two vocalists doing two simultaneous raps. Not ping-ponging off of each other, just doing two separate things.
BK Two simultaneous raps.
SB Are they panned so you can take one headphone off and listen to one at a time?
GB Not really, no. You gotta try to sort it out yourself. Ornette's kind of like a smorgasbord. You can't eat it all. You gotta just go up and take whatever looks appetizing this time around and pay attention to it and go back for seconds later.
BK A Robert Altman movie.
GB Yeah. That would be a nice combination!
BK I'm really struck by the diversity of the sounds on these different cuts. Maybe I was wrong, but I had Ornette Coleman pegged a lot more narrowly...
GB I tried to pick five that represented the range on the album. They do, they go all over the place. Some have a real Latin feel, some are very free and very far out. There are a couple of very beautiful slow numbers. "Kathelin Gray" which is mostly just piano and sax and bass which Ornette originally recorded with Pat Metheny. Oh, actually, there's an album that he was on, but it was all Ornette compositions.
SB Just the two of them?
GB Jack DeJohnette was on drums. I think Denardo was on drums also. So you had the double drummer sort of feel. It was a small group. One other. Probably someone on bass. I can't remember who. Five people. Great album. Metheny fits very well with Ornette.
SB Take these two guitarists together and you almost have Metheny.
GB Exactly. Yeah.
SB But this has a real contemporary feel to it.
GB Yeah. "Street Blues."
JS Does he tour with this band?
GB Yeah. But not as much as I would like, at least. This band is what he calls Prime Time. He's basically had two groups. His original quartet and then Prime Time. There's a great album called  In All Languages, a two-LP set. One LP is with the original quartet reformed and the other LP is with Prime Time.
JS So Denardo probably programmed that handclap, huh?
SB I think so. That's probably the programming credit there.
GB I'd also like to know how much post-production Denardo did.
BK Yeah.
GB Did anyone come in and overdub a piece?
JS No.
BK Well that's what I was wondering about. How much was live. As you say, it would be hard to walk in and try to fit something in to the middle of this after the whole thing was done.
SB Hard to mix.
GB Yeah. And there's the fade out.

"Bach Prelude"
BK Are we going to a little classical sound? The Bach prelude?
JS There's Denardo again.
SB Right. Dum-dum-da-dum-da-dum....
GB Yeah, I'd like to hear this cut on something with a subterranean woofer, some system with a subterranean woofer.
BK Yeah, it just rumbles back there.
SB I think I heard this...some guy cruising Broadway in a lowrider last week.
BK Yeah, "The audience is listening."
GB By the way, this is "Bach Prelude", and it really is a Bach guitar prelude, or lute prelude probably.
JS It sounds like it's mixed together later. It doesn't sound like it's conceived together.
GB Right. Although it probably is.
SB It would take a special talent to be able to play guitar to the right meter listening to that drum pattern going.
GB Yeah. Although the way the drums sound, it's almost like they were recorded playing twice as fast. Slowed down to half speed....
GB ...they're so low in pitch. It may be Ornette's way of saying that it doesn't really make much difference what the melody is, you can play it harmolodically, no matter what it is.
BK Threat or promise?
SB So what's Ornette doing on this particular track, Glenn?
GB Just wait.
BK Standing in the shadows.
GB I think there are two guitars on this. You can hear the other one sort of noodling gently in the background - adding commentary.
GB OK, here we go.
(tune kicks in to second half)
GB I don't think I've ever heard Bach funkier.
SB Ornette seems to have a sunnier disposition than a lot of the other free jazz players though, you know. I mean it's not angry music, the melody's always there, you know.
GB Yeah. He doesn't do a lot of over-blowing and screeching. I think people have...I don't know why his music is so hard for people to approach because it seems very genial to me.
SB Yeah.
GB That's a pretty ecstatic sound.
BK Yeah.
GB It's almost churchy.
SB Very celebratory.
JS And the guitar's still in there. Still doing the thing. Way back.
SB And there's two bass players going, is that...
GB Right. It's hard to separate them from whatever Denardo's doing with the programming. Lovely.
BK There you have it.
JS There it is. Thanks for coming, Ornette.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.