Published: September, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
The Return of Song X

Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman
Song X: Twentieth Anniversary

(Nonesuch)


By Michael Fortes

Pat Metheny had/has some real balls. Back in 1985, when he left ECM and signed with Geffen, he decided to make his debut for the label not another sure-to-be-a-best-seller Pat Metheny Group album, but a daring, historic collaboration with free jazz granddaddy Ornette Coleman. Talk about taking a commercial risk!

Twenty years later, Metheny has remixed their sole collaborative album, Song X, and added 6 cuts to the beginning of the original program.

While repackaging old albums with added material is standard practice these days, Song X: Twentieth Anniversary stands apart from the pack. For one, the six previously unreleased recordings are every bit as jaw-dropping as the original cuts, providing more examples of how great this collaboration was - no false starts, sub-par alternate takes or other such cutting-room floor fodder here. Not only that, the counter-intuitive decision of placing the rescued sessions at the beginning of the disc is a double pleasure - you don't have to sit through stuff you already know before you hear the new stuff, and by the time the stuff you already know comes on, it sounds and feels brand new all over again.

Of course, part of the new feeling of this disc is owed to the remix job. The sound is fuller, clearer, a bit more in-your-face. The brittle sound of the original release can be pleasantly kissed goodbye.

"[T]here might have been a few different decisions made about what did and didn't get included on the record and especially about how the whole thing actually sounded," says Metheny in the disc's liner notes, referring to the time constraints - on the timeline of the project as well as the physical medium of the 12" vinyl LP - under which Song X was made.

Even in hindsight, Metheny believes he "did pick the right takes of the tunes that were on the original version of the release," while adding the new titles presents "a more complete picture of our efforts."

As for the music itself, Metheny is of course on guitar, with Coleman playing his signature alto sax and some violin too. Coleman's son Denardo is on drums, as is the incomparable Jack Dejohnette. Charlie Haden, a longtime Coleman sideman and original member of Ornette's first quartet, holds the bass slot.

Of the 6 newly added tracks, "Police People" and "The Good Life" are of the greatest significance, for Pat Metheny's more "conventional" chord changes on during the solos. Though Ornette had typically been more at home with no pre-set chord changes at all, he blows his way through these changes most nimbly and beautifully. These additions alone make the 20th anniversary edition of Song X a must-own.

"Song X" is offered in two different versions. A full band version opens the album, while a straight duet between Metheny and Coleman arrives six songs later. Multiple versions of Coleman compositions are always a treat, for the harmolodic concept which applies to Coleman's music is best demonstrated by hearing all the different directions the music can take. With only a written melody and no preset chord changes, the possibilities are endless, which makes any music by Ornette Coleman sound fresh and exciting.

Following a pretty, gentle "Mob Job" is the sonic onslaught of "Endangered Species." The intensity of the piece is very much like fast, heavy rock music, though the rhythms are busier and more complex, and the improvisation is further out. And the gears change yet again on the next track, "Video Games," whose title is what one thinks of when hearing the sounds Metheny creates on guitar synthesizer. When the sound breaks, Ornette's incredible alto speaks through the cracks disarmingly.

Then there's "Kathelin Gray," which may be one of the most beautiful pieces Ornette has played since the 1959 Atlantic recording of "Just For You." It was co-written with Metheny who, like Coleman, also has a gift for composing beautiful melodies that was apparent from his very first album.

The music is a form of jazz, but it's a folk music and a rock music and a classical music, being played with instruments commonly associated with jazz. It is always difficult using words to convey the idea of Ornette Coleman's music, so the best suggestion is to just listen.