Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman * Song X * 1985/2005

Pat Metheny Guitar, Guitar Synth
Ornette Coleman Alto Saxophone, Violin
Charlie Haden Bass
Jack DeJohnette Percussion
Denardo Coleman Drums, Percussion

Recorded "Live" at The Power Station, NYC * December 12-14, 1985

Police People  (*)
All of Us  (*)
The Good Life (*)
Word from Bird (*)
Compute (*)
The Veil (*)
Song X
Mob Job
Endangered Species
Video Games
Kathelin Gray
Song X Duo
Long Time No See

(*) additional tracks released on the 20th Anniversary edition only 

In the event that Civilization as we know it wakes up with a hangover one morning, yawns with boredom, takes a vote, and decides to crumble beneath the weight of it's own pretensions, contradictions, and selfishness; and in the equally likely event that there is some profoundly learned and well meaning monk scouring the internet, hoping to find examples of culture worth preserving and smuggling through a new dark ages, I propose that he seriously listen to one of the very best results from the musical laboratory of the Pax Americana--

                                  Song X by Pat Metheny and Ornette Coleman.

There is nothing out there quite like Song X. Precursors, yes--Metheny's own output hinted strongly at a desire for this sort of project in his landmark 80/81, and as all of the tracks on this album were written primarily by Ornette, one hears a strong continuity with the rest of his output. But even with this in mind, something about Song X is always fresh, unprecedented, and unrepeatable. Pat was candid in his liner notes to the 20th anniversary edition, stating that their goal had been "to make a record that was unlike anything that had been done before." Bold words, usually reserved for youngsters attempting their first album--not seasoned veterans who should know better. But they did know better--and more importantly they accomplished what they set out to.

This review is concerned with the 20th Anniversary edition, as it offers the most complete view of the sessions from December 1985, which in turn enables us to better approach even that music which was originally released. I say this to make an important point: much of how we are able to comprehend difficult music like this lies in presentation, and specifically how we are 'taught', by the music itself, to approach it.  I've heard this album described as 'avant-guarde', 'straight ahead', 'post-bop', 'experimental', and many other terms, but none of the labels really capture what is going on in this music. It's doubtful that the term 'avant garde' meant much of anything by 1985, certainly this doesn't count. 'Straight ahead' conjures up a soundscape of polished bop, replete with chord changes and driving swing, and this album can't be easily jammed into that category. 'Post-bop', is plenty of stuff, but the label is unhelpful (it's like calling our era the "Post Revolutionary War Era".  Kind of, but why drag Lafayette into it?)

Critics need to be forgiven, though: this is difficult, culturally packed music, as enigmatic as its name implies. We must let the music itself teach us what it is. And that's why the 20th anniversary edition is invaluable.

The six "new" tracks are more emphatically bright and open-air in quality than the denser materials of "Song X" and "Endangered Species"--the most dominant tracks of the album. This helps frame the emotional discussion, as it were. Whereas the original release opened with a the surging storm that is Song X itself, throwing listeners into a full-fledged aural challenge, the 20th anniversary edition presents us with "Police People" as a starter. At first it seems tongue in cheek, then, upon repeated listening, satirical. It is only after becoming thoroughly familiar with it, perhaps, that we realize the most extraordinary quality which permeates "Police People"--a quality like sunlight itself, often unnoticed but essential for vision. How Coleman, Metheny and crew manage it is a mystery, but the new lead-off is brilliant.

Also, the careful listener will hear thematic material in the first six tunes which weaves throughout the album. Pat's solo in Song X, for instance, incorporates a transformation of the main theme from Police People. Ornette's solo in The Veil utilizes what might be called the B theme from Endangered Species. Denardo Coleman's humorous use of sampled noises in "Compute" come back in a darker sense in Endangered Species. The original album released in 1986 lacked all of these foreshadowings, and as a result seemed much less intertwined and unified an expression than it actually was. Listening to the expanded version is therefore like finally getting to hear the first two movements of symphony that had been lost.

Two dominant sensations run through this "completed" version of the album. First, the sheer range and complexity of emotional material is impressive. From the wit of Ornette's violin solo on "Mob Job", to the dark regions identified in "Endangered Species" (where the listener might justifiably come to the conclusion that the title refers to homo sapiens), to the lyrical landscape achieved in "Song X Duo", the scope is rare in its breadth. But it is the intertwining and the thematic unity of the album that places it in a category beyond most other classic works of art. Song X  is more than a collection of songs, it is both a discovery and a question posed. It confronts us, warns us, instructs us, and helps us lighten up a bit about it all at the same time.

If either Ornette or Pat (or anyone who knows them) happens to come across this little review, I have only one request. The 30th anniversary is not far off: would you please release the complete sessions of Song X? 


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