Would you rather hear a jackhammer or a car crash?: Coltrane (right) and Coleman's stranger moments get a reappraisal.
Would you rather hear a jackhammer or a car crash?: Coltrane (right) and Coleman's stranger moments get a reappraisal.

Weird Impressions

From the '60s through the early '70s, jazz fans clamored for something as "far out" as what was happening in rock music. They were offered what many found to be a choice between two flavors of awful: the dissimilar, avant-garde rantings of saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Seven recent reissues, five by Coltrane -- Impressions, Ascension, Kulu Se Mama, New Thing at Newport and Interstellar Space -- and two by Coleman -- The Complete Science Fiction Sessions and Skies of America -- resurface Twilight Zone material that many still find to be garbage.

Garbage was not what anyone was expecting from John Coltrane come the mid-'60s. The tenor saxophonist was hot stuff, an important presence on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue -- still considered by many to be the greatest jazz album ever -- and the creator of a heady interpretation of Disney's popular theme on his own My Favorite Things. Both albums were in the collection of anyone who listened to jazz. College students played them when they studied, and young Hugh Hefner wanna-bes used both as soundtracks for bedding the bouffanted babes. Coltrane was on his way to becoming a household name -- a rare thing in jazz -- had he continued to regurgitate this perfect mix of library jazz and nookie music.

Instead, he ruined his reputation. Coltrane was becoming more and more obsessed with his instrument -- he played everywhere he went. He walked and even slept with his sax. The tenorman was also becoming more spiritual, turning to Eastern philosophies for answers just as the Beatles and Donovan would several years later. He played standards less and less, instead using his horn to express a nonverbal form of praying on extended, open-ended jams with titles like "A Love Supreme" and "Song of Praise." It was not what the nightclub crowds were expecting to hear.

Miles Davis and Coltrane had experimented with modal playing, improvising for lengthy periods over a single chord. On 1963's Impressions, Coltrane took the approach much further, soloing over the title cut's two chords for 15 minutes -- and much longer in concert. "India" was an ode to the spirituality of that country, featuring fellow trailblazer Eric Dolphy on an unlikely instrument for jazz: the bass clarinet. Dolphy's playing was as angular and skewed as a Picasso painting -- a perfect foil for the unnerving style Coltrane was developing. Though Coltrane referred to the music as meditation, the thousand-note-a-minute soloing sounded like a mind gradually unreeling itself into dangerous territory.

A critic accurately referred to his auctioneer-speed horn glossalalia as "sheets of sound." Many fans agreed: To them his manic wailing sounded like a sax slammed against sheets of metal. Coltrane's old audience quickly disappeared.

The new Coltrane, though, was just beginning. 1965's Ascension made Impressions sound tame in comparison. Two trumpets, two alto saxophones, two basses and two tenor saxophones were piled together, with most of them soloing simultaneously. The Ascension album was a single 38-minute piece which the Impulse! label had to cut in half, filling both sides of an album. Coltrane informed them that the wrong version had been issued. The label, displaying an amazing degree of flexibility regarding an album that would sell only a handful of copies, released Coltrane's favored version. Most listeners, though, were unable to tell the difference, finding the versions -- both on the reissue -- equally ugly. So did two of the band members. The group's intensity buried the presence of longtime Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Both were now openly angry with the direction of the saxophonist's sound -- once genteel, now a soul-searching howl.

Eric Dolphy, Coltrane's most advanced cohort in cacophony, died before Ascension had been recorded. He was replaced by the growling and wailing of Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, two sax extremists who were nowhere near Dolphy's class. While 1965's Kulu Se Mama was less assaultive, with its smaller horn section and moody African percussion, the splinter in the listener's ear was tenorman Sanders, whose raspy yelps sounded like a throat being cleared. New Thing at Newport, released the same year, featured Shepp's mean squawking, with his and Coltrane's quartets each occupying half the album. The association with both Sanders and Shepp whacked the nails deeper into the coffin of Coltrane's mainstream career.

Conservative jazz fans hated Sanders and Shepp even more than the new Coltrane -- at least Coltrane had proven himself capable of playing straight ahead, unlike these two impostors who only honked. Sanders and Shepp squealed and grunted while Coltrane knew how to soar -- admittedly, even lyrically -- in his outlandishness.

The ultimate proof came with 1967's Interstellar Space. Brain-draining as Coltrane's music had been on the previous releases, his direction and internal rhythm were much more obvious as Coltrane dropped his army of sidemen and blew hard with only drummer Rashied Ali as support. Ali was a likely choice, his free-form drumming as appallingly raw and lightning-quick as Coltrane's sax. Coltrane's cries quickly moved from psalmlike melodies to blatantly painful shrieking, sounding as though the studio had become his wailing wall. Few listeners knew what to make of the album. On Interstellar Space, Coltrane's soul-exposing was so off-putting that he at once sounded intimidating and vulnerable.

