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Ornette Coleman: Skies of America

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illustration of Ornette Coleman

Some interesting parallels can be drawn between Ornette Coleman and Frank Zappa: Both are iconoclastic composers and self-taught visionaries who developed their own idiosyncratic instrumental languages-Coleman on the alto sax, Zappa on the electric guitar; both led small bands or combos while harboring dreams of working on a larger, orchestral scale; both ultimately realized their grandiose visions with the help of the London Symphony Orchestra-Coleman in 1972, Zappa in 1982.

Coleman’s third symphonic work, the 167-page epic score Skies of America, is to “Turnaround” or “Ramblin'” what Zappa’s Orchestral Works is to “Valley Girl” or “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Both symphonic pieces are imposing works that present quite a challenge to listeners and die-hard fans alike. There are more rewards for Ornette devotees on Skies of America, namely the inclusion of his instantly recognizable alto-sax voice. On Zappa’s Orchestral Works (or even his later opus, The Yellow Shark) there is no guitar at all, thus depriving fans of a familiar connecting point.

Recorded in September 1972 with the LSO, under the baton of David Meacham, the densely textured, cinematic Skies is comprised of 21 distinct movements that run the gamut of emotions from giddy to poignant to turbulent. From the polytonal, polyrhythmic opener, “Skies of America,” to the gorgeous, Ivesian closer, “Sunday in America,” this rich symphonic work stands as Coleman’s harmolodic manifesto.

Ornette fans will recognize a few themes here: “The Good Life” was titled “School Work” when it was originally recorded on Science Fiction in 1971 and five years later it turned up again as the sing-songy “Theme from a Symphony” on Dancing in Your Head; “The Soul Within Woman” first appeared on Science Fiction as “Street Woman”; and the poignant “All of My Life” was performed with vocalist Asha Puthli as “All My Life” on Science Fiction.

The elegiac “Birthdays and Funerals” is a particularly moving track while the darkly dissonant “Dreams” is the soundtrack for a slow, excruciating descent into Dante’s inferno. “Holiday for Heroes” is giddy and lilting by comparison.

Coleman doesn’t enter the harmolodic fray until track 11, “The Artist in America.” After a brief string quartet intro Ornette blows fiercely for two minutes over a throbbing, turbulent backdrop, eventually closing the piece with a minute-long cadenza. Coleman’s pungent tone is heard again on the intensely dense “Foreigner in a Free Land” and the swirling “Silver Screen,” while his blues-drenched voice cuts through the din of “Poetry” with crystal clarity and his long, unaccompanied passage on “The Men Who Live in the White House” is both stirring and inviting.

Perhaps Skies of America’s most beautiful piece here is “Love Life,” a lyrical offering that features Ornette’s keening alto voice rising up above an invocation of lush strings. “The Military” is suitably bombastic while “Jam Session” sounds like harmolodic circus music, segueing to the touching finale, “Sunday in America.” Zappa would be proud.