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Ornette Coleman - To Whom Keeps a Record

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Artist: Ornette Coleman

Album: To Whom Keeps a Record

Label: Water

Review date: Mar. 19, 2007

Ornette Coleman has for so long been chiseled into the jazz canon that it feels we sometimes forget why, or at least forget to ask why, he’s such a fixture. His two most recent releases, 2006’s Sound Grammar and this reissue from Water, provide perfect viewpoints from which to consider – and fall in love with - Ornette all over again. The two releases bookend Ornette’s musical path, Sound Grammar being a recent live date, while To Whom Keeps a Record was compiled from the various sessions of Ornette’s first run of greatness, the 1959 dates with his classic quartet that produced Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come and This is Our Music.

Strangely, the original pressing of this LP was a Japan-only release from 1975. But this discographical anachronism hardly matters, for Ornette’s basic concept has hardly changed in the intervening 40 years. This is a good thing; the concept that Ornette, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and the drummer rotation of Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins sprang upon the world, is so strong, so full of depth and so joyful, that messing with it might just lessen its impact.

So what is so great about this music? Much is said about Ornette’s harmolodic concept – some question it, some champion it, some just don’t get it, a confusion that perhaps arises from the nature of the approach, it being all about constantly redefining one’s approach to the music depending on one’s place within it. (For a clear-headed musical breakdown of harmolodics, see the lucid musings of the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson here and here.) But no matter one’s perspective on his philosophy, Ornette’s tunes overwhelm because of the simple joy and exuberance that pours out of them. If you don’t get it, you haven’t been listening.

Ornette takes the meat and potatoes of jazz – swing, the blues feel, soloing –reinvigorates them, and then injects them into whatever he plays. Ornette’s tunes always jump off from a sturdy, unforgettable theme, be it the slinky and spacious jaunt of “Music Always” or the knot of “P.S. Unless One Has.” Even at headlong tempos (“Brings Goodness” and “To Us”), the whole group is so honed and so focused that no aspect of the music falters. Whatever this group touches turns to song.

If you want for further, final proof, turn to Ornette’s second solo spot on “Some Other.” The tune is a ballad set on a languid simmer, and as Ornette’s second feature reaches climax, he stumbles onto pure melodic gold, Haden and Blackwell follow him into a lazy double-time strut, and before your ears the three have sketched out an entirely new piece in the space of about twenty seconds. Whatever seeds Ornette planted all those years ago, and in whatever soil, is impossible to say. What we can say is that the seeds still bear fruit, the soil is still fertile and that Ornette, from any era, is always worth your time.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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