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Ornette Coleman: In All Languages

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Originally released ten years ago on the fledgling Caravan Of Dreams label, this extraordinary set simultaneously illustrates two phases of Ornette Coleman’s brilliant career. Disc one is a reunion of the original quartet from the landmark 1959 session The Shape Of Jazz To Come-Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Ornette himself. The agile, loose rhythms between Haden and Higgins set up an ever-shifting foundation for Ornette’s fluid playing and uncanny interaction with Cherry. They float effortlessly in halftime over a burning bass-drums interlock on “Space Church (Continuous Services).” Ornette digs into a bluesy bag on “Feet Music” and demonstrates his indelible tie to Charlie Parker and the bebop aesthetic on “Word For Bird.” One of the more festive numbers in this quartet context is the calypso-flavored “Latin Genetics,” which dances in a buoyant, almost giddy manner while still maintaining Ornette’s allegiance to freedom. The title track includes some stark, stirring conversations between Ornette’s melodic alto sax and Haden’s brooding bowed bass while “Sound Manual” takes a more frenzied, unison approach to ensemble playing. “Mothers Of The Veil” and the closer “Cloning” present the unparalleled chemistry between Coleman and Cherry-the Parker and Gillespie of another time and place. In effect, this was the last hurrah of one of the all-time great quartets in jazz-flowing melodies and organic rhythms for the ages.

Disc two, which showcases Ornette’s Prime Time on electric versions of some of the same tunes, doesn’t hold up nearly as well. While his own distinctive alto sound is as direct and honest as ever, full of clarity and wailing with authority over the proceedings as only Ornette can, the ensemble arrangements often seem cluttered and confused. The material is further hampered on tunes like “Music News” and “Listen Up” by the dated quality of Denardo Coleman’s abrasive electronic drumkit, which sounds like he’s beating profusely on a set of aluminum garbage cans in the back alley; clumsy and ham-fisted at best compared to the subtle touch and sly genius of Billy Higgins. Their rendition of “Latin Genetics,” done in such a buoyant and appealing manner by the original quartet, sounds nervous and scattered here. The band-Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix on guitars, Jamaladeen Tacuma and Al MacDowell on electric basses, Denardo Coleman and Calvin Weston on drums-does create some intriguing, swirling rubato textures behind Ornette on “Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow,” approximating the sound of a deep ether-induced dream. But on more bombastic offerings like “Feet Music” and “Peace Warriors” they sound like a mediocre rock band rehearsing.

The biggest problem in Prime Time is that Ornette doesn’t have the telepathically-linked duet partner, a role that Cherry filled so well in the original quartet. Occasionally, Tacuma comes to the fore and plays his foil, as on “Space Church” and “Story Tellers.” But lacking that strong second voice to converse with on equal footing-as well as a rhythm section that understands the power of silence and dynamics-Ornette comes off as an eloquent orator trying to be heard over rush hour traffic. Still, the contrasts between Disc One and Disc Two are interesting. But to my ears, Disc One offers more food for the soul.