Ornette Coleman – Tone Dialing

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The supposed “jazz renaissance” of the 1990s turned out to be just wishful thinking at worst and comparative praise at best. Examining 1995 alone, the best jazz albums were made by old talents that had all been active since the 60s, if not prior (Abbey Lincoln, Gerry Mulligan, Ornette Coleman, Kenny Barron) or archival releases from the same (John Coltrane, Donald Byrd) – in what world does that sound like a renaissance?

I place Tone Dialing as either the best or second-best jazz album of that year depending on my mood: sometimes, it’s exhausting to hear John Coltrane blasting off into space, and I’d rather hear Ornette Coleman’s city-blues-vision of 1990s’ America. And it’s not even top ten Coleman! Christgau calls to attention both the length of the album (“16 cuts that go on about as long as the double-LP In All Languages…”) and the wavering quality throughout (“I don’t claim to love it all”): “Search for Life” is a near-8-minute wasteland of pretentious jazz rap by way of spoken word; “Bach Prelude” has the inherent cheesiness of playing Bach on electric guitar plus the beat used was likely dated by 1995 (things are fine once the whole band comes in, Colemanizing a classic); the synthesized strings of “Ying Yang” which flat-out just don’t sound good. Can’t blame him: overflowing with ideas during a 7-year break since Virgin Beauty, it’s natural that some of it doesn’t come off. (But question: how many jazz artists were taking chances like these at the time? How many of those have been active for as long as Coleman? I think of one and that’s it.)

On the flip-side, plenty to love too: both the bass and Coleman’s melody on opener “Street Blues”; detouring from America to Latin America on “Guadalupe” (another lovely theme that’s bounces around in my head afterwards); the achievement of the title of “Sound is Everywhere” (replete with fireworks); the sheer prospect of hearing Coleman play over the loopy drums supplied by his son on a song titled “If I Knew As Much About You (As You Know About Me)”; hearing Coleman find inspiration in (I’m guessing) Don Cherry’s “Folk Medley” and turning it into a full band experience (similar to how he approached “Bach Prelude”). I use the term “sheer sound” a lot when describing artists like Coleman but shit – how else am I supposed to describe this? It’s like every aspect of someone’s seemingly mundane daily life and extracting the extraordinary: family reunions, dreaming of vacations in other countries, finding something new to love in old art. One of those albums where there’s a great album buried within for people willing to look for it.

I was a bit irked when I saw that Wire named Stellar Regions and Tone Dialing (the most obvious picks) as the best jazz albums of 1995 – a magazine that relishes in non-obvious picks. Yet, exploring what that year had to offer, they were probably onto something.

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