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Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Geffen Records XGHS 24096 (1986)

There are two things that you should know about this album right off the top. First, it's available on CD in an expanded twentieth-anniversary reissue with six extra tracks, and second, you should stop reading this right now and rush out and buy it, because while the original LP is a masterpiece of improvisation and invention, the reissue is even better; the remastering punches up the sound of the tracks noticeably, and the additional tracks alone are worth the price of the CD. Then again, if you read my top ten list of about a month ago, you already know this. So, go already! Buy it! I'll wait right here...

In 1985, contemporary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny surprised a lot of people by entering a studio with legendary free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and recording Song X. Metheny had previously expressed his admiration for Coleman and, in 1983, had recorded some of his compositions on an album called Rejoicing (with longtime Coleman collaborators Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins), yet few fans of either musician were prepared for the results of their session together. Though Metheny gets top billing, the album feels more like an Ornette record than anything Metheny had previously recorded.

The rhythm section is evenly integrated with musicians from each leader's musical past; Ornette's son Denardo (who has played and recorded with his father since the age of ten) plays drums and percussion, while frequent Metheny bandmate Jack DeJohnette holds down the main drum chair. Bassist Haden, known primarily for his work with Coleman's first quartet, had played with Metheny on Rejoicing and 80/81 (and would later record an album of duets with the guitarist entitled Beyond the Missouri Sky).

The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album; two brief, furious blasts of the theme, then several minutes of whirling free improvisation, then two more thematic statements. "Video Games" features some frantic playing from Metheny on guitar synthesizer (sounding like Pac-Man on a bender) which abruptly shifts into some swinging trio interplay led by Ornette. "Endangered Species" is thirteen minutes of pure frenzy, with the instruments creating a thick soup of guitars, drums and horns that gradually empties into a frenetic percussion duet at the end.

Not everything on the album speeds along so frantically; "Mob Job" swings lazily and features some of Ornette's unique violin playing, while "Kathelin Gray" is the kind of lovely, lyrical ballad that Coleman specializes in. The biggest surprise on the album comes near the end with "Song X Duo", a short improvised duet between Coleman and Metheny that unexpectedly (probably even to the players) climaxes in a brightly strummed open G chord before returning to the theme of the title track. It's an unexpected burst of tonality in an album made by artists who recognize its importance even amidst the freest of improvisations.

Song X simply must be heard to be believed. Like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, it's one of those albums that is essential to any jazz fan's collection.


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