Ornette Coleman: Skies of America / The Complete Science Fiction Sessions

Ornette Coleman
The Complete Science Fiction Sessions

Picasso used to be shocking. It was garbage. John Coltrane used to hurt people’s ears. Charlie Parker just made lots of staccato noise. Now, Picasso prints adorn dorm walls and Coltrane and Davis play quietly in the background of polite, but cultured, cocktail parties. Ornette Coleman has never been graced by such cultural absorption and sterilization. Of course this lack of attention also means minimal commercial success, but then again, Coleman isn’t dead yet and such commercial/cultural accolades seem to rain down upon artists after they’re six feet under.

The boundaries that Coleman pushed may have sprung back in the last few decades. Dissonance has never become popular. Strange rhythms still baffle most people. Call and response must always be done in the same language. Neither Skies of America nor Science Fiction will go over very well at a cocktail party, cultured attendees or no. Coleman’s music has always pressed against boundaries, not wishing to break though, but rather just distorting the norm. His music sought new forms and structures, not just a lack of form. At times his music has verged on the one-world continuity that often leaves the world of economic inequalities behind for a higher vision of musical perpetuity and equivalence. These forms come from within, from an individual who can mold and meld with Coleman’s temporal musical community. Then at other times, such as on Skies of America, Coleman’s music takes on a formal structure that resists earlier boundaries and sets new, more interwoven ones. Coleman has been called “no technical virtuoso,” but his musical mind cannot be ignored. He has pushed limits and created new musical spaces that yearn for response in some kind of dialogue of form and structure.

Skies of America
Skies of America is a third-stream composition, meaning that it encompasses parts of traditional classical music and parts of contemporary jazz. This work was meant to be a collaboration of a full orchestra, in this case the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by David Measham) with Coleman’s quartet, but conflicts with the musicians’ union in Britain forced the quartet players from the recording. Skies of America is Coleman’s epic “harmolodic manifesto.” Harmolodic theory “uses only melody, harmony, and the instrumentation of the movement of forms.” Coleman uses bass, treble, tenor, and alto clefs simultaneously throughout Skies of America, often having different parts of the orchestra playing the same parts of the score in different clefs. While I am still a little fuzzy on the details of Coleman’s composing here, many of the themes in Skies of America sound not necessarily dissonant through a forced conflict of tones, but rather sonically jumbled through an apparent chance clashing of tones as they happen to cross from instrument to instrument playing similar parts in differing clefs. Skies of America does carry certain themes, some that even repeat, but there is really no opening or closure. Coleman’s music here does not begin as unified and separate away towards atonality and return. His tones stay away from repetition. He has kept all the tones high, denoting sky and his sounds vary from angry and disapproving to floating and celebratory. But all of Skies of America remain in the clouds, tonally soaring or roaring across American space.

The Complete Science Fiction Sessions
The Complete Science Fiction Sessions is a collection of Coleman’s 1971 release Science Fiction and his 1982 Broken Shadows. Broken Shadows, though released in 1982, was comprised almost wholly of material from the Science Fiction sessions. So really, this 2000 Complete Science Fiction Sessions is just that: complete. Unlike Skies of America, The Complete Science Fiction Sessions gives us more traditional, if you can call it that, Ornette Coleman. Both discs of this release contain tracks the vary from free jazz to more traditionally be-bop influenced romps. While Skies of America attempts to produce a single musical concept, a whole vision of America suitably written through harmolodics, The Complete Science Fiction Sessions breaks into distinct tunes that do not necessarily speak to each other. The continuity of Science Fiction sessions lies in the players, not in the blueprint. These sessions use many members of the extended Coleman musical family, most notably the return and regrouping of early members such as Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. On a number of tracks, Coleman uses both Indian vocalist Asha Puthli or poet David Henderson much in the same way as other members of the session. Voices become part of the mix, bringing language into the music, complicating the unrepresentability of music and the madness of Coleman’s composition. The Complete Science Fiction Sessions pastes two Coleman albums together, as they should have been, and returns to these sessions their rightful continuity.