Science Fiction


The Bad Plus plays Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction with Tim Berne, Ron Miles, and Sam Newsome

Premiere: October 18 at Duke University in Durham, NC.

New York show: October 23 at NYU Skirball Center (which used to be called Loeb, where Ornette's classic disc Crisis was recorded)


The Bad Plus has always had a relationship to the music of Ornette Coleman and the album Science Fiction in particular. We recorded "Street Woman" on Give and played "Law Years" live. On more than one occasion, we added guest musicians and played further selections, often with Reid Anderson singing "What Reason Could I Give." One of the those times Ornette was in the audience, and he even praised our attempt in the pages of DownBeat. Inspired by his support, we tracked studio versions of both "What Reason Could I Give" with Reid's vocal (during the Suspicious Activity session) and "All My Life" with Wendy Lewis (during the For All I Care session) but somehow neither didn't make the final cut for general release. Maybe we weren't quite ready.

When Aaron Greenwald asked us to do a second major project to follow up on the success of On Sacred Ground: The Bad Plus Plays Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (also commissioned by Aaron for Duke Performances) it was only natural to suggest "covering" Science Fiction. Unlike the Stravinsky, this project is comparatively relaxed. We know this music cold, and everything seems obvious: Invite three favorite masterful horn players to join us; Reid will sing and work with electronics; everyone will simply be themselves as seen through the refraction of Ornette's glorious melodies.

Before I finished up my conventional wonky DTM analysis, I called the three horn stars for a few words about this music.

Tim Berne:

It's easy to take Ornette Coleman for granted - expressive, swinging, great songs - until you study it., when you are even more impressed. The spontaneity and energy of the improvisation is equally present in compositions. The vocal quality in Ornette's approach makes it sound more like folk music.... you can easily spend an hour working on one note while transcribing because of the multi-textured sound of his alto and his singular phrasing.

The momentum he gets with his improvising is incredible and he basically invented his own style.

Julius Hemphill knew Ornette well, they’d play pool together. One time Julius showed Ornette a tune. Julius said that Ornette didn’t play it right, but it was much better than what he wrote.

Ron Miles:

I knew this record a bit, but I actually knew some other records by Ornette, Old and New Dreams, and those Gramavision records with John Carter and Bobby Bradford better - those Carter/Bradford discs in particular were a big influence. It’s so great to hear Bradford on this again. He’s just so strong. Don Cherry is too, of course.

It’s not typical trumpet music. It’s kind of high register and gestural. I took a lesson with Ornette once and he talked about playing the trumpet like a bugle. It slips around in kind of this heraldic way. Ornette plays it that way on trumpet, too. Similar fingerings are involved from all three when they play. It’s a big part of his music.

Sam Newsome:

Two artists whom I think of as being the quintessence of originality are Ornette Coleman and Jackson Pollock. They both turned convention on its head - Ornette with sound and style, Jackson with colors and shapes. And Ornette was even more unique in that he was always Ornette. Jackson came into his own much later in life. Ornette, however, seemed to have been born into his - and has remained there.

Whenever I hear Ornette's music, the message I always hear is that it's OK to be yourself. His music is a story of self-acceptance. He opened the doors of jazz and welcomed all of those who felt that they had something say - both the well schooled and the untrained. His music taught black musicians that it's OK to embrace a black sound; it taught white musicians that it's OK to embrace a white sound. And even more importantly, it taught us all how to work together. On the surface, Ornette's music seems very militant - a blatant rejection of a European sensibility. But it's not that at all. At its core, his music doesn't reject anyone or anything. Through his music, Ornette embraced the world - and most of all, himself.


Science Fiction, tune by tune

The original 1972 LP was a tight and coherent statement.

Side A:

What Reason Could I Give
Civilization Day
Street Woman
Science Fiction

Side B:

Rock the Clock
All My Life
Law Years
The Jungle is a Skyscraper

The 8 tunes break down into pairs:

“Civilization Day” and “Street Woman” are blowing vehicles with the original 1959 quartet of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins.

