Friday, September 2, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 9/2/11 - Ornette Coleman and The Grateful Dead

For a long time, Ornette Coleman somewhat undeservedly shouldered the reputation as a fringe musician, albeit one that immeasurably impacted the course of jazz as it moved into its final stages as a mainstream of American popular music. I say undeservedly because the vast majority of Coleman’s recorded output isn’t a bit impenetrable or difficult, but I use the modifier ‘somewhat’ basically because of the continued relevance of FREE JAZZ: A COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION BY THE ORNETTE COLEMAN DOUBLE QUARTET. Released in 1961, it was Coleman’s fourth recording for Atlantic (after a pair for the West Coast Contemporary label), and it broke stridently with the pronounced advancements of the previous three: to be blunt, the Ertegun brothers, as the creative and business figureheads at Atlantic, knew they held a creative bombshell with Coleman and didn’t hesitate to boldly communicate this fact in how they titled those LPs. To wit; THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME, CHANGE OF THE CENTURY and THIS IS OUR MUSIC. But that initial trio of albums for Atlantic all features his working quartet in a wildly unique but still perceptibly blues-based mode; SHAPE’s absolutely indispensible “Lonely Woman”, as its name illustrates, is positively drenched in blues feeling, and that’s just one example (“Ramblin’”, from CHANGE would be another). Ironically FREE JAZZ, easily the biggest breakthrough in the form since Charlie Parker and his motley cohorts modernized the scene with Bebop, dispensed with any boldly titular claims. Instead, it provided an equally grandiose visual cue by incorporating Jackson Pollock’s painting THE WHITE LIGHT into the LP’s cover art. While not inappropriate, this comparison doesn’t really hold all that much comparative depth. It’s certainly true that folks dismissive of Pollock as fraudulent (“my kid could do that”) were just as likely to paint Coleman as a charlatan, but I really doubt it was Atlantic’s intention to imply this connection. The cries of derision against Coleman’s music and his far more democratic (and yes, abstract, but warmly and to my ear often quite accessible) method, later dubbed Harmolodics, were greatly intensified after the release of FREE JAZZ, a thirty-seven minute hunk of headstrong experimentalism that effectively erased any middle ground; the listener was either for it (curious, accepting, tolerant or enthralled) or against it (suspicious, cynical, dismissive or angry). This intensity of reaction stemmed from the whole package. In addition to the Pollock reference, the size of his band was doubled and described not as an octet but as a double quartet (a what?) with each group recorded to be heard from a different stereo channel. This sort of presentation easily led many to conclude that FREE JAZZ was guilty of not only fakery (“Coleman can’t really play”) but also stereophonic gimmickry. Furthermore, Coleman’s previous work shared ideas if not execution with precedent, the atonalism of Lennie Tristano and the pianoless concept as practiced by Mulligan/Baker and Sonny Rollins in particular, but FREE JAZZ was such a major step away from post-bop orthodoxy that it ended up titling a whole movement. Subsequently, Ornette was often blatantly derided and even accused of trying to ruin jazz. Bullshit to that. Coltrane did receive similar treatment, but he was at least afforded a modicum of respect from all but the moldiest of figs due to his extensive post-bop background. Coleman evolved from tradition in a much different way, soaking up the blues and developing his own idiosyncratic style while not fitting in and being summarily dismissed from assorted touring groups in the early ‘50s. Coltrane and Coleman ultimately register as quite different in their cultivation of personal expression, the former blazing trails not because he had to but instead due to the pure desire for exploration and the latter playing in his matchless way because he simply had no other choice. These days, FREE JAZZ still sounds fresh and distinctive, but it’s lost much of its ability to provoke. It’s loose and aggressive in how the band grapples with Coleman’s conceptual strategy and