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Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
 Tone Dialing, Harmolodic/Verve CD 314 527 483-2, 1995 (66:03)

 Welcome to Ornette's Variety Hour

I can't for the life of me figure out how Ornette generates such antipathy. He has been a figure of controversy ever since he burst like a meteor on the jazz scene in 1958. His early ground-breaking records like "The Shape of Jazz to Come" and the prophetic "Free Jazz" were ridiculed, he was personally castigated as being a musically incompetent charlatan or worse (Miles Davis called him "psychotic") and since then he has been perhaps the least recorded major jazz musician. Yet he is one of the recipients of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award," and has been praised by academically credible folks like Gunther Schuller, former president of the New England Conservatory of Music, and MacArthur recipient himself. Ornette is one of those great American musical iconoclasts, like Charles Ives, John Cage and Harry Partch. Today, thirty-five odd years after his first recordings, jazz fans still feel the need to line up pro or con on Ornette, and his detractors are still so numerous as to make his supporters prickly and defensive.

And yet, and yet.... When I listen to Ornette's music, the generous nature of the man and his music is immediately apparent. I realize that in writing this review, I am referring to Ornette by his first name, as even his detractors do; it is impossible for me to think of him as "Mr. Coleman," because his music touches me so directly I feel I must know him. He has always made joyous, beautiful music and remains utterly singular within jazz, within music.

On the (other) other hand, I must acknowledge the evidence that this music is not to everyone's taste. In college, I owned a cheap radio that had such lousy selectivity I could tune in two or three stations at once. I loved it, because it let me create my own music by choosing what combination of intersecting rhythms to listen to. However, I learned pretty quickly that my roommates did not usually share my enthusiasm. Ornette's music is not disorganized, but it may initially seem like the sort of chaos heard from that radio. He allows his musicians to find their own paths through the music, with an extraordinary openness. This openness extends even to the listener, letting you be an active partner in creating the music as you listen. Even more than most music, you can hear new things each time you listen to an Ornette recording. In fact, it's almost impossible not to hear new things!

 Tone Dialing is Ornette's first recording under his name in seven years, and it is just plain fun. The record label, Harmolodic, is Ornette's own, and it has major distribution and promotion from Polygram through its Verve division. Prime Time is the name Ornette has given to his bands since the mid-'80s, which have been increasingly electric and funky. This version of Prime Time features the Indian percussion work of Badal Roy as well as the drumming of Ornette's son (and producer) Denardo, doubled-up guitars, two basses, keyboards and Ornette on alto sax (mostly). There is no requirement in Prime Time that the musicians play "together" in any conventional sense. It often sounds like two bands are playing, although it isn't always clear which instruments belong to which band. Over it all, Ornette's sax, with its warm bluesy vocal sound, is the magic ingredient that binds everything together. (If you ever get lost, just ignore the rest of the band and listen to Ornette alone for a while. Like Louis Armstrong, and a few other master jazz improvisors, his solos could fit against any background from dixieland to fusion.)

The tunes cover a wide range. The first track, "Street Blues," is a funk fest worthy of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic crew. "Guadalupe" explores Latin rhythms with great success. "Kathelin Gray" reprises a lovely tune from Pat Metheny's wonderful "Song X," one of the few recordings of Ornette and his music not under his own name. "Search for Life" gives us hip hop versions of Ornette's poetry, presented by two vocalists at once (of course). And, in "Bach Prelude," a guitar gently plays, yes, a Bach prelude (I think from the second set of Well-Tempered Klavier preludes and fugues) against a thumping deep bass track, either programmed by Denardo or played on some mondo drums by Badal Roy (I'm guessing here, folks). The rhythm of the bass beats does not match the rhythm of the prelude, but somehow it fits. Then, as the prelude gently comes to an end, the full band charges in to repeat the whole experience in a funk groove. Wow.

The recording is good, considering how much is happening on most of the tracks. There is a lot of bass, and much of it will give the willies to your stereo system. On "La Capella," for example, there is a rapid fire funky electric bass line over some spacy bass chords (from a synth?) that can sound like a murky mess unless your amp and speakers are up to the task. I bet this is Ornette's most accessible album ever. And it's really not that strange. Recently, I was listening to the soundtrack to the excellent basketball documentary  Hoop Dreams and I heard a track that would have felt right at home on this album. Called "The Tide (Keeps Lifting Me)," it featured Phil Upchurch on guitar backing Pops and Mavis Staples in a polyrhythmic groove where Mavis' voice added to the emotion of the proceedings without necessarily respecting the notated rhythm. If you can get music like that, you can get Ornette. (Damn, there I go getting defensive about Ornette again.) Certainly, if you have any interest in Ornette's music, this album is a great place to start. Yes, it is complex, challenging and sometimes chaotic. But it is also -- more so -- just fresh fun funky jazz. --  Glenn Brooks

We also ramble about Ornette in a Jam Session

production notes & song titles

Ornette Coleman, saxophone, violin, trumpet; Badal Roy, tablas, percussion; Al MacDowell, electric bass; Ken Wessel, guitar; Dave Bryant, keyboards; Chris Rosenberg, guitar; Bradley Jones, acoustic bass; Denardo Coleman, drums, programming.

Produced by Denardo Coleman; recorded and mixed by Gregg Mann at Harmolodic Studios in Harlem; mastered by Tom Lazarus at Classic Sound.

Street Blues | Search for Life | Guadalupe | Bach Prelude | Sound Is Everywhere | Miguel's Fortune | La Capella | If I Knew As Much about You (As You Know about Me) | When Will I See You Again | Kathelin Gray | Badal | Tone Dialing | Family Reunion | Local Instinct | Ying Yang

of related interest

Ornette Coleman
 The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic/Rhino CD 61996, 1959 (37:59)
The next place to go in exploring Ornette -- it will still sound fresh in the next century. "Lonely Woman" is one of the most beautiful ballads in all of jazz.

Pat Metheny
 Song X, Geffen CD 70051, 1986 (48:45)
Metheny, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden and Denardo explore seven Ornette tunes.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.