From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, Ornette Coleman’s most euphonious music was the product of a unique group of like-minded geniuses. The style was scrupulously avant-garde yet also melodic, bluesy, and swinging. Ornette’s original quartet included Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins; soon Ed Blackwell replaced Higgins; several years later, Dewey Redman joined the mix. The capstone of this era is 1972’s Science Fiction, collecting all these musicians and more for one of the greatest jazz LPs of all time.
Redman joined Haden in Keith Jarrett’s quartet with Paul Motian in 1971. While some of this music was unruly free jazz not far from Ornette’s noisiest utterances, much of the Jarrett repertoire was concerned with a kind of hippie ethos suitable for the Aquarian age. In the meantime, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell had been exploring “world music,” literally traveling the world and meeting local players in Asia and Africa. They recorded the two parts of “Mu” in 1969, with Cherry not just on his celebrated trumpet but also on vocals, flutes, and piano.
After Science Fiction, Ornette was done with acoustic music and formed Prime Time. The Jarrett group drew to a close in 1975. It only made sense for Cherry, Redman, Haden, and Blackwell to put a band together. Old and New Dreams allowed in world-music concepts they couldn’t have used with Coleman, but keeps a basic “Ornette-y” feel to the music.
There are four great Old and New Dreams LPs: two studio, two live, two Black Saint, two ECM. The picks are the studio Black Saint, Old and New Dreams, and the live ECM, Playing.
The Black Saint debut, recorded in 1976 and released the following year, offers engaging production values—Tony May (a comparatively rare example of an African-American engineer on classic jazz records) got a tough and direct sound out of Generation Studios—and the excellent liner notes are by Stanley Crouch. (Crouch would eventually be responsible for the last time Old and New Dreams performed together, at the 1991 Dewey Redman “Dewey’s Circle” event at Alice Tully Hall. Geri Allen sat in for a tune.)
Old and New Dreams made a point of programming Ornette repertoire, especially tunes he hadn’t recorded himself, and Side A begins with a harmolodic fanfare, “Handwoven.” When the blowing starts, it’s burning up-tempo swing. Blackwell’s references include Max Roach and New Orleans parade drumming; Haden is informed by hillbilly music, J.S. Bach, and Wilbur Ware. Cherry plays heraldic lines that are clearly in a key alongside expanses of fast flurries that defy harmonic description. Redman plays more in tempo, either Sonny Rollins-style motivic development or pure abstraction. Both soloists like to quote the melody. In this open context, the horn players are free to play collectively and the bass and drums can abruptly change mood.
The jazz burners are the mainstay of the band, and sometimes they slow down a hair, as on Redman’s bouncing and brilliant “Dewey’s Tune.” Mood pieces informed by world music work in contrast to the jazz: Haden contributes “Chairman Mao,” on which Blackwell hits a big gong and the horn solos are entirely within the pentatonic scale; Redman breaks out his fervent musette for the title track. 1977 may not be considered a year stocked with jazz masterpieces, but this LP certainly qualifies.
In June 1980, the band was recorded in performance at Theater am Kornmarkt in Bregenz, Austria, for what became 1981’s Playing. Martin Wieland was one of Manfred Eicher’s trusted engineers, and the package had quintessential ECM touches: design by Barbara Wojirsch, cover photo by Luigi Ghirri, a quote from novelist Peter Handke.
Playing opens with “Happy House.” The band learned it for Science Fiction and you can now hear it on The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, but at this time it was still an “unknown” Ornette tune. You could almost call this outstanding performance a jam session. The harmonic matrix between Redman and Haden is thrilling; they’re making up changes and patterns together. Cherry is also in prime form. During each horn solo, Blackwell and Haden go into halftime. In response, Redman gives us pure diatonic melody, while Cherry deals out the blues. The bass solo is fabulous; the collective improvisation after is joyous; Blackwell gets a proper say as well. If I had to choose one Old and New Dreams track, I’d select “Happy House.”
Cherry’s “Mopti” has African sources and a memorable piano vamp. It’s an energetic polyrhythmic workout for Blackwell and contains a soulful Redman solo. Of the Old and New Dreams pieces that have a “world music” quality, I’d select “Mopti.”
The four personalities of the band are so strong that the easiest way to describe their music is “the sound of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell playing together.” It’s sophisticated but also childlike, even naive. In the end, words fail. Dewey Redman said in a masterclass given by Old and New Dreams: “Every time we get up to play, we just make something up and play it, right there on the spot. That’s very difficult, especially if you want to be strong and vibrant and creative. When you look in the dictionary for the definition of music, you know they give you a lot of words, but it doesn’t really explain what music is.”