Out-of-print Ornette Coleman sessions are reissued


May 11, 2000|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Ornette Coleman

The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (Columbia/Legacy 63569)

The Skies of America (Columbia/Legacy 63568)

In the mid-'70s, Columbia Records decided to increase its profile as a jazz label through a series of "prestige" signings.

The idea was simple enough. First, the label would sign some big-name musician who had never recorded for the label before. Next, it put up enough money to let him cut something really ambitious. Then the only thing to do was stand back and let the accolades (and sales) pour in.

Things didn't quite work out so neatly, however. Although the label got some amazing music by letting Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett indulge their most ambitious fantasies in the studio, none of the resulting albums were particularly popular. By the early '80s, all were out of print and known only to the most devoted collectors.

Fortunately, the label's reissues program is making amends by restoring these albums to the catalog. Last year saw the reissue of Jarrett's "Expectations" and a collection of Evans' solo piano work (though not his remarkable collaboration with George Russell, "Living Time"). And now come the most ambitious albums of the lot, Coleman's "The Skies of America" and "The Complete Science Fiction Sessions."

Part of what made these albums so important was that they marked an important turning point in Coleman's creative development.

For much of his career, the saxophonist worked in a pianoless quartet, with just a trumpeter (usually Don Cherry), bassist (Charlie Haden) and drummer (either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell). All were expected to improvise.

But for the "Science Fiction" sessions, Coleman not only brought in other soloists, but also worked with singers and session musicians playing scored arrangements. In some cases, as with "What Reason Could I Give," recorded with the Indian vocalist Asha Puthli, Coleman's music verges on traditional pop songwriting -- though the otherworldly beauty of his melodies were closer to art song than to anything in the hit parade.

By placing such strong emphasis on melody, Coleman put the lie to the notion that his "free jazz" was pure chaos. True, there were tracks that sounded like free-for-alls (most significantly, "Science Fiction" itself), and other tracks were very much in the same vein as his 1958 breakthrough release, "This Is Our Music." But the overall thrust of the album emphasized musical structure -- something that seems even more obvious once the original album is compared to the less-focused "leftovers" that fill out the rest of this double-CD set.

"The Skies of America" is both more ambitious and more structured. A work for orchestra and saxophone soloist, it marked the debut of Coleman's "Harmolodic" approach to improvisation.

The harmolodic theory is pretty complicated, but at its essence it was built around the idea that both soloist and accompanist should have equal improvisational freedom. Naturally, that wasn't an idea that could easily be translated to the orchestral medium, but "The Skies of America" is a fairly game attempt, at times (as on "The Good Life") suggesting what might have happened had Charles Ives been inspired by the blues-soaked landscape of East Texas, rather than New England.

Not long after these recordings, Coleman applied his harmolodic concept to a guitar-based electric band. It makes for a better match than the symphonic sprawl of "The Skies of America," but it's doubtful that Coleman would have followed the same path had he not had the chance to experiment with an orchestra.

"The Complete Science Fiction Sessions" ****

"The Skies of America" ***

Various Artists

MLB Caliente (Columbia 62179)

Everybody knows about baseball and apple pie, but baseball and salsa? That may seem an odd combination to Anglos, but it's worth remembering that the game is almost as popular in Central America and the Caribbean as it is in North America. In that sense, the baseball-and-Latin music blend that makes up "MLB Caliente" makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective. But don't assume you're going to get the Spanish language equivalent of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Just as the "Jock Jams" collections emphasizes good sounds over sports lyrics, "MLB Caliente" merely tries to be a great Latin album. And it succeeds, too, thanks to such selections as Marc Anthony's sinuous "Dimelo," Cypress Hill's insane "Loco En El Coco," and Jaci Velasquez's uplifting "Llegar A Ti."


Mission Impossible 2

Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture (Hollywood 62244)

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