“Law Years” and “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” are blowing vehicles with the current early-70’s quartet of Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell with special guest Bobby Bradford.

“What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life” are vocal numbers featuring Asha Puthli, both Blackwell and Higgins, and a full horn section including classical trumpet players Carmon Fornarotto and Gerard Schwarz.

“Science Fiction” and “Rock the Clock” are conceptual numbers with no clear melodies.

Of the blowing vehicles,  “Law Years” and “Street Woman” are easily singable and tonal, whereas...

...“Civilization Day” and “The Jungle Is a Skyscraper” are dense, virtuosic, and comparatively atonal.

One more pair, revealed only in hindsight: Science Fiction has shone one of the brightest lights on both Asha Puthli and Bobby Bradford.


In the digital era, some of the LP’s logic gets lost. Having the conceptual pieces next to each other doesn’t make as much sense when you don’t have to turn the platter over in between. It also becomes less clear that one side features Cherry and Higgins and the other features Dewey, Bradford, and Blackwell.

In any format, the unusual production values stand out. The sound is very reverberant, with huge direct bass tone and major slap-back on the alto and vocal. It’s not a palette that would work for conventional jazz but somehow suits the howling, epic quality of Ornette Coleman perfectly. The engineer Stan Tonkel did a lot of other work for Columbia but nothing else sounds remotely like Science Fiction. The producer is James Jordan, Ornette’s cousin. One wonders who thought of what. It’s easy to assume most of the direction came from Ornette but Tonkel and Jordan must have also been part of the magic.


“What Reason Could I Give” Complex layering disguises the work’s simple structure: It is basically a short tune, sung with much fervent ornamentation by a Bombay chanteuse on top, harmonized in diatonic fashion by horns. There seems to be only one little movement where the harmony moves independently, otherwise it is all parallel, just like most of Ornette’s work with Harmolodics. Haden’s bass line is contrapuntal, and I suspect he came up with it himself. Both drummers play uptempo patterns. It’s hard to tell who is doing what exactly but it certainly swings like a madhouse.

Ornette’s decision to start one of his albums of avant-garde jazz with a searing vocal remains surprising. The closest parallel is perhaps the opening dirge “Lonely Woman” on The Shape of Jazz to Come. The man could always come up with magnificent ballads.

“Civilization Day” In stark contrast, this melody is a jagged blur. It’s very precise - Ornette and Don play it exactly the same way twice at the beginning and twice at the end - but it is also intentionally rough-hewn. Out of the melody, the horns play an improvisation without rhythm section. When Higgins and Haden come in, the tempo is brisk. Todd Coolman once asked Haden after a performance with Old and New Dreams, “How can you play so fast?” Haden replied, “It’s really important.”

Unfortunately there are no tapes of the first quartet in action at the Five Spot in 1960. The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century are immortal, but I always wondered how they cut loose live. Maybe “Civilization Day” and “Street Woman” gives an idea? Certainly it is a relief to hear Haden in the mix so strongly (he’s lost sometimes on the Atlantic albums). Also Don Cherry is more present, with more developed chops. Cherry’s long solo on “Civilization Day” has one matchless phrase after another. Folk music, surrealism, blues, the avant-garde, deep intelligence, primitive emotion: it is all there. One can almost hear Ornette listening in delight before stepping up to deliver his own fervent collection of spontaneous melody.

This track is one of Billy Higgins’s most abstract performances as well. He plays uptempo time brilliantly, of course, but his snare comping is marching along in a moderately obtrusive fashion. He’d never play this way for Cedar Walton or another straight-ahead band. During the drum solo, Higgins's connection to his teacher Blackwell is even more apparent. As far as I know, this is the first time Ornette and Higgins had played together since 1960, and the studio is postively crackling with energy.

“Street Woman” While still burning, the next track is less atonal. The melody is much simpler than “Civilization Day” and the solos stay fairly connected to G, the home key.