it can indeed still stop a set of ears dead in their tracks upon first listen (I’ve seen it happen more than once), but the music is so full of joyous jazz spirit and pure invention (and so much has happened since its release that builds upon its huge advance) that the music no longer serves as a line in the sand. Icing on this cake is how the players involved represent some of the most refreshing and forward thinking of their era. There was of course the core group of Coleman associates, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell, but there was also a bunch of names that achieved notoriety completely outside the context of Coleman’s work, and that they integrate themselves into his framework so fully is a major part of this record’s undying appeal. Eric Dolphy’s playing is just totally at home here, something that can’t be said for his work with say The Latin Jazz Quintet or Chico Hamilton, as high quality and fun as those recordings are. Dolphy’s bass clarinet is the right channel foil to Coleman’s white Bakelite plastic alto in the left, and their reeds engage in some fabulous sonic tangles. Bassist Scott LaFaro will be forever associated with the masterful Bill Evans Trio and for dying tragically young in an auto accident in 1961, months before the release of FREE JAZZ, where his innovative style contrasted superbly with the earthy approach of Haden. I find it interesting how LaFaro was able to work so successfully with Evans, one of the inarguable true greats of jazz piano as well as Coleman, whose work at this stage was so deeply at odds with the keyboard’s voluminous rigidity (it took a another true heavyweight, the great Cecil Taylor, to conquer the piano as a free jazz instrument). Estimable post-bop trumpet staple Freddie Hubbard is also here, adding much weight to the proceedings, with his full-bodied sound counterbalancing the tinnier aspects of Cherry’s pocket trumpet. It’s also noteworthy to mention Hubbard’s subsequent involvement in not only some absolutely key Coltrane sessions but Dolphy’s brilliant Blue Note date OUT TO LUNCH. It’s true that exquisite drummer Billy Higgins did essentially start out with Ornette (Blackwell later replaced him in the quartet) but the guy’s rep has become such a inseparable part of the fabric of classic post-bop’s ‘60s sessionography (a veritable pileup: Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Clark, Grant Green, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Bobby Timmons) that it can be easy to forget his beginnings with Coleman (it’s him on the first two Atlantic albums). All these figures contribute as equals to a truly innovative and enduring piece of improvisational fireworks. FREE JAZZ can structurally be oversimplified as possessing some wondrously wobbly fanfares and an abundance of inspired, gruff, passionate soloing that gels into the true essence of creative collective endeavor. After this Coleman notably chose to sidestep the thorny largeness of the FREE JAZZ concept, returning to the rewarding stability of the quartet lineup for the rest of his Atlantic run, and for most of the ‘60s in fact. That’s the biggest part of why FREE JAZZ, for all its immensity of quality, can give a distorted impression of Coleman’s artistry. Ornette, like any great jazz horn man, possessed a songbook and an instantly identifiable sound. Just because he refused to be limited by chord changes doesn’t mean he wasn’t deeply invested in tunes. FREE JAZZ is, in the end, less representative of the breadth of Coleman’s work and more of a potent one-shot distillation of his method. But as such, it pointed the way for not only Coltrane’s equally amazing ASCENSION but also such large group collective free-jazz statements as The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra’s first handful of very fine albums and the molten duo of BYG/Actuel blowouts, namely Dave Burrell’s ECHO and Alan Silva and the Celestrial Communication Orchestra’s mammoth triple-LP SEASONS. But the true test of FREE JAZZ’s greatness resides in its grooves. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times and find it to be an immeasurably beautiful piece of music, one of the most beautiful and alive I’ve ever heard in fact, and it stands by my lights as one of the crowning achievements of 20th Century artmaking.

