Ornette Coleman: Science Fiction

In beginning 2017, I’ve decided to reserve time every day to listen to some sounds in a focused way and put down briefish, semi-coherent first or second thoughts in reaction. Since I don’t believe I’ve ever kept a resolution of any kind past about a week, I’ll put all my reactions here in hopes that a devoted public readership* could act as an incentive to keep going. Feel free to listen along and let me know how you heard things differently.

Today is Ornette Coleman’s 1971 album Science Fiction. I’ve been on a Bad Plus kick recently, which reminded me that I’ve somehow managed to neglect careful attention to Mr. Coleman’s output, save the stunningly beautiful The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959). Ornette Coleman, for my non-jazzish reader(s)*, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and saxophonist (also a violinist and trumpeter) who passed away a little over a year ago. It’s difficult to overstate his influence upon not only jazz, but classical and creative musics of all kinds at large.

Many things struck me about Science Fiction. First, the gorgeous, sweeping, circular melodies of the vocal tracks (“What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life”) powered by Asha Puthli (who has not only a beautiful voice but a very odd wikipedia page). I’m a sucker for long-breathed melodies with rhythmic churning chaos underneath (a holdover from The Shape of Jazz to Come). I was also struck by the careful variety of Mr. Coleman’s compositions in terms of form, adherence to rhythmic grid, affect, and orchestration. All the tracks feel very formally tight to me, with well-crafted inflection points — take the second track, “Civilization Day” as an example. First, on a small-scale level, I love how Billy Higgins (drums) and Charlie Haden (bass) take the tiniest pauses between the breaths in the melody, something which I imagine could have only been the result of years playing and feeling together. Moving one level up, I love how the horn duet after the head adds a lot of structural tension/excitement/surprise. This “surprise duet” idea is then developed once after the trumpet solo (really it’s a trio) when the drums briefly lay out to leave a sax-bass duet and developed again after the sax solo when the bass lays out to leave a drum solo to lead us back to the head. Moving up even one level higher, I love the way the album itself is structured. I think there’s a kind of arch in terms of intensity, with the dense and trippy “Science Fiction” as the peak.

I was also struck by Charlie Haden. Sometimes I forget that Charlie Haden was an amazing bass player and then I listen to Charlie Haden and I remember that Charlie Haden was an amazing bass player. See particularly the seventh track, “Law Years.”

Anywho, day 1 has resulted in my renewed love and admiration for all things Ornette and a hunger for more. (Un)Incidentally, the pianist and writer Ethan Iverson has written a lot about Mr. Coleman and has even done an analysis of this very album, which I haven’t read yet because I wanted to listen with my own ears. I’m going to go read his article now though to get educated about all the wrong things I just said, so you should too if you’re interested.




*hi mom

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