Ornette Coleman - Dancing In Your Head

Ornette Coleman
Dancing In Your Head

Released 1977 on A&M
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 23/06/2004ce

Side 1
Theme from a Symphony - variation one (15:37)

Side 2
Theme from a Symphony - variation two (11:06)
Midnight Sunrise (4:36)

Ornette Coleman - composer & alto sax, with:

on "Theme" (Paris 1976)
Bern Nix & Charles Ellerbee - guitars
Rudy MacDaniel - bass
Ronald Shannon Jackson - drums

on "Midnight" (Morocco 1973)
The Master Musicians of Joujouka
Robert Palmer - clarinet

When the term "70's jazz fusion" is used, most folks probably think of Miles Davis' brand of downer space funk or all that goopy Return to Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Weather Report stuff. But of course when Ornette Coleman did "jazz fusion in the 70's" it didn't sound like what his peers were doing at the time anymore than his "modern jazz of the 50's" sounded like what Miles, Mingus, Coltrane et. al were doing back then either. The bulk of this little gem from the Ornette discography consists of the best ever example of "Ornette Fusion", along with a final track documenting an excursion to Africa for a musical communion, producing predictably trippy results.

Why is this not your pony-tailed uncle's "fusion"? First of all the drumming on "Theme" is berserk -- and since Ornette had been using his son Denardo on drums since he was about 10 years old (and who played drums exactly like you'd think a 10 year old would), the standards for what counts as berzerker drumming on an Ornette record are very high as you might imagine! Basically Jackson sounds like two takes of Denardo's drumming overdubbed on top of each other, banging and clattering and rimshotting away like no tomorrow.

It's tempting to compare Nix & Ellerbee's guitars to Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennare Jimmy Semens and all them other great Magic Band guitar duos, but really they sound more like Jimmy Nolan (James Brown's guy) and his evil twin surgically sewn together by the tops of their heads, still punchy from the anesthesia so given a healthy dose of amphetamine to pep them up into a cartoonish frenzy.

But seriously, Ornette may well have been influenced by a Trout Mask Replica sensibility here (I believe it, and think I read somewhere that DVV hisself said so too -- tho I'm just as sure Ornette would say he's never heard of the Captain.) And at the same time I think it's pretty obvious that Ornette was one of the key influences on the Beefheart approach to music in the first place -- compare "Hair Pie" from 1969 to something like "Moon Inhabitants" from 1960, I dare ya!*

Anyway the tune they're jamming on in two "Variations" here is indeed a theme from a symphony (the section entitled "The Good Life" from "Skies of America" 1972 by Ornette Coleman, an LP recorded with the LSO and quite a great "jazz-classical fusion" by the way.) It's a sort of Carribean mardi-gras childlike sing-a-long melody that Ornette blows like a Sufi trance master, the same little tune fragment over and over dozens of times with subtle rhythm shifts and no pauses for breath (he's mastered circular breathing.) "Variation One" is longer and features Ornette mostly, pretty much driving repetition ruling the take. "Variation Two" I like a little better cuz the O-man's blowing is free-er, and cuz the guitar players get to cut loose on some wacky jazz-rock-skronk solos every now & then (Vernon Reid must love this stuff.)

And really -- when was the last time you listened to "jazz fusion" that sounded so absolutely brimming with JOY but at the same time was totally non-sentimental? Usually this is a genre that is either depressing (Miles) or cloying (everyone else up to & including the Kenny G's of the world.) That makes this record almost one of a kind.

Ornette would go on to make more "fusion" records with his band Prime Time on through to the 90's, but I don't think any of them really approach the unique blend of chaotic joy found in the relatively simple groovin' here (though the follow-up to this album, "Body Meta" comes the closest.)

The closing track "Midnight Sunrise" sounds like it comes from another sonic universe entirely -- it is spooky, mystical, otherworldly, and a bag of chips. Makes me think of Burroughsian "Naked Lunch" visions of nude arab boys in desert dances with giant centipedes and such (associating Ornette's collaboration with Howard Shore on the soundtrack to the movie version with the North African spirit vision vibe I suppose -- anyway, it fits.)

A branch of the musical tree that may even yet grow fruit (this sounds like an ahead-of-its-time album meant to inspire it's own genre if ever there was one), this neat little LP comes from one of Ornette's more overlooked periods from the end of the 60's through to the mid 70's (what I think of as his "restless" period -- a bit like Neil Young in the 80's perhaps.) But it's pretty easy to find on CD reissues these days, so ch-ch-check it out.

* Don Van Vliet and Ornette Coleman are obviously cosmic twins from the same alien species anyway: both came from isolated backwater cowboy towns, both painters as well as musicians, they also share a childish naive outlook, loving animals but feeling alienated from humans, doing the evasive guru "responding to questions with even weirder questions" thing in interviws, etc.

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