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Skies of America

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Album Review

Here's what is known about Ornette Coleman's first recorded orchestral symphonic work (he had written others previously and had them performed but never put on tape): After hiring conductor David Measham and the London Symphony Orchestra, British musicians' union rules prohibited Coleman from using his own quartet to play on the record. As a result, he had to re-examine the work without the concerto grosso form and, to fit the work on a single LP, he had to cut many of the recurrent themes of the work. It is also known that the recording quality isn't the greatest. So what? The bottom line is this: In the 21st century, Skies of America, which was Ornette's first attempt at employing his newly developed harmolodic theory (whereby using modulation many players could solo at once using different keys), still sounds ahead of its time. Though there are 21 bands marked on the cover, this is a single unbroken work with many of the themes recurring — either in that they had long been present in Ornette's musical iconography, or would become so. (Check the theme in "The Good Life," as it evolved from "School Work" from 1962 and became "Dancing in Your Head" in the late '70s.) Coleman himself solos beautifully in the middle of the disc, from "The Artist in America" on and off until the work's end with "Sunday in America." This is loaded music: politically, emotionally, and also spiritually. The dissonance doesn't seem so profound now, but it still rubs against the grain of Western harmonic principles in all the right ways. It's difficult to find the sense of what chord is dominant in Coleman's composition, and for that alone it's valuable. But also, it's compelling listening on a level that music such as this is not yet the cultural norm or even close to approaching its standard — which means that it is not yet fully possible. Ornette's was an opening volley, thrown down as a gauntlet that has yet to be picked up. This is still dangerous and rewarding music.


Born: 09 March 1930 in Fort Worth, TX

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

One of the most important (and controversial) innovators of the jazz avant-garde, Ornette Coleman gained both loyal followers and lifelong detractors when he seemed to burst on the scene in 1959 fully formed. Although he, and Don Cherry in his original quartet, played opening and closing melodies together, their solos dispensed altogether with chordal improvisation and harmony, instead playing quite freely off of the mood of the theme. Coleman's tone (which purposely wavered in pitch) rattled some...
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