Ornette Coleman & Prime Time: Virgin Beauty 30 Years On

Who are the great pop and jazz melodicists? McCartney, Brian Wilson, Paddy McAloon, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Becker & Fagen, Miles, Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker?

Ornette has to make that list too. He’s virtually incapable of playing a fatuous phrase, even when his accompanists seem to be scrambling eggs. Virgin Beauty, released 30 years ago, was and will now always remain a bit of an anomaly in his discography, a one-off album on CBS subsidiary Portrait Records (which also released Stanley Clarke’s If This Bass Could Only Talk) marketed as ‘Ornette does fusion’.

Which is a bit like asking Miles to do ‘pop’: i.e. you can market it any way you want, but it’s not gonna come out like that. Ornette’s version of fusion contains elements of country and western, space-invader electro, early hip-hop and, of course, glorious chaos.

I hadn’t heard Virgin Beauty for years but loved revisiting it this week. It’s on an old cassette sandwiched between Brian Eno’s Nerve Net and George Clinton’s Computer Games – perfect bedfellows.

First of all, I think it’s OK to find the album funny. Everything sounds a bit wonky; the Chick Corea Elektric Band it ain’t. Ornette’s beautiful alto is always just out of tune (though his trumpet playing is surprisingly in tune) and Chris Walker’s fretless-bass intonation is never perfect. Two rhythm guitarists (Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee) chatter away in different keys and Ornette’s son Denardo programs some drum machines, hits some acoustic drums, some electric drums and, frequently, a jazz ride cymbal. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia drops in for a few enjoyably ramshackle guitar solos.

It’s also almost bass-less. It’s one of the first albums I’ve listened to in the past few years when I’ve had to turn the bass UP. Which is a good thing, because Al MacDowell’s playing is sometimes fairly astonishing. He even throws in a few quotes from ‘Yakety Sax’.

Virgin Beauty was the natural peak for Ornette’s Prime Time band but a bit of a cul-de-sac career-wise. It would be seven long years before his next solo studio album Tone Dialling. The record companies never got their ‘fusion’ record – thankfully.

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Seismic Grooves: Ronald Shannon Jackson’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’

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Shannon Jackson in 2012

Musicians and writers have long puzzled over a definition of Harmolodics, the musical system invented by Ornette Coleman. The man himself was famously coy on the subject, his brief liner note on the back of the Dancing In Your Head LP possibly the nearest he ever got to an outright definition: ‘Rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship’. 

Of all the Ornette collaborators who developed their own take on Harmolodics, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who died in October 2013, probably came up with the most accessible version. He had played with avant-garde pioneers Albert Ayler, Ornette, James Blood Ulmer and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but developed into a fine bandleader/composer in the ’80s, fronting a red-hot band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), bassist Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Zane Massey, amongst many others. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s sunny late-’80s minor classic, Virgin Beauty.)

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My dad used to get sent a lot of music in his capacity as a programme consultant for Channel 4 TV’s music arm back in the mid-1980s. A surprising amount of it would come in home-compiled cassette format. One such tape was simply called ‘Dance Music’ – I’ve still got it somewhere.

Most of the music on it was fairly standard Brazilian and Blue Note stuff but one track stood out a mile and became somewhat of an obsession for my brother and I: Shannon’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’, from the 1985 album Decode Yourself. It was the beginning of my love affair with his music and drumming.

He lays down one of his patented military grooves on Simmons drums underneath slithering fretless bass, chattering Reid guitar and Onaje Allan Gumbs’ summery keyboards. But then the track suddenly changes gear halfway through and turns into a Afro-Funk/No-Wave rave-up, with Shannon moving over to the acoustic drums and Eric Person rhapsodising on alto sax.

The track and attendant album were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and produced by Bill Laswell. Decode Yourself seems very difficult to find these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums.

Shannon Jackson was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, just like Ornette. His father’s jukebox introduced him to BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, but there were many other influences in the mix too, as he told writer Gary Giddins in 1985: ‘You’d wake up and hear hillbilly music on the radio. In school, we’d play (Wagner’s) “Lohengin”, at night we’d hear Bo Diddley or Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sunday, we’d hear gospel. It was a total black community, and music wasn’t categorised as jazz or pop – nobody told you you weren’t supposed to like something.’

Much more Shannon soon.