Listening to this music it is almost impossible to recall the WWII days of Ellington and Basie when jazz was, quite literally, the most popular music in America. Jazz was dance hall music, party music, and back porch spooning music, it defined an entire era. Even more than the so called "jazz age" of flappers and bathtub gin, the big bands with their glistening horn sections, tight orchestrations, and flamboyant front men were the