The Grateful Dead’s self-titled debut LP, recorded on Warner Brothers’ dime in early 1967, displays a certain palpable toughness in execution that feels in league with some of the contemporaneous acts on the more progressively minded end of the era’s garage-rock spectrum. I’m talking about stuff like Love’s self-titled debut album, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s SAFE AS MILK and the work of the 13th Floor Elevators. THE GRATEFUL DEAD’s opening track “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)” secretes a decidedly alluring NUGGETS-like aroma (in fact, the track actually turns up on the 4CD Rhino box LOVE IS THE SONG WE SING: SAN FRANCISCO NUGGETS 1965-1970), and both “Cold Rain and Snow” and the at times very Arthur Lee-esque “Cream Puff War” display an amphetamine/strychnine based wildness that almost borders on something vaguely like punk (in its ‘60s incarnation, natch). It’s also surely true that much of what later came to define the Dead is already in place on this first slab; Bob Weir’s Bob Weir-ness is sitting on a windowsill getting ripe (“Beat It On Down the Line” kinda sets the scene for two or three decades worth of Caucasian Boogie), Garcia’s guitar playing is already showing flashes of later brilliance (“Cream Puff War” and the exceptional ten minute closer “Viola Lee Blues”) and the way they’re mixing electric-folk with borrowed blues and the osmosis ooze of old-time tropes and then blending all of that with more up-to-date San Franciscan impulses like the up-all-night extendedness of ballroom rock and the appealingly tentative expansiveness of the city’s early psyche moves remains a just dandy thing to consider. Their very solid reading of the Sonny Boy Williamson chestnut “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” features the same balance of source respect and indifference to purism that typifies the Rolling Stones’ work from the same period.  I don’t think this is an accident; the Dead picked David Hassinger to produce THE GRATEFUL DEAD based on his experience engineering the Stones (along with the Jefferson Airplane’s classic SURREALISTIC PILLOW). But this isn’t anything like a new discovery. It’s always been the very specific mixture of the band’s love-of-the-old with their desire to forge a fresh sound, and the way they would ride the highs of that stretched-out, appealingly twisted creative gush to the other side of catharsis and then back again, that’s made the Dead’s wealth of recordings (particularly the endless fount of concert tapes) such a big deal up to this very minute. And it’s a stone cold fact that the band was at their collective best in the live setting, preferably smack dab in the middle of some big-assed hilly field while a warm June day slowly turned into an extremely pleasant night. But still; unlike some old-school Deadheads of my acquaintance, I’m a big fan of the band’s early studio work. ANTHEM OF THE SUN and AOXOAMOXOA up the weirdness levels on the debut’s garage/jug/blues/psyche template in pleasingly individual ways, both including some unabashedly classic songs in their four sides, and I consider that pair to be true classics of American psychedelic rock comparable to anything from their peers the Airplane, Big Brother, CHILDREN OF THE FUTURE/SAILOR-era Steve Miller Band and Quicksilver Messenger Service. The band’s next recording, the staggering 2LP LIVE/DEAD tore the roof off the sucker so authoritatively that its success at communicating the essence of their powerful, at times hypnotic live sound sorta prompted the band to rip up the studio program and start from scratch as an amiable bunch of country-ish folk-rockers. And I can definitely understand, but will also confess to holding WORKINGMAN’S DEAD and AMERICAN BEAUTY at arm’s length for a long time back in my younger days. Those records exemplified an acknowledgement that the recording studio simply couldn’t capture what made the band such a rare thing on a live stage, i.e. both LPs exemplified focus and maturity, and it was this which likely presented my unfocused, immature self with such a quandary.  Luckily they had the goods to successfully manage this shift; where all of the Dead’s San Fran cohorts floundered or sucked outright in the ‘70s, these gents smoothly avoided that sad state of affairs, possibly because they’d yet to have any breakout pop successes. But I can remember grumping to those who would listen that WORKINGMAN’S and BEAUTY were not what that the Dead were “really” “about”. Keep in mind that I was spewing this (s)train of thought shortly after spending a long night staring at the landscape of a particularly complex stucco ceiling while ANTHEM, LIVE/DEAD and the soundtrack to ZABRISKIE POINT greatly (or should I say Grately?) improved the quality of the air, if you catch my drift. Upon reflection (maturity, sheesh) that opinion (and the activities that inspired it) was just the folly of youth. Because THE GRATEFUL DEAD isn’t what the band were “really” “about” “either”, with songs being abruptly truncated, often fading out, and Phil Lesh himself claiming the only track on the album that accurately represented the Dead’s sound circa ’66-’67 was “Viola Lee Blues” (and my memory of a ’66 live tape from The Matrix bears him out). But I love THE GRATEFUL DEAD very much, fade-outs, compromises, tentativeness and all. Because again, it’s a tough bird of an LP, with music chock full of the grit and spirit of the times, and it serves well as the opening salvo from a group that helped to define not only psychedelic rock but also the very concept of the “cult rock band”. Along the way that cult grew to the size of a peaceful army, basically because the band never stopped growing. It also helped that the Dead were one of the few large scale acts that didn’t treat their fans as just consumers. THE GRATEFUL DEAD sits at the beginnings of their rich legacy, and while it doesn’t find the band at their mind-altering best, this lack of outward-bound science is more than compensated for by a bounty of other rewards. As the first stop on an increasingly surreal trip, it’s very necessary.

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