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Album Spotlight

December 17, 1995|Don Heckman


"Tone Dialing"


* 1/2


"High Life"


* * 1/2

Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter are, arguably, two of the most unusual artists to emerge from the steaming jazz stew of styles and attitudes of the '60s. Coleman was, along with John Coltrane, the revolutionary saxophone voice of the decade, praised by some, vilified by others. Shorter, less controversial, nonetheless played vital roles in the classic Miles Davis bands of the '60s, in Weather Report and in a series of his own recordings.

These two recordings, released in the last couple of months, illustrate both the pluses and the minuses that have characterized the careers of these two important jazz musicians.

Coleman's music is founded upon his own Texas blues style. And, despite his role as the darling of the '60s avant-garde, the most attractive and communicative aspects of his alto saxophone playing have always traced to his ability to maintain a connection with those roots, even in his most abstract moments.

"Tone Dialing" is the first product resulting from Coleman's new label deal with Verve Records. It is not prime Coleman, and it is typical of the musically chaotic presentations he has offered during the last few years. Curiously, his soloing reveals very little progression beyond his playing of the '60s. Many of the licks and riffs are identical to those employed on his Atlantic albums of that period, and his tone--always attractive--continues to be rich with the cry of the blues.

What is different is the setting. As in previous Prime Time outings, Coleman surrounds himself with a clattering, clanging environment of guitars, keyboards and funk rhythms. Neither musically gripping nor emotionally appealing, the resulting sounds provide no support at all for Coleman's occasionally provocative solos and often appealing melodies. Sadly, he lost interest long ago in the beautifully crafted quartet music that so perfectly communicated the essence of his art. He would do well to take another look at that format.

S horter's view has been somewhat broader than Coleman's, encompassing various kinds of world music in his recordings and performances. But his low-key manner has not always made him as visible as he should be. At his best, he is one of the three or four finest jazz tenor saxophonists in the world.

"High Life" is his first solo album in seven years, and he has gone about it with a vengeance, using such players as Marcus Miller, Rachel Z, Airto Moriera and members of a Los Angeles-area symphony orchestra. It is Shorter the composer-arranger who is on full display here, and he emerges as a facile writer, producing ensemble timbres reminiscent both of Weather Report and Gil Evans' orchestral sounds. Here and there Shorter finds room for decorative solo passages that are generally too short to allow much improvisational development.

But what might otherwise have been an important collection of music falters as the result of annoyingly repetitive funk rhythms. Complex lines, textures and soloing are constantly undercut by persistent percussion backbeats.

Like Coleman, Shorter has minimized his strengths, presumably in search of a wider audience. In doing so, both he and Coleman have mistakenly bypassed jazz listeners responsive to what these two vital artists do best.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good, recommended), four stars (excellent).

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