Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman is the kind of artist trad-jazz idiots like Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, and the editors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz love to hate. Since his foundation-shattering debut in 1958 with the aptly named Something Else!!!!, the saxophone genius has scorched a singular path through modern jazz; he's followed a muse that has touched on everything from Coltrane-esque skronk to thunderous funk and electro-beat hip-hop with the kind of daring rivaled only by Miles Davis and Sun Ra. Coleman has worked masterfully with musicians as disparate as Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia and provided a sound stage for the innovative likes of Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, James Blood Ulmer, and Charlie Haden. Coleman's vast body of work, unfortunately, includes countless classics that have either been quickly deleted (Opening the Caravan of Dreams), deemed unfit for domestic release (Chappaqua Suite, a masterful 1967 soundtrack available only as a French import), or teetered on the brink of unjust obscurity (Town Hall 1962, a roaring live set; Soapsuds, Soapsuds, a stunning 1978 duet with Haden).

The greatest of these rarities is Dancing in Your Head, issued originally in 1977, available again for a few seconds in 1988, and finally on the shelves today in a stunning reissue by Verve, complete with new liner notes by Scott Currie and appended with a previously unissued alternate take. Recorded between 1973 and 1975, Dancing in Your Head finds Coleman working with two groups: a pre-Prime Time combo featuring bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, percussionist Bob Burford, and guitarists Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee; and the late journalist Robert Palmer on clarinet with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Both explore the possibilities of what Coleman dubbed harmolodics -- "rhythms, harmonies, and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time," which basically means you get some pile-driving improv that works Big Apple avant-garde into the rhythmic hoodoo of Moroccan boogie, with melodies established, and then carefully, joyously demolished.

The album's centerpiece offers two variations from his 1972 symphony, Skies of America, both finding Coleman conjuring blood, fire, and a peculiar but riveting strain of blues from his alto -- a sound that caresses as it throttles -- while the band stomps and wails in cacophonous unison, wandering in and around the relentless groove, like the JBs on a mushroom bender. "Midnight Sunrise," Coleman's collaboration with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, is a blast of clomping, meditative shriek, primal and raw, yet providing a complex coda for the preceding mayhem.

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John Floyd