Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman – Song X (1986; reissue)

by Mark Saleski

Sorta like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman’s Song X has long been a strange attractor for all sorts of hyperbole, rumor-mongering and dismissal. Yeah, Song X was nothing but a slap in Geffen’s face (despite it being Pat’s first release on that label) or … it’s the best thing Pat has ever recorded.

Oh, by the way, it’s the worst too.

Sure, depending on your point of view, this may very well be the worst thing he’s ever done (though I suppose that if you’re in that camp then you’ve never even listened to either Zero Tolerance For Silence, or The Sign Of 4, both of which are far ‘worse’). If you’re only into the softer Brazilian-inflected material or the more straight-ahead jazz stuff then I can see how Song X might be tough to deal with. But hey, if you’ve been to any of the Metheny Group shows you should be well aware that Pat is fond of making the occasional blasphemous noise. Did you take your bathroom break during “Scrap Metal?” Shame on you.

Well, in a move that will surely have a negative impact on my wallet, Nonesuch Records has begun to reissue a pile of the Metheny back-catalog. They started with perhaps the most unique record in Pat’s discography: Song X, in 2010. A collaboration with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, this record just about blew the top of my head off on first listen back in 1985. In the liner notes from this 20th anniversary edition, Pat relates:

At the time of our collaboration on this project, Ornette and I spent a lot of time discussing our goals for what we wanted to accomplish in it. One theme that kept coming up was to try to make a record that was unlike anything that had been done before. Even at the time, it seemed like it was a record that stood apart. This twentieth-anniversary edition of the record feels like an improvement and reveals a more complete picture of our efforts.

Yes, this record is unlike any other. Added to Pat and Ornette’s melodic shell game is the stellar rhythm section of the great Charlie Haden on bass and Jack DeJohnnette on drums. Tweaking the rhythmic madness is Ornette’s son Denardo on drums and percussion.

Part of what makes Ornette’s projects so tough to categorize is the very fluid yet somehow unpredictable nature of ‘harmolodic’ improvisation. Unlike ‘normal’ jazz improv, where players fit lines into the harmonic structure provided by a set of chord changes, harmolodic improvisation can key off of any piece of the developing composition: a snippet of melody, a chord, a rhythm. But wait! There’s more!! Each player may choose his own aspect to play off of. It’s a kind of collective improvisation that can yield stunning results. I’ve witnessed bands (including Ornette’s) doing this in a live setting. At points tension builds as you begin as you begin to wonder if the group is ‘lost.’ Then, triggered by who knows what (of course somebody does, just not me), everybody veers off in a different direction. It’s exhilarating for both performer and audience.

Longtime fans of Song X were no doubt thrilled to hear the six new compositions presented at the beginning of the program: “Police People,” “All Of Us,” “The Good Life,” “Word From Bird,” “Compute” and “The Veil.” It’s great stuff … and, unlike other “bonus tracks” releases, the material seems right at home from the first listen. What’s amazing about Song X is that even twenty years after its release date it still sounded absolutely vital.

A word of warning to the adventurous first-time listener: this is some pretty challenging air molecule wiggling. If you’ve heard nothing stronger than Kind Of Blue or Coltrane’s A Love Supreme then you’d best brace yourself. If you can get a handle on what’s going on during the opening track then move (cautiously!) on to one of the most fun and invigorating freakouts ever recorded: “Endangered Species.” It’s 13 minutes and 38 seconds of pure joyous musical spasms. Fear not though, because if you push through the slightly less chaotic “Video Games” you will be rewarded with one of Ornette’s most beautiful melodies in the ballad “Kathelin Gray.”

I’ll leave the rest of the recording as an exercise to the musically fearless. It’d be great to have a few new pioneers take the plunge.

Wow, I haven’t had this much listening fun in years. Twenty, to be exact.

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