Ornette Coleman – Virgin Beauty

The Gramophone Jazz Good CD Guide, which has recommendations from several hundred jazz artists, most of whom I didn’t recognize, picked up for $1 at a second-hand bookstore, listed Virgin Beauty as one of its few Coleman recommendations. I lost my copy, or I’d quote the blurb directly, but it said something along the lines of it being Coleman’s most accessible album. No denying that, but it confuses me why someone looking for Coleman would go for something as un-Coleman like as this first; avant-garde or free jazz this ain’t. Listening to this, you might understand you were in the presence of a great composer (ie. the middle stretch of the title track, once the ghostly violin comes in or the middle stretch of “Singing in the Shower” between the too on-the-nose theme) and even a great trumpeter/saxophonist, but you could just as easily not hear any of that underneath the 80s’ drum sound and the synth background (blear and blare, as I like to describe it); “Chanting” could have easily been one of the album’s most evocative songs, but it’s held back by what sounds like a kindergarten class’ metronome and said synth; the drum sound throughout “Desert Players” sounds like a broom sweeping the floor. (Well, so did Joanna Newsom’s “In California,” but that one was used sparingly and added a lonely quality to the song; this one doesn’t.) This is especially troubling coming from a man whose, say, forays into jazz fusion were still distinctly Ornette Coleman (Science Fiction’s “Rock the Clock”; Dancing in Your Head); the following Tone Dialing seven years later has a similar problem, just transposed to the new decade.

Actually, my mind’s been pretty volatile about this one up until today where I’m finally putting my thoughts into something more tangible. Upon first listen, I thought I had a solid, catchy album whose throwaway track (“Spelling the Alphabet”) reminded me of the ‘throwaway tracks’ of Yes’ Fragile (which I find endearing); B+. Months later, I wrote this one off as one good song (“Unknown Artist,” the only one that doesn’t sound dated); C+/B-/who cares. Playing it now, it’s clear that individually, all of these songs are fine, they just don’t form a gestalt (in contrast to some of Coleman’s other records). In fact, you sort of have to take these individually; hearing the first three tracks back-to-back-to-back is exhausting, even if all of them sound distinct. For instance, “3 Wishes” evokes an American evocation of Egypt (as opposed to the real thing); “Bourgeois Boogie” sounds like a Talking Heads song with some really excellent mini-solos from Coleman; “Happy Hour” sounds like a hootenanny out in the country. On the other side of the album, “Desert Players” expands past its “3 Wishes” rehash by giving its players (including the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia) more to do; check out the xylophone (?) that comes in halfway through the track to bring it from day to night. Meanwhile, “Honeymooners” is elevated by a neat-o guitar stab coming in and fading out, and Coleman’s playing on both “Chanting” and “Unknown Artist” are, as Christgau says, “lyrical” and “sublimely reflective.” So yeah, I’ve thought about this for too long, but I’m more than comfortable giving it a B; being ‘dated’ is a legitimate criticism. As are ‘boring’ and ‘pretentious’ and a load of other words.


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