"New and Old Gospel" is the only recorded collaboration between "free jazz" innovator Ornette Coleman and forward-thinking altoist Jackie McLean. It is hardly, however, the balls-out blowing session one would expect. "Gospel" is a wildly idiosyncratic album, even for musicians as iconoclastic as Coleman and McLean. This is simply a unique context for everyone involved. Even though both Coleman and McLean play toward their (philosophical) strengths, their powers seem willfully juxtaposed, mutually dominant--a combination that is as disorienting as it is delightful.
The music is a functional compromise between Coleman's melodically-oriented free jazz and McLean's harmonically centered post bop, favoring both soulful, funky flavors and free-flowing, ambiguous forms. Side 1 is a suite composed by McLean, a schizophrenic, programmatic journey through the various stages of life. Side 2 is comprised of two Coleman compositions: the pentecostal groover "Old Gospel" and "Strange As It Seems," a characteristic Coleman ballad. Keeping up with album's various stylistic turns can be a dizzying experience.
McLean is in top form, piercing wail and all, backed by frequent cohorts Lamont Johnson (piano), Scott Holt (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums). Coleman, on the other hand, plays against expectations, sticking to trumpet for the duration of the recording (alto is his primary axe). What is remarkable is just how well Coleman and McLean counterbalance each other. The former is brittle, pithy, and harmonically indiscreet, the latter bombastic, dynamic. Higgins is typically energetic, recalling his earlier work with both McLean and Coleman. Special recognition goes to Holt and Johnson, who somehow manage to resolve the harmonic labyrinth created by the two horns. Johnson, especially, possesses a remarkably sensitive, intelligent ear; it's a pity he hasn't been recorded more frequently.
The value of the album comes down to its singularity. This is perhaps the riskiest, most uncommerical album ever recorded by Blue Note--not only because it takes so many risks, but also because the sound is so unfamiliar. For its sheer breadth and creative scope--both musically and programmatically--"Gospel" is a timeless album, an paean to the powers of uninhibited "jazz" expression.