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ALBUM SPOTLIGHT

*** ORNETTE COLEMAN, "Sound Museum Three Women," Verve/Harmolodic; *** ORNETTE COLEMAN, "Sound Museum Hidden Men," Verve/Harmolodic

September 29, 1996|Don Heckman

Ornette Coleman's four-decade survival as an obsessively determined musical outsider is one of the remarkable aspects of post-bebop jazz. When he arrived in New York City in 1959 to become the flash point of a major aesthetic contretemps between mainstream and "outside" jazz fans, his playing resonated with the down home-sounding Texas blues riffs of his youth in Fort Worth.

His role as a jazz revolutionary, however, was founded upon a superimposition of that Texas blues style upon a similarly intuitive, but far more radical framework. It was described, variously, as free jazz, avant-garde jazz, etc., and it took the drastic step (even now maligned by many observers) of calling for spontaneous improvisation unconnected to an underlying harmonic or rhythmic blueprint.

Amazingly, in all the intervening years, through Coleman's assumption of the position of revolutionary guru, through performances (he occasionally dabbles on violin and trumpet, as well as alto saxophone) with a variety of groups, through larger compositions for orchestra, his playing has remained essentially unchanged. He was, in the beginning, a kind of jazz naif, an improvisational Henri Rousseau whose soaring solos were filled with an uncomplicated, buoyant joyfulness. And so he still remains.

In these two albums, the first releases from a Verve deal that grants him complete creative freedom, Coleman offers a set of originals which harken back to his earliest performances. Working with Geri Allen, piano, Charnett Moffett, bass and Denardo Coleman (his son), drums, Coleman sounds impressively youthful and energetic. Traces of his dark flowing lyricism emerge in pieces such as "Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow," and his capacity to generate startlingly quick-paced streams of ideas is in full flower on "Stop Watch."

But Coleman is only partially well-served by his musical associates. Allen has the most difficult task--trying to devise nonspecific harmonic textures for music which avoids responding to harmonic demands--and she is at her best in the few solo moments in which she can revert to a more comfortable mainstream style. The younger Coleman is erratic, very good in some spots, disconnected in others, and it is only Moffett who provides the solid, unerring foundation that is crucial to the Ornette Coleman style.

The albums have a further problem, and it is one directly connected to the freedom Coleman has been granted for his sub-label activities. Although the recordings have slightly different titles, 13 of the 14 tracks on each are alternate takes of the same tunes. The sole different material on the recordings are a vocal "Don't You Know by Now" (sung by Lauren Kinhan and Chris Walker) on "Three Women," and a hymn variation "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" on "Hidden Man." In effect, the recordings offer two versions of the same recording sessions.

Is there enough contrast between the improvised passages on the alternate takes to justify releasing the two albums independent of each other? Only for dedicated Coleman fans. But there is sufficient fascinating playing on either one to confirm that Coleman--despite his still overblown image as a radical jazz icon--continues to be one of the music's most imaginative artists.

*

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

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