“Street Woman” was part of the set list on the 1971 European tour with Dewey, Haden, and Blackwell. Thanks to the bootleggers, it’s only only song on Science Fiction we have multiple versions of by Ornette himself. Live, it was played a little slower than here. Both drummers choose to play a kind of Afro-Latin rhythm under the melody, and of course Haden’s pedal points are also important to the tune’s identity. Don’s harmony in the studio is different than Dewey on tour, so that suggests that Don also made his own choices about what notes to play.

During the horn improvisations Haden creates tension and release with chromatic guide tones in manner probably derived from his favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Haden never hid his Ozark hillbilly sensibility, either. Above, Sam commented on how Ornette, "...Taught white musicians that it's OK to embrace a white sound." There's no better exhibit of this than Charlie, who always sounds like a cracker even when playing the hippest shit.

Ornette’s music requires collaboration. Perhaps he brought back his first great quartet to honor them as the first group of true initiates. Whatever the reason, I’d argue that these two tunes are among the greatest tracks from this legendary ensemble. The spirit is so entrancing and correct.

“Science Fiction” Ornette looked around at the New York art scene when forming his early-sixties trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett. Perhaps especially through Gunther Schuller, he was exposed to European modernist classical music; perhaps especially through his first wife Jayne Cortez, he was exposed to contemporary poetry and dance, especially that which connected to the Civil Rights era.

The Izenzon-Moffett trio would consistently play chaotic works featuring Ornette’s noisy violin and lyrical trumpet. These were palate cleaners, stops along the way between the ballads and the jazzier numbers. This concept continued with various groups in the later 60's; eventually spoken word was introduced on 1969’s New York Is Now with “Now We Interrupt for a Commercial,” where Dewey Redman gamely interjects some vocal levity into the mayhem.

“Science Fiction” is a continuation of these themes: a noisy "commercial" for the most abstract and unrelenting sonorities, this time in service of Black Arts poet David Henderson. A crying baby relates to Ornette’s oft-stated curiosity about the natural intuition of the very young.

The piece seems to fade in and fade out, as if the chaos should never have a beginning or ending.

“Rock the Clock” is the only tune with the current quartet of Dewey, Haden, and Blackwell. It’s another conceptual noise piece but a bit more organized than “Science Fiction.” At first, Ornette plays Don Cherry-ish trumpet, Dewey works out on his musette, and Charlie scratches frantically away with his bow. Eventually Charlie funks out on wah-wah, Blackwell settles into some serious New Orleans groove, and Ornette delivers his impeccable noise violin. The highlight may be Dewey’s stellar tenor blues. This groove section feels so good, it almost hurts when they go back to the first texture. 

Ever since Louis Armstrong, jazz had always used popular music as a source for improvisation. The onslaught of rock music was proving to be less easily digestible. “Rock the Clock” was Ornette first proposal; soon he would forgo acoustic music entirely and form Prime Time. Perhaps feeling left out in the cold, the other three members of this quartet would join forces with Don Cherry and form Old and New Dreams. Dewey would play his musette a fair amount in that group, but Charlie never broke out the wah-wah for Old and New Dreams. He does play it on Don Cherry's "Brown Rice" (thanks to Jeff Schwartz for the reminder) and Keith Jarrett’s “Mortgage on My Soul.”

Speaking of Jarrett, it is worth remembering that not only did he share his bassist and saxophonist with Ornette during this era, they both were given big budgets for projects at Columbia before being dropped almost immediately after. For years, Science Fiction and Jarrett’s Expectation were comparatively hard to find despite the initial big push. Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis were the other Columbia jazz artists that Clive Davis axed in one go.

“All My Life” This time, Asha Puthli gets a turn with just bass and two drummers before the horns enter as a kind of sympathetic chorus. Again, the melodic material is actually very slender, just a couple of phrases. But what phrases! Like “What Reason Could I Give,” it is an unimpeachable melody for others to honor and decorate.

At the beginning, it seems like Higgins and Blackwell are playing triplets. When the horns come in, they move to a faster four. Special mention should be made again of Charlie Haden’s contribution. I’m pretty certain his bass line comes from him, not Ornette. Not only does Charlie find exactly the right bass melody to go under the tune, he picks up the bow for grinding against the horns at just the right moment. Clearly they rehearsed a lot for this record.

