Saturday, June 13, 2015

Of Human Feelings

RIP Ornette Coleman.

Back in the far distant past, before John Zorn established his own record label and proceeded down a superhuman path of releasing his own music however and whenever he likes (with the help of a Macarthur grant, thus presumably reducing somewhat his need to generate any kind of sales revenue and allowing him to keep his ideas and their execution the product of his work and his work only (and how often do you get to do that?)), he somehow managed to convince an actual major label to release records like "Spillane", "The Big Gundown" and "Naked City", records that, if nothing else, served to alert people like me to the existence of Zorn and his own peculiar take on this thing called music.

One of those Nonesuch releases, "Spy Vs Spy", comprised two drummers, a bass player, and two alto saxophonists blowing the almighty fuck out of the works of Ornette Coleman. My first exposure to this screaming beast of a record was at the Carlton shared household occupied by two distinguished gentlemen by the names of Dr Jim and Moose. Jim, saying little more than "Listen to this", sat me down in front of his stereo system and pressed play. Any cobwebs in my brain were instantly and violently exfoliated, my nervous system collapsed, and, after two or three songs, I was a sobbing ball of damaged humanity, curled up in a puddle on the floor. Actually, when I recovered from the initial shock my jaw dropped to the floor, my eyes bugged out, an inane grin appeared on my face, and all I could say was "Fuck". (I did a similar thing to our resident 15-year-old alto player this morning; his response was largely the same, but without the expletives. He then left the room.)

(Note also the Mark Beyer cover art. You can't say John Zorn never had his finger on the pulse.)

Needless to say, the first thing I did upon leaving Chez Jim & Moose was buy myself a copy. The element of surprise has never again been quite the same, of course, but I find that getting it out every couple of years or so, when there is nobody else in the vicinity, and playing a few songs at excessive volume is both cathartic and therapeutic.

This is the first thing you hear when you press play:

What Ornette himself made of it all is not something I have ever been able to discover.

"Spy Vs Spy" wasn't my first exposure to Ornette Coleman. I had, coincidentally, recently picked up, on CD, a couple of his "harmolodics" recordings (from which a lot of the pieces on "Spy Vs Spy" were drawn). They were, and continue to be, fascinating documents of a musical idea that is as impossible to fathom as the most ornery post-modern literature, but, like the novels of William Burroughs, if you listen to enough of it in one sitting it starts to make its own kind of sense, especially if you can get your brain into a state where you don't try too hard. These are recordings that manage to be at the same time stunningly lyrical and an abstruse tangle. One thing is for sure: if you resist the (not unreasonable) temptation to throw them away after one listen, they certainly provide long-term value for money. You will keep coming back to them.

(The other Ornette album I have, this one on vinyl, is "Of Human Feelings", which I bought on the recommendation of one David Brown (hi, Dave). (I was lucky enough to find one second-hand; it wasn't readily available then or, I suspect, now (although the Japanese have reissued it a couple of times on CD).) I haven't listened to it for ages, as my turntable has not for some time been in action (note to self: must try harder). My recollection is that it is positioned at the vector of free jazz and disco, but that could be the most ridiculous thing I have ever written. Jazz writing really should be left to the experts.)

Anyway, all of this may be more about me and John Zorn than about Ornette Coleman, but he was an important figure in modern music, if not exactly a household name, and his passing shouldn't go unacknowledged.

Next up: James Last. (Only kidding. But do you have any idea how many records that dude sold? Like, Ornette Coleman by a factor of several zeros.)