Gone here were both the old and new bands. Longtime band members Tyner and Jones had left in frustration, and Coltrane may have temporarily set aside Sanders and Shepp in order to continue, unencumbered by their constraining, primitive improvisational rutting. Ascension was the album that best explained Coltrane's spiritual angst to those who couldn't hear it in busier contexts. Not that many jazz fans were following him any longer.

Less than five months later, Coltrane was dead. Though his outside experimenting was almost universally slammed, he remained prolific throughout the exodus: Impulse! released five Coltrane albums in 1965 alone, and enough material was available at the time of his death to produce another dozen albums.

Ornette Coleman has infuriated fewer listeners than Coltrane only because he's never had anywhere near as large a following.

Four decades of interviews with the soft-spoken saxophonist continue to confuse jazz fans. Explanations of a signature style he dubbed "harmolodics" are equally cryptic. What's clear, though, is that band members are encouraged to play in any key at any point in the composition, meaning that potentially every player, Coleman included, will have chosen tonal centers that clash with the rest of the ensemble. For many, a Coleman recording sounds like a roomful of busy musicians who, apart from following a strong backbeat and nursery-rhyme-simple theme, are oblivious to each other's contributions. Since Coleman's appearance in 1958, jazz has yet to acknowledge a theory of improvisation as seemingly unstructured as his. God knows how many thousands of Ornette Coleman albums have made their way back to record stores for refunds.

Coleman's harmolodic approach has been vilified even by his peers. Dexter Gordon once kicked Coleman off the stage, and Miles Davis felt his compositions were nonsense. In 1960, he offended audiences with Free Jazz, an album of two quartets playing simultaneously. Later, on 1966's The Empty Foxhole, he unabashedly planted his rhythm-challenged 10-year-old son in the drum seat previously held by esteemed players Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell.

His music was about to get stranger, in ways even his fans found distasteful. A 1971 session for Columbia Records resulted in Science Fiction, which mixed two unknown pop/soul singers with Coleman's angular ranting. One of Coleman's more frantic outings featured both the cries of a baby and a barely intelligible poet. Longtime group member Charlie Haden's bass was degraded by a wah-wah pedal on the silly "Rock the Clock." Coleman's attempts at sounding pop and politically relevant had grown embarrassing.

Coleman and his core group (bassist Haden, drummer Blackwell and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman) were back in Columbia's studio exactly a year later, recording what would be released as Broken Shadows, here filling most of The Complete Science Fiction Sessions' second disc. Though this session was void of the forced hippie associations, an unknown blues singer named Webster Armstrong fared only a little better than the previous soul sisters had. Coleman's idea of playing the blues left Armstrong fronting the aural equivalent of quicksand. Though Armstrong's direct approach made him the gyroscope in this roller coaster of a band, it also made him sound like an out-of-place wacko.

Better-known players were also guesting. Pianist Cedar Walton and guitarist Jim Hall -- both conservative jazz figures -- joined in, bravely attempting to understand this new style. Unfortunately, both offered forgettable input as they gingerly tried to fit into the band's warped milieu with a few twisted harmonies. The only good news was that part of the sessions heralded a return to the soaring and intimidating style that Coleman fans had come to expect. Much of the music on The Complete Science Fiction Sessions proves that, despite what doubters believed, outside jazz could not get away with anything and everything.

Come 1972, Coleman himself was unable to get away with even the most reasonable requests in London's Abbey Road Studios, where two years earlier the Beatles had demolished the limitations of pop. The bad guy was the British musicians union, which wouldn't allow Coleman's band on a lengthy composition he'd written to be played along with the London Symphony Orchestra. There were other insults: Coleman had to register as a classical musician, he appeared on only a third of the composition's sections, and a sizable segment of the album had to be dumped by the label in order to fit the music onto a single LP.

Like Science Fiction, Skies of America was another major detour from Coleman's signature style. The album holds up fairly well now, sounding at times like Aaron Copland psycho-slammed into depression, then mania. Skies, though, is a minor addition to the Coleman catalogue, which may not have been the case had the petulant guardians of British music allowed Coleman's intense quartet to have snaked among the grayish colors of the string arrangements. Not surprisingly, Coleman was dropped by Columbia Records five months later.

Ornette Coleman has been signed to more than a dozen labels during his career, with his Columbia output appearing dead-center in four decades worth of unrenewed contracts. He fares better these days with Verve Records distributing the music of his company, Harmolodic Inc.

It's a sure bet, though, that neither Coleman nor Coltrane's estate is investing in jazz theme parks based on interest and sales of these reissues. Outside the jazz world -- or, in this case, outside-outside the jazz world -- these two patriarchs are, for most, side-show material: Take a listen, shake the head in disbelief, and shelve the disc forever. One listener in a hundred will press up against the stereo speaker to hear Coltrane's and Coleman's appreciative nuances, spurts of growth and catastrophic fuck-ups in experiments that assembly-line jazz fans hear as only white noise.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >