Music doesn’t get as punk as Ornette Coleman

Remembering Dancing in Your Head on its 40th anniversary
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Remembering Dancing in Your Head on its 40th anniversary
ornette coleman live.jpg

This year marks the 40th anniversaries of a lot of big punk releases, including debuts by the Sex Pistols, Clash, Talking Heads and what I’ve always thought to be the Ramones’ best album. Which will also likely mean luxurious reissues, with alternative and live and demo versions of songs that no one needs and a select few will pay large amounts for. And yet, I keep thinking of Dancing in Your Head, which I love more than any of those, which also turns 40 this year and which won’t likely gather nearly the same amount of attention. Folks, music doesn’t get as punk as Ornette Coleman. Here was a man that inspired Lou Reed, Godfather of punk (Reed: “I had had this idea when I first discovered electric guitar: wouldn't it be incredible if you could play like Ornette Coleman on the guitar”), and that lit a fire under jazz in the late-50s (I’ve always loved how Mingus described him like so: “I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes,” in a quotation that soon flipped into Godly praise). And within Coleman’s discography, it does not get as punk as this: infamous for the maddeningly catchy four-note theme that comprises 27 of its 31-minute runtime, this one found more love within rock circles than it did within jazz circles at the time of its release, as noted by Gary Giddins in Visions of Jazz.

It goes without saying that newbies to Coleman’s overwhelmingly and consistently great discography ought to start elsewhere: The Shape of Jazz to Come, as his most canonized and celebrated is usually the best pick, and even starting chronologically makes more sense (even though Dancing is far better than the somewhat tame Something Else!). But if you’re wondering what this album sounds like in a few words, here you go: it’s the inherently extroverted expression of dance as experienced by an introvert; Coleman always had a thing for titles that captured the sound perfectly. Put simpler: this thing grooves, and it grooves long and it grooves hard.

Taking a step back: the three albums that Ornette Coleman released between 1971 and 1977 demonstrates his absolute breadth: having travelled to chaotic outer space for Science Fiction, back to the turbulent United States for Skies of America (finally delivering the promise of third stream), and then to Africa for Dancing in Your Head, specifically Morocco for “Midnight Sunrise” and Nigeria for “Theme From a Symphony”. (All of Coleman’s albums remind me of a single setting, even his late period works: Virgin Beauty bringing me to Egypt; Tone Dialing bringing me to a completely different America than the one on Science Fiction or his early works.) While Coleman had ignored jazz fusion that ensnared almost every other jazz artist in the early 70s, this one is more indicative of what was going on at the time – just completely Coleman-ified. The sheer notion of Coleman soloing off a single riff for some 40 minutes isn’t far away removed from what the post-minimalists were doing at the time (indeed, Christgau notes that Dancing reminds him of Brian Eno and Philip Glass in his review), and the funk here is more realized and more fun than that of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, to say nothing of how much more dangerous it feels than Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.

Anyone familiar with Coleman’s discography will recognize the main theme of “Theme From a Symphony” as the same motif used in Skies of America’s “The Good Life” and “School Work” that was made available through The Complete Science Fiction Sessions. Of course, it’s been completely rejigged from “The Good Life” in its new setting – Coleman sounds positively happy here, whereas “The Good Life” sounded tentative especially considering the calamitous context. But the reviews criticizing the album for the ear-worming theme being repeated ad nauseum seem to conveniently ignore Coleman’s ferocious solos: most of the album isn’t the saxophone going “da-naaaa-nu-nu / da-naaa-nu-nu” or variations of it by Rudy McDaniel (on bass, who gets a real arm workout from this one). They more or less return to theme to get their bearings before launching back into the stratosphere. And the rest of the musicians – Bern Nix (guitar), Charlie Ellerbee (guitar) and Ronald Shannon Jackson (drums) – are no slackers, either.

The set closes with “Midnight Sunrise”, which does admittedly sound a bit tacked-on, given the new set of musicians here and how different it sounds from “Theme From a Symphony”. Here, Coleman solos over the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Robert Palmer creating a swirling backdrop of sustained, high-pitched drone and a beat that never settles.

It will be hard to convince anyone that this long groove and short extra makes one of the best albums in Coleman’s discography: people might prefer the ones where you can get a lot of different grooves. But this one works as vivid daydream music and immensely rewarding should you focus in on it. One of the best albums released in 1977, happy 40th!