Prime time and the great quartet; an exclusive report on the recording of Ornette: In All Languages. This article originally appeared in The Wire 40 (June 1987).
Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden are an apposite pair. Yes, they have their differences, but the soft-spoken idealist and compulsive realist, the mock-innocent iconoclast and his staunch anchor, the urban spaceman and the committed politico share one of the firmest bonds in improvised music. Texas-born alto saxist, trumpeter and violinist Coleman - "I always tell everybody I'm a composer who performs" - and Cowboy Charlie, the purist upright bassist raised in his parents' hillybilly band, have worked closely for three decades. This season, together and alone, they're changing the shape of jazz to come in ways still unforeseen.
"I've finally pried Ornette away from Prime Time - it's taken me ten years," Haden grinned triumphantly, preparing for one of Coleman's most ambitious recent sessions in downtown Manhattan's Sorcerer Sound studio on a cold, clear Saturday in late February. Don Cherry sauntered by, holding Ornette's silver Shilke horn, rather than his own battered pocket trumpet, in his hands.
"Here I am, continuing my harmolodic studies," Cherry remarked with a hint of bemusement. Billy Higgins sat at the drums, wringing his sticks in a towel, as Haden continued, "I know Ornette's wanted to do something with us. When I hooked him up with Pat Metheny for Song X I knew it was just a matter of time before I got him back."
But reconvening his original New York quartet, Ornette hadn't forsaken his electrically amplified ensemble at all. His energy renewed as his son Denardo takes ever more responsibility for project production and management, this spring Ornette charged forth on several fronts at once. Double-reed specialist Joseph Celli, the Kronos String Quartet, and a handpicked chamber ensemble performed a two-night retrospective of Ornette's through-composed pieces at the refurbished Weill (nee Carnegie Recital) Hall in March. While Haden took his Liberation Music Orchestra to Cuba in April, Ornette travelled to Europe with Prime Time, the double trio comprising plugged-in bassists Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Albert McDowell, guitarists Bern Nix and Charlie Ellerbee, and drummers Calvin Weston and Denardo Coleman. As Caravan Of Dreams, the record label emanating from an avant garde arts centre in his home town of Fort Worth, released Coleman's string quartet Prime Design and his Prime Time set Opening The Caravan Of Dreams (along with albums by such of his associates as James "Blood" Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson), Ornette was writing charts for vocalist Mari Okubo, and supervising revisions on his symphony "Skies Of America", to be conducted by Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra leader John Giordano in Verona in late June.
Ornette's spurt of activity commenced on the consecutive
weekends during which his original quartet and Prime Time recorded
multiple takes, all under four minutes long, of 16 of his new
songs. "I think Ornette wants to get radio airplay," Haden shrugged
while sound engineers determined levels for their
live-in-the-studio date. "At first I asked him, 'You sure you want
to sacrifice the music for that?'" As it turned out, Ornette
sacrificed nothing but the entire day required to establish level
for Prime Time, in which Denardo plays electronic drums that depend
on computerized samples.
The resulting double album, Ornette: In All Languages, was scheduled for June release, and in session it seemed inspired. "You guys look old - all over 35!" Ornette, about to turn 57, jokes with his longtime friends as the original quartet posed for photos. Cherry, Higgins, and Haden ran down quick versions of "Sound Manual", Straight Line And A Circle", "Biosphere", "Script Trip", "Bird's Words", "Storytellers", "Cloning", "Latin Genetics", "Let's Listen" and other intricate heads, upbeat or blue, with the intensity of artists at work after Ornette counted off a simple "One, two, three." Harmolodics, Ornette's inadequately documented musical theory which emphasizes polyphony, thematic improvisation, and personal freedom, allowed the brief song durations to take on dense detail and express elaborate musical intentions.
Alto at his lips, Coleman's throat swelled thick as a frog's with air; only his fingers and his nostrils moved while he blew hard lines, warm purrs, and barking tones. Cherry, whose chops had strengthened during weeks of practice, revealed his quiet, incisive wit in counterpoint to Ornette. Higgins, behind low baffles, was smiling like bright sunlight and beating exuberant rhythms. And Charlie Haden leaned into his dark wood bass, his fingers descending its staff, his ears almost to its soundhole.
Haden, who's been serving as artistic director of jazz studies at California Institute of the Arts, has emerged this year as a first-choice session player. Besides working with Ornette, Pat Metheny, and various ECM artists, he's collaborated with tenorist Michael Brecker's Band and pianist Henry Butler on Impulse!, with pianist Fred Hirsch and drummer Joey Baron on Sunnyside, and issued an album of his own on Polygram called Quartet West, featuring saxist Ernie Watts, pianist Allen Broadbent, and drummer Higgins. Composer Gavin Bryars penned a piece for Haden and chamber orchestra, which the bassist hopes to record on ECM this summer; Haden also plans a Liberation Music Orchestra tour of European festivals in August and September. As always, he speaks of his concerns with urgent passion.
