Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman: Song X

Pat Metheny has had great success with his Pat Metheny Group, but lesser known are his occasional forays into "outside" music and he has developed quite a portfolio of collaborations as part of his obvious interest in experimental music.  His "Electric Counterpoint" with minimalist composer Steve Reich and a recent album performing some of John Zorn's Book of Angels works are examples that will be covered here eventually.

One of his more notable collaborative efforts, however, is with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman on the amazing Song X, Metheny's first album for the newly-launched Geffen label and which was released in 1986.  Back in the early 90s, this was among the first jazz albums purchased by this blogger and it made a big impact then (along with "Electric Counterpoint").  Listening to it nearly a quarter century later does not diminish that feeling. 

Song X was an opportunity for Metheny to "stretch out" and for Coleman to "rein in."  By that, the dense and complex electric funk of the sax giant's Prime Time ensembles was stripped back, allowing Coleman and Metheny to employ the kind of harmonic interplay that stretched back to Coleman's work with Don Cherry in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Making the marriage even more harmonious was the fantastic support of bassist Charlie Haden and the dual drumming of Coleman's son Denardo, who has been an excellent ground for his father over the years, and the always-amazing Jack DeJohnette.

Metheny's decision to record the album live over three days in mid-December 1985 allowed the band to maintain a freshness, immediacy and intensity that could be lacking in something more polished and produced.  Moreover, some of Coleman's best writing is found, either on his own or with collaborative works. 

Among the more adventurous pieces are Coleman's title track and the phenomenal collaboration "Endangered Species."  "Video Games" has a cool theme, reminiscent of some of Coleman's earlier work, but with Metheny harmonizing instead of Cherry and the two go off into extended interplay that is striking.  "Trigonometry" has another one of these fine head arrangements, before Coleman launches into an excellent, exploratory solo, reaching high into the upper register of his alto.   It is also something to hear Haden roaming his bass during Coleman's solo.

Meantime, there are some very fine ballads, including Coleman's "Mob Job" and "Kathelin Gray," by him and Metheny--this latter being one of the prettiest pieces either men has likely done.  Actually, all the pieces are strong, providing for a cohesive and smoothly-flowing sequencing.

For those who want to further revel in the telepathic interplay of the two leaders, "Song X Duo" fits the bill--if anything, at just over three minutes, the piece may be a few minutes too short!  "Long Time No See" is a fine close to a remarkable record and is another piece replete with tight interplay between Metheny and Coleman.  The guitarist even manages some Latin melodic elements in his solo.  Here, as well, the dual drummers do a great job of laying down solid and complex rhythms with nice cymbal work to boot.

Metheny's obvious respect for Coleman is manifested by the fact that, though this was his album and the first for David Geffen's ambitious label, he treated the experience as a true collaboration, giving the saxophonist equal billing and equal time and space.  His guitar work is excellent and understated, not only allowing for Coleman to share plenty of the spotlight, but also for the tremendous support of Haden, Denardo Coleman and DeJohnette to be heard.

Ultimately, Song X is a generous and humble statement of respect by a younger modern musician for one of his musical heroes and it has been viewed as a classic since its release.  A 2004 remastering included six previously unreleased songs.

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman:  Song X (Geffen, 1986)

1.  Song X  5:36
2.  Mob Job  4:07
3.  Endangered Species  13:16
4.  Video Games  5:17
5.  Kathelin Gray  4:13
6.  Trigonometry  5:08
7.  Song X Duo  3:10
8.  Long Time No See 7:39

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