When I first heard Ornette Coleman, I thought, “That is some seriously weird stuff.”
All I could hear was what was missing—such as the supporting harmonies that tended to make jazz sound logical or pretty even amidst fairly crazy improvising. Also absent was a perfectly steady sense of swing, even though I could tell that the bass player was cooking. But if that music was a map, then all the boundaries seemed to have been erased, and the players could wander just about anywhere. It sounded like chaos.
In short, I didn’t like Ornette Coleman.
Saxophonist Dave Liebman, in the liner notes to his latest recording, Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman, very nearly makes the same admission.
Liebman came to some fame by playing with Miles Davis in the mid-1970s (appearing on Agharta and Pangea, the two wild live recordings that preceded Davis’s 1975 retirement), and his larger career has been marked by a serious fascination with Davis’s greatest sideman, John Coltrane. Coltrane himself was riveted with harmonies, and his “great quartet” was colored by the presence of a harmonic giant in pianist McCoy Tyner.
Ornette Coleman was the other side of the avant-garde of the 1960s. Coleman’s classic groups had no chording instrument, and Coleman’s music was dominated by melodies that seemed to embody joy precisely because they were cut free from the confines represented by harmonic structure. This is what most folks—including this jazz critic as a young man—found off-putting about Coleman. We wanted a grounding in the comforts of logical harmonic progressions.
Liebman, then, would seem oddly partnered to Coleman. Though he has always been capable of flying free on his horns (tenor or soprano saxophones, just like ‘Trane), Liebman generally flies through and over dense weaves of harmony. So, what is he doing exploring the music of Ornette Coleman? Turnaround faces that question straight up.
Creating new arrangements for his longstanding quartet (with Vic Juris on guitar, Tony Mariano on bass, and drummer Marko Marcinko), Liebman has mostly retrofitted Ornette Coleman’s music with the harmonies that the original melodies suggest, giving Juris a chance to color these swinging miniatures with fleet washes of sound, or with pleasing countermelodies that tether the tunes to a firmer sense of structure. The recording works because this approach doesn’t suppress the joy that has always been central to Coleman’s music.
“Bird Food”, for example, has always sounded like a spritely and fun piece of bebop, a quick and highly syncopated line that bounces with spirit. That is still true as Liebman plays it on his soprano, Juris doubling with quick fingers on strings. But here Juris is also free to jab at chords while Liebman solos, making “Bird Food” sound just a bit more like the Charlie Parker tune that it always kind of wanted to be.
Not all of Liebman’s treatments are just what you would expect, however. “Turnaround” isn’t a normal blues for example. Instead, this arrangement sets the bass ‘n’ drums into a busy funk groove that does not necessarily follow a classic blues progression. Juris gets a modern guitar sound, with some distortion and chorusing, and “Turnaround” becomes a deep jam. With, of course, a blues feeling. “Cross Breeding” is a riveting stop-and-go melody, repeated, that sets off a wild, frenzied collective improvisation. But as Liebman swirls and blurts with little concern for harmonic consonance, Juris is moving through a set of harmonic directions that help your ear to find structure.
A few of the tunes become significantly transformed by what Liebman adds. “Una Muy Bonita” is set over a beautiful strummed acoustic guitar pattern, and it colors the familiar melody with a melancholy yearning. Is this tune by Pat Metheny? Nope. “The Blessing” gets an even more appealing set of chord changes such that it almost seems like Coleman’s twisty tune could have been penned by George Shearing (“Lullaby of Birdland”) or Gershwin (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”). Has Liebman simply tamed these formerly “out” classics?
Not really. Rather, he seems to have simply drawn from them more fleshed out notions that were always inside. The truth is, Ornette Coleman was not really as revolutionary as he seemed when we all first heard him. Coleman has always been the most joyful and dancing of avant-garde-ists. Liebman honors the spirit of these songs even as he turns them based on his own preferences.
The most intriguing transformation here is probably “Lonely Woman”, Coleman’s most famous and compelling melody. The original was beautiful but unsettling, a tune that seemed to grow organically, note by note, but in a direction that wasn’t expected. Liebman’s version is set against a space-aged drone of swelling electric guitar and atmospherics, then played on a wooden flute to give it the exotic flavor of the east. Listening to this “Lonely Woman”, you get the feeling that you are peering through a jungle canopy, into the mist. Is it a fair interpretation of Coleman’s music? Well, it’s rich with feeling, so: yes.
But all this concept aside, how is the playing on Turnaround? The tracks are mostly brief, and none of the soloists particularly stretches out. Juris is a logical and tasty improviser, and Liebman himself is robust on tenor and compelling on soprano, able to fling himself passionately beyond the harmonies when that makes sense. But the proceedings here tend to seem more like a recital than an immersive jazz concert. It would be a better record if there were more chances to stretch out.
Today, I’m a huge fan of Ornette Coleman. With some time, I learned to hear—and to love—the oddities of his style. My ears, along with the jazz mainstream, absorbed the quirks of Coleman and came to hear the unbounded optimism and tunefulness that is coded into the DNA of his melodies. Turnaround reimagines this body of work in various ways, refreshing it for old ears and probably making it a bit easier on new ones.