"For the Liberation Music Orchestra, we've got an arrangement of
the African National Congress's anthem, and a piece by Silvio
Rodriguez, the Cuban songwriter. I wrote a spiritual for Martin
Luther King, we've got some music from El Salvador, and a piece I
wrote in honor of Sandino, the Nicaraguan national hero. Carla
Bley's doing the arrangements and I hope she'll play piano with
Orchestra this summer."
If she doesn't, Haden will select from the ever-widening circle of musicians he's come to know. Pianist Geri Allen went to Havana with him, and Kenny Kirkland made a quartet date earlier this year with Haden, Higgins, and Branford Marsalis in Vancouver, British Columbia. Among the better known 14 players on Haden's Cuban jaunt were saxophonists George Adams, Joe Livano, and Ken McIntyre, trumpeter Frank Gordon, trombonist Ray Anderson, guitarist Mick Goodrick, and bassist Dannie Gottlieb.
"It was another world from there, from the moment we arrived at the terminal at the airport. Everything's in disrepair, because they don't have much in the way of manufactured items. You see old cars - '48 Dodges and Plymouths, Hudsons, Nashes, Kaiser-Frasiers. But the mojitas made everybody feel good, the food was great, especially in the Ernest Hemingway Restaurant, the hotel had fresh fruit juices, and the people were gracious. We were free to go wherever we wanted, and we were taken to museums, pre-schools, the Arts Institute. Ken McIntyre was flown to a remote village on the far end of the island to meet an uncle who'd come to Cuba from Jamaica in 1918.
"We played twice, to sell-out audiences of about 2000 people. Tickets to the five day festival we were part of cost one peso, about 90 cents. And I met one young Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, who was fantastic, man, sort of Keith Jarrett-influenced, fusing with Cuban rhythms. We went to the Engrem record company studios where they had a piano, and played "Solar", a blues, some other stuff. I had a great time."
Still, Haden's greatest enthusiasm is for making music with Ornette. "You know, Higgins and Cherry and I started playing together when we were teenagers, before I met Ornette," he remembered. "When we all got together, in Los Angeles in the 50s, we'd play a song and talk about what happened, why intervals, our phrasing, even our listening, were taking certain directions. It was exciting to experience that again.
"When we started rehearsing for this one, Ornette said, 'I want you to approach the music as though we'd been playing together all these years since the last time - I want us to reach that level.' The last time we recorded was '77, but it was never issued. I think John Snyder [former producer of A & M's Horizon series, and the defunct label Artist House] has the tapes".
As though on cue, Ornette walked over to demonstrate his style of instructive analysis with Haden. "Try to play without earphones, Charlie", he suggested in his lilting, somewhat throaty, soft-edged voice. "Try it before you complain you can't hear yourself." Then, not to seem annoyed, he went on, "Your sound will be felt the same way you hear it, once you get your sound." A charming smile. "That's what I do." So Haden stopped fiddling with the earphones, and resumed tuning up in front of Higgins's baffles.
"This is the first time I've tried this," said Ornette of the
brevity of his takes. "I told these guys, 'You've been playing with
me for 30 years; you don't have to milk the tune to find your
groove. I want you to go get it.' You don't usually hear jazz
groups do that. Usually, it's the old style, where you milk a tune,
play your hot lick here, then take a long time to find something
you like, and groove. I don't go for that now.
"But I've never changed," Ornette insisted in a quieter moment, a little later in the afternoon. "You know, everybody might think the reason I have Prime Time is to become more popular, but that isn't the reason. My reason was I just got tired of using saxes and drums in the regular setup. When you hear this record we're all making, you'll understand."
On the subsequent Saturday, the mood was changed. The engineer of Colemans had hired for the recording struggled to adjust his board to their directions. Jamaaladeen Tacuma tried to control his energy by absorbing himself in his wardrobe. McDowell spent spare time practicing piano sonatas. Guitarists Nix and Ellerbee were isolated from the rest of the band in a distant alcove of the huge studio. Denardo fiddled with his floppy discs in a glass booth, while Calvin Weston thumped in the main room. Ornette spent long minutes inspecting reed after reed.
"This is a completely different process, isn't it?" Ornette sighed. "And the music sounds like completely different music, even if it's the same melodies. Well, last week it was more like live, playing with Charlie and Billy and Cherry. Because you have to meet up with them at a certain place, at a certain time.
"But I prefer this sound to the other. In Prime Time you don't get a chance to actually play your personal emotional patterns like when you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. It's more like a portrait painting, where the little eyelid is more important than the whole nose, you know?"
I said I wasn't sure.
"The time is going to come when you don't have to speak English to appreciate a song," Ornette said with persuasive certainty. "I mean, we all speak English, but not many people in this country are English. You are what your mother gave birth to, not how your head was raised. And inside you is your sound, fighting to get out."
"The one thing I do with my horn in Prime Time is act like a master translator, translating all the sounds at once, and remaining apart from it."
Ornette found a good reed, cleared the studio, and nodded to Jamaaladeen, who launched Prime Time into energized orbit. Ornette's alto cut through the mounting metallic noise, and spun around it as charged ions surround the core of an atom. Charlie Haden was absent, but Ornette was fully there.