Ornette Coleman and Pat Metheny – Song X (1986): On Second Thought

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Last night I was planning on sitting down and writing a review on the fine new album Pomegranate by free improv trumpeter Stephen Haynes. Haynes, as I could have well mentioned in this review, owes much to the father of free jazz Ornette Coleman. As so do thousands of other avant-inclined jazz musicians and several more performers operating on the fringes of other genres.; the man cast a shadow longer than Bill Russell does thirty minutes before sundown. And so, with my thoughts weighted so much on this transformational figure as the news came of his death today, my fingers are involuntarily transcribing my reflections not on Haynes (for now), but Haynes’ forbear.

Coleman lived to see eighty-five, long enough to outlive everyone else in the groundbreaking quartet he led in the late 50s and early 60s. Although we’re still digesting the death of Charlie Haden — a giant figure in his own right — exactly eleven months earlier, Coleman’s passing removes from our presence a vital, living link to the jazz revolutionaries who took the music forward to such an extreme, the sharp debate they instigated in the idiom some fifty-five years ago rages on to this day.

Like most folk who have taken the plunge to investigate Coleman’s music, 1959’s The Shape of Jazz To Come was probably my first exposure to him, and I’d argue that the Atlantic box set Beauty Is A Rare Thing is just as essential as a document of the history of jazz as Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Seven. But my full embrace of him came with the help of someone closer to my generation who I had already fully embraced: Pat Metheny.

Without getting too deep into Metheny’s history prior to his encounter with his out-jazz hero, the guitarist known for bright, almost pop-like melodies nonetheless had also at times discreetly included Coleman’s harmolodic concept of music into his mix. But no one was really paying attention, not even when Metheny covered Coleman’s “Broadway Blues” on his Bright Size Life debut album. 1983’s Rejoicing with Haden and Coleman’s original drummer Billy Higgins made the connection clearer but when Metheny collaborated with the legend himself three years later on Song X, it drew the straight line from Coleman’s early, rebellious innovations to Metheny’s own velvet revolution.

Song X is for all intent purposes Coleman’s album; Metheny is prominent but also content to play in Coleman’s sandbox and not try to pull the alto saxophonist toward his. This is an update to those Atlantic sides, with Haden reprising his role on bass and Jack DeJohnette and son Denardo Coleman filling in Higgins’ chair. Not even Metheny’s then-newfangled guitar synth made it any less Coleman’s concept of freely flowing melodies and rhythms. In fact, it often plays Don Cherry’s part as the foil rather well when Metheny’s regular electric guitar isn’t doing that.

The centerpiece song, to me, at least, is the most violent one. “Endangered Species” is dense, scary and, yes, a joyful cacophony. Haden with DeJohnette and Denardo are a three-man wrecking crew of a rhythm section, and Metheny runs down an impossibly tangled succession of notes on his Red One synth guitar. Recounting what I enthused about on the now-defunct Jazz.com site some years back, “While Metheny is making glorious noise on his axe, Coleman settles into his familiar harmolodic statements, acting as the eye of a violent storm.”

Ornette Coleman’s music ain’t for everybody but music doesn’t move forward without fearless artists who jump ahead of everyone else to inspire others to race ahead to try and catch up.

And Ornette Coleman — with no real musical ancestor to point the way for him — was the most fearless of ’em all.

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