Ornette Coleman: Skies of America (Columbia/Legacy)

A word I try not to use too often for fear of devaluing it is genius. In the jazz world there are many players, composers arrangers and even a few producers who are brilliant. Genius how ever you could count on one hand. A recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award (1994), an induction into the American Academy of Arts and letters, and the first recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for jazz composition only, Ornette Coleman definitely fits into this category.
I must admit that Ornette is not the first thing I automatically reach for every day. For me he is akin to a Truffle. Dark, powerful, mysterious in its fecundity and meant to be enjoyed a little at a time to better savor its rarity.
That is not to say this is not important music. This is actually one of the most important pieces of Modern American art, and unlike a lot of others (in various mediums) it does not largely derives its power from the “shock of the new”. An odd sort of irony is that this manages to be both one of his most accessible works on account of its lack of major free jazz discordance, but also one of his most complex.
The copy of the album I purchased was the new remastered version. The sound is pristine. You hear all the high and low ends no matter what your stereo set up may be. This is the 1972 version and the only commercial recording. This piece had a troubled birth. It was originally supposed to be orchestra with Ornette’s band. A concerto grosso. Due to archaic English union laws the band was not allowed to play, the form and scope of the piece slowly changed. Ornette was only allowed to play having been declared on his work permit/visa a concert composer as opposed to musician.
This work had three incarnations before Ornette moved onto different artistic avenues including a trip to Morocco to live and play in the mountains with The Master Musicians of Joujouka. The album was originally broken up into twenty one “songs” in an attempt to get airplay on the radio. Aside from being a bad idea, this is why the piece is sometimes described as a twenty one movement chamber piece or symphony when in fact it is actually a one movement symphonic tone poem. Aside from cleaned up sound they have gotten rid of the brief dead spaces between each “song” restoring it to its one piece unity which provides a far better cohesiveness and is also what the composer had intended. Another misconception is that this piece is sometimes referred to as “Third stream”
Unlike most third stream music this piece does no forgo stringed instruments. And the orchestra is not just providing a canvas onto which the soloist may paint. Ornette himself makes a very brief appearance during the duration of the piece. Out of twenty one tracks he is heard only on 11,14-19 and 20. In his solo statements listen closely he briefly quotes and morphs “I only have Eyes for You”, “Stranger in Paradise” and most importantly “Rhapsody in Blue” This is all done without irony and without any sense of gimmick. The Gershwin quote is appropriate since they were kindred spirits in their artistic comments on modern American life. For Gershwin, man had just begun the modern age, conquering the sky with both buildings and air travel. There was the promise of lives made easier, things more efficient by the burgeoning modernity, yet there was also a vague apprehension over what we could possibly be loosing, trading in soul for easy comfort. A generation later and the same issues come up in Ornette’s era. Despite unease, both too managed to convey and mix a dose of beauty in with the anxiety.
This truly is modern classical and could easily be mistaken for a piece written by Edgard Varese (1883-1965) or even Petrushka era Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The first most immediately striking aspect of the piece is symphonic timpani beating out poly rhythms alongside a jazz drum kit. A simple but most effective device which I am surprised is not used more often. The orchestra does a fantastic job and give the effect of knowing the piece and what the composer was aiming for as opposed to just playing the charts. Even so, the good job the percussion does makes me lament the fact that Ornette’s usual drummer is absent from this recording.
There are titles for each little “section” but they were put on very much as an afterthought and one should not read too much into the titles. Even without knowing what the album is about, it is rich in mood. The jagged lines and rhythm of the strings manage to create tension but also become sort of mesmerizing. Bubbling up now and then like a new idea are little trios of winds, sometimes all low, sometimes mixing higher pitched reeds with their more mellow sounding brothers. There are tempo changes which are done under many layers of instruments that you feel the effect but do not notice as this device is used. The piece ends in an intricate web of unresolved tensions. This is by no means a Sunday brunch soundtrack. It demands attention and perhaps a connoisseur’s palate. The first day I got this CD I listened to it four times back to back. Each time I felt as if I was moving further back from a giant mosaic which allowed me to more clearly see the whole picture.
In jazz brilliance is good too, though genius trumps and is rarer. If you are into good music, deep music then do not worry about labels, pick this up.

Ornette Coleman-alto sax
The London Symphony Orchestra (David Measham conductor)

Recommended artistic forefathers:

Igor Stravinsky
Petrushka/The Rites of Spring
The Cleveland Orchestra (Pierre Boulez conducting)

Edgard Varese
Ameriques/Arcana/Deserts/Ionisations
The Cleveland Orchestra (Pierre Boulez conducting)

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