Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman
Song X—Twentieth Anniversary (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.)
Guitarist Pat Metheny has been able to do what few jazz musicians have done. He has consistently created music that is both accessible to a wide audience and interesting enough to satisfy hard core jazz fans. But in 1986, the release of Song X, an album co-headlined by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, caused quite a stir. After a successful ten-year run at Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records, Metheny signed with Geffen in 1985. His first release for the company, although mostly hailed by critics at the time, gave casual listeners a shock. Some vehemently claimed that the free improvisation on Song X was not only “anti jazz” but “anti music”. Pretty strong words for an album by a bunch of guys who sounded like they were having fun.
For jazz veteran Ornette Coleman, these accusations were nothing new. His pioneering free improvisation has been irritating and thrilling jazz fans since the late fifties. On the surface, the pairing of the fluent and graceful guitarist and the avant garde seer might seem incongruous, but these men have much in common in that both Metheny and Coleman are strong melodic improvisers. This emphasis on melody and loose chord structures are what made Song X so exciting twenty years ago and the current edition with six previously unreleased cuts and brand new mixing and mastering drive this point home.
Of the six new cuts which open the album, “Police People” and “The Good Life”, both Coleman compositions, feature chord progressions under the solos penned by Metheny and, as the guitarist’s liner notes point out, it truly is a rare treat to hear Ornette Coleman improvise over pre-meditated structures. “Word from Bird” is also a great addition to the album, swinging with great joy and intensity.
The cuts from the original album have been spruced up magnificently with refined mixes that don’t undercut the ferocious intensity of the performances. “Endangered Species” is still as shocking and scary as it was in 1985. The lyricism of beautiful ballad “Kathelin Gray” is warmer and fuller and cuts like “Video Games” and “Trigonometry” boast mixes that are much less jagged.
The majority of fans of the Pat Metheny Group will detest this album just as they did years ago. Ornette Coleman fans will love it. Fans of interesting, experimental improvised music will be handsomely rewarded. There are those out there who might find the organized chaos of Song X to be daunting, but those who are brave enough to sample this amazing music will have to suspend disbelief to get to the core of the music. It may sound like chaos, but trust me—these guys know what they’re doing.
Personnel: Pat Metheny—guitar, guitar synthesizer; Ornette Coleman—alto sax; Charlie Haden—bass: Jack DeJohnette, Denardo Coleman—drums
Read NT’s review of the Pat Metheny Group’s
The Way Up