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Ornette, Van Dyke and Del

Ornette Coleman, Of Human Feelings, (Antilles) 

Give or take Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman bestrides the continent as America’s greatest living musician, still forging dazzling new sounds at the age of 81. On this landmark recording from 1979 we find the originator of free jazz and harmolodics laying down strangely infectious melodies in a manner that might be called free funk. Here, the Great Innovator seems on the verge of constructing a new sonic language, a compulsion signaled in the titles of the songs themselves: “Sleep Talk, “What is the Name of That Song?” “Love Words.”

The ensemble of musicians is typically eccentric. His electric Prime Time Band consists of two drummers (son Denardo Coleman and Calvin Weston), two guitarists (Charlie Ellerbee and Bern Nix), plus Coleman’s surging alto sax and the pulsating bass lines of Jamaaladeen Tacuma. (No keyboard player, of course. Ornette has held a lifelong disdain for the unwelcome intrusions of piano players.)

Coleman’s enigmatic music is often daunting, confrontational, and wildly anarchic. (Keyboardist Joe Zawinul once described the Coleman harmolodic style as “joint soloing.”) While this record fires off new ideas every twelve bars, the group improvisation is somehow more accessible, almost inviting. Of course, that’s the deceptive allure of funk at work: the waters seem safe and shallow and suddenly turn treacherous and very deep.

On Of Human Feelings, Coleman’s music is warm and dense, lyrical and ironic. It grooves and sparks and pulls at you with a seductive undertow and in the end you just relent to the music’s intense and redemptive flow.

An inexplicably neglected (and now criminally deleted) masterpiece by a rebel genius.

Van Dyke Parks, Arrangements Vol. 1, (Bananastan) 

Van Dyke Parks was the secret impresario for one of the legendary mysteries of rock music: the recording of Smile, the abandoned follow-up to the Beach Boys’ wildly acclaimed Pet Sounds album. Parks, one of rock music’s most talented arrangers and producers, worked closely Brian Wilson for two years on the record, which was meant to include “Good Vibrations.” They co-wrote dozens of songs, including “Surf’s Up,” “Wind Chimes,” and “Wonderful.” The music is deeply textured and the lyrics are freighted with word-play, puns and surrealistic imagery.

Wilson called the sessions “a teenage symphony to God.” That God seems to have been revealed to Wilson by ingestion of prodigious amounts of LSD.

As Wilson’s psychological horizons widened, internal strife began to shred the band apart. Carl Wilson got his draft notice. The band entered into a bruising dispute with Capitol Records over the theft of their royalty payments and Mike Love, resentful of the intrusion of Parks, scurrilously denounced the songwriter during the recording of the lush “Surf’s Up.”  Sensing an implosion, Parks quit the project and the album ultimately collapsed.

The excavated ruins of that record are slated to be released next month in a two-CD set titled The Smile Sessions.

Until then you can sate your curiosity with this peculiar collection put together by Parks of 15 tracks that he produced and arranged for other bands, from the Latin funk of Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” to the acid-fueled Cajun stomp of Sal Valentino’s “Alligator Man.” Parks can even make the tediously pious Bonnie Raitt sound a little raunchy, as on the naughty calypso “Wha’ She Go’ Do.” Now that’s a hired gun held by a mojo hand.

Del Shannon, This Is Del Shannon (Music Box)

When Del Shannon, the pride of Grand Rapids, shot himself with a .22 caliber rifle in 1990, he was 55 and tormented by lost fame, depression and the bio-chemical chaos unleashed by Prozac. Though his songs deeply  influenced a generation of rockers from George Harrison and Elton John to Dave Edmunds and Tom Petty, Shannon hadn’t scored a hit record in 25 years.

In his prime, Shannon was the bard of teenage break-up songs, none better than his first, “Runaway,” released in 1961. “Runaway,” with its early deployment of a keyboard synthesizer called the Musitron, hit the top of the charts in the US, a height he never scaled again.

For some reason, he was always more popular in Britain and Europe, where he was revered. In 1963, Del Shannon became one of the first American rockers to form his own label, Berlee Records, and the first American to cover the Beatles, “From Me to You,” which hit the charts in the US before the Beatles’ own version. Over the next couple of years Shannon recorded six or seven other great songs, including “Handy Man,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Cry Myself to Sleep,” “Keep Searching” and “Stranger in Town.”

In the 1970s his career slid into gradual eclipse, followed by alcoholism and the erosion of his searing falsetto. He fled to Nashville for a few years, devoted himself to crafting a strange and not entirely embarrassing concept album (“The Adventures of Charles Westover”) and toured small clubs playing badly misconceived covers of the Stones, among others.

In the late 1980s there were rumors Shannon was set to replace Roy Orbison in that ensemble of antiques known as the Traveling Wilburys. Then he killed himself in Santa Clarita, California, leaving behind ten tracks in the studio that were eventually salvaged into an album (“Rock On”) by Jeff Lynne. Though the LP nearly suffocates under its overproduction (Lynne’s trademark), there are a few glimpses of the old fire, notably on a furtive version of his own song “I Go to Pieces,” which had been a hit for Peter and Gordon in 1965.

Still, Del Shannon seems fixed in time, lodged forever in the early 60s, when even the pangs of adolescent erotic dread seemed to grind away to sunnier riffs.

Jeffrey St. Clair’s latest book is Born Under a Bad Sky. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent books are Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution and The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink (with Joshua Frank) He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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