The two tracks with Asha Puthli are the pinnacle of Ornette’s vocal music. There are other pieces to be heard, but their success can vary widely. On Science Fiction all the patterns came together just right.

“Law Years” instantly became one of Ornette’s most-covered pieces. It is just so charming and distinctive, with a combination of major and minor that is a familiar Ornette-ish conceit.

Perhaps inspired by the melody, all the participants take immortal solos. It goes in a smooth curve of blues: Haden: Dewey: Bradford: Ornette: Blackwell. In general it is in C, but of course Haden moves the keys around while following or prodding the horns. Ornette’s final high “C” to wrap up says it all, really.

Bobby Bradford has had a long career in the music, and still is playing great. I saw him a couple of years ago at the Jazz Standard and was blown away. The last time I was at Charlie Haden’s house I “borrowed” an important and delightful David Murray disc I’d never seen before: Death of a Sideman, with Bradford, Fred Hopkins, Blackwell, and a repertoire of all-Bradford tunes. Ron Miles mentions the important Carter/Bradford collaborations above, and there are certainly other Bradford albums of note.

However, Science Fiction is sadly the only Ornette disc with Bradford. It’s perhaps especially regrettable that that the mid-60’s quartet with Ornette, Bradford, Jimmy Garrison, and Charles Moffett never recorded. Still, Bradford plays so good on “Law Years” that if he had never done anything else, he would still be known in this music.

Ed Blackwell is one of the most distinctive drummers in history. While his student Billy Higgins smoothed out some of the angles and went on to be one of the most recorded musicians in history, Blackwell always remained bit of outsider. On "Law Years" the beat is too weird and too tight for straight-ahead jazz. Not that it doesn't swing! But Blackwell never saw the need to tone down the parade or the African rhythm or the overall noisy celebration in order to be more slick or professional.

For Ornette he is a perfect match. Jazz guys tend to like Higgins more than Blackwell...But if you put a gun to my head, I'd have to say that Blackwell was even greater with Ornette than Higgins. It's generous of Ornette to allow us the luxury of comparing the two genius drummers side by side on Science Fiction.

“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper” The head is aggressive blur like “Civilization Day.” With three horns instead of two, it is even more loose and raw. Again, though, that is not to suggest that the melody is anything less than specific, for it is always played exactly the same. It has been fun to find out how others respond to it in terms of notation. We’ve had input from not just the horns but also Dan Schmidt and Matthew Guerrieri. In the end, probably Tim Berne's version will be our urtext, since Tim really understands something about Ornette Coleman.

Dewey begins his solo by singing and shouting through his horn. This mirrors his entrance to the greater jazz world: The first Dewey utterance on “The Garden of Souls,” the first track on New York Is Now!,  has a similar sonority. Jim McNeely told me about being an Ornette fan, buying the latest record, and confronting that initial solo by a previously unknown tenor player. “Who is that?!?”

I didn’t get to play with Dewey much, but I did do the Leverkusen festival with him in 1993, where Dewey let loose with some extraordinary and passionate extended techniques including singing through the horn. The crowd roared its approval, and afterwards Dewey said, “Europeans enjoy the avant-garde.”

It’s worth remembering that Ornette, Dewey, and Bobby Bradford were all black musicians born in Texas before the civil rights era. As the title suggests, “The Jungle is a Skyscraper” is yet another one of Ornette’s profound mergings of the basic and the knowing. Having all three of these immortal Texas bluesmen playing as avant-garde as possible in front of Hillbilly/Bach bass and New Orleans parade drums is as good an example of an earthly "science fiction" that can be imagined.


These days this album is reissued on CD as The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, which includes more great music and a few curiosities. "Broken Shadows" is particularly beautiful and obvious for three horns, so we will add that to the set list. As an encore, we might do "Happy House," which most of us learned from the brilliant Old and New Dreams album Playing

Still, the eight tunes that made up the original LP are the definitive statement. At Duke next week, it will be a pleasure to rediscover our roots.


Related DTM:

Interview with Charlie Haden

Forms and Sounds

This Is Our Mystic