“Science Fiction” by Ornette Coleman (1972)
Release Date: February 1972
Produced by James Jordan
Chart Positions: N/A
Ornette Coleman's first album for Columbia followed a stint on Blue Note that found the saxophonist in something of a holding pattern. Science Fiction was his creative rebirth, a stunningly inventive and appropriately alien-sounding blast of manic energy. Coleman pulls out all the stops, working with a variety of different lineups and cramming the record full of fresh ideas and memorable themes. Bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Billy Higgins and/or Ed Blackwell are absolutely indispensable to the overall effect, playing with a frightening, whirlwind intensity throughout.
"Science Fiction" is a free jazz classic.
In some respects, this is one of the last original statements of the musical approach Ornette had taken starting in the late 1950s. Many of these songs open with a “head” with two performers playing a composed line in dissonant unison. Then the songs open up with the performers playing in less coordinated ways. But that approach only accounts for a portion of the album, mostly in the middle part.
The opener “What Reason Could I Give?” is something different from the traditional Coleman song structure. Instead of a more structured head that gives way to less structured collective improvisation, the entire song is organized around unison playing. Every one of the performers, with some slight exception for the two drummers who must accept the more limited tonal palettes of drum kits in exchange for unobtrusively skittering rhythmic attacks, seems to be guided by a close and commonly structured composition that tries to balance the tone, volume and overall intensity of performance. A singer (Asha Puthli) provides an inherent focal point because of the lyrics, though really they are not “in front” of the other performers in any real way. This type of song structure seems like a more fully realized version of things Ornette had hinted at in the late 1960s, when he started working with Dewey Redman, but never really mastered. This song is fluid, engaging…convincing. And the balance never falters.
The catchiest numbers -- including two songs with Indian vocalist Asha Puthli, which sound like pop hits from an alternate universe -- have spacy, long-toned melodies that are knocked out of orbit by the rhythm section's churning chaos, which often creates a totally different pulse. Two tracks reunite Coleman's classic quartet of Haden, Higgins, and Don Cherry; "Street Woman" just wails, and "Civilization Day" is a furious, mind-blowing up-tempo burner. With “Civilization Day,” Ornette is back to a kind of bop group combo formation that opens the song with a form of unison playing that leaves specific spaces in place. After the initial statement of the songs theme, the drums drop out, and then solos are traded. The bass (Charlie Haden) is very insistent throughout. It provides the strong urging of a regular beat that undercuts what would otherwise be an oppressive intensity from the wailing of the wind instruments. The next song “Street Woman” sort of combines the approaches of the first two. The bass takes more liberal departures from a steady beat, both in a rubbery statement in the head (plus a similar closing to the song), and in a prominent mid-song solo. "Law Years" and "The Jungle Is a Skyscraper" feature a quintet with Haden, Blackwell, tenorist Dewey Redman, and trumpeter Bobby Bradford; both have racing, stop-start themes, and "Jungle"'s solos have some downright weird groaning effects. "Rock the Clock" foreshadows Coleman's '70s preoccupations, with Redman playing the musette (an Arabic double-reed instrument) and Haden amplifying his bass through a wah-wah pedal to produce sheets of distorted growls. “Rock the Clock” again opens right into a bunch of skronking from the wind instruments, but with Ornette on violin playing scratchy, abrasive and high-pitched bowed sounds, then an electric bass gives the song a touch of the sound of the jazz-rock fusion movement — very funky. Between the bass and the violin, two extremes sit together, taking opposite approaches (pulsed beats on bass, extended tones on violin) yet kind of create a meaning through their juxtaposition. This proves to be a great performance of a song that would become standard in the Coleman repertoire. The title track is a free septet blowout overlaid with David Henderson's echoed poetry recitations, plus snippets of a crying baby; it could sound awkward today, but in context it's perfectly suited to the high-octane craziness all around it.
An open secret to Ornette’s music is the way he integrates composition and improvisation. Performers are not simply cut loose to play whatever they want. Ornette was a composer above all. Yet his way of composing presented the opportunity for his compositions to seem to dissolve away amid the improvisation. Paradoxically, the only way the improvisation can structure itself to overcome the compositional elements is through the compositions themselves. Science Fiction is a meeting ground between Coleman's past and future; it combines the fire and edge of his Atlantic years with strong hints of the electrified, globally conscious experiments that were soon to come. And, it's overflowing with brilliance.
Ornette Coleman (1972)