Pat’s Top 40 before 40: Album 1

Presenting the first in a few installments of my top 40 records of all time ahead of my 40th birthday in August. This meticulous research is sustained by red wine and all my ethics reviews came back negative.

I’m not afraid to turn 40. In fact, I’ve been dressing like I am 80 for a long time so no one will notice my getting old. As this socially constructed milestone approaches, I thought it was important to look back and consider which recordings and musicians have had a particular profound influence. Like driving a new car off the lot, the value of this list changes the second it is read. But with as much honesty as I can comfortably summon, I present these 40 records as the bristles in the brush of my life. Along the way, I will recall interesting situations that have arisen from this music. Wherever possible, I will include links to the sounds themselves.

In no particular order, kinda:

  1. Ornette Coleman Song X (1986/2006)

“When we were playing with Ornette we weren’t thinking about playing jazz. We were thinking about playing music.” Charlie Haden, 1997

Throwing myself completely into this process, I will take a strong stand from the get-go. This is my single favourite recording of all time – the proverbial desert island disc. If there was one album that I had to bring on the space ship leaving to terraform Mars, it is Song X. I might not feel that way without the additions on the twentieth anniversary reissue, however. Metheny found some hidden gems and included them on the remaster. I offer one of those gems, a 15 second piece called All of Us, as a gateway tune for anyone confused or conflicted about Ornette.

In my own limited and unethical, research, I’ve found a large number of Ornette compositions that follow a strict rule of three. He often combines 3 melodies that, looked at individually, are perfect antecedent-consequent relationships. The provocative melodic question asked is answered unto itself. To be even cruder with this dime store analysis, he asks three questions per head. As a challenge to those yet to buy into Ornette’s particular quality, try listening to this piece 50 times in a row, letting your ears latch onto something different each time. The disjointed ride cymbals from Denardo and DeJohnette, the cycle of fifths from Haden, how Metheny is a little ahead of Ornette most of the time, and how all of that and more “fits.” I hear the same thing with the first 11 seconds of the title track.

This is an excellent practice to understand the architecture for any tune. I recall driving around all day listening only to Great Balls of Fire doing the same thing. It sounds so basic it hardly bears saying: listen to music to understand it. But I find with the universal access of all the recorded music in the world, listeners feel overwhelmed about where to start. Attention spans are short. Have I been interesting enough to hold your attention this far? If I have, I have transcended time. I wrote these words before you read them and now, in some way, I am right there/here with you/me.

Like I said.

Metheny and company have fond memories of this band, which did tour. How I hope someday there will be a release of those live concerts in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. This music is not free. It is free of borders. Style is meaningless. I like what Denardo says in that Ornette didn’t play “free jazz” rather he “freed” jazz. Anytime you start saying what something is is you’re asking for trouble. Genre and style are only useful for selling records. They have no more to do with music than music theory does. Music theory itself just names things that are in the air. Their names are not the thing they name. Woah, I’ve been listening to a lot of Ornette.

To conclude, two fond personal memories with Ornette. I met him in January 2007 at the IAJE festival. He was signing autographs for the release of what would become his last record. I approach him, got a record signed, asked for a photograph (which does exist somewhere and I wish I could find it), and told him his music meant a great deal to me. He said “music is energy.” The same day, I bought this pocket trumpet.

In September 2009, he played at Massey Hall in Toronto. My teacher Chase Sanborn had a nice gig doing pre-concert lectures for big concerts. Knowing that I was a serious Ornette-o-phile, he very kindly subbed out to me. I played All of Us, discussed his bizarre and often misunderstood history as a composer and performer, and fielded some excellent questions from the audience of about 50. The concert was magnificent, but not close to a full house.

I ended my chat with his own words:

“It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was onto something.”

Something to bear in mind for the next 40 years. 39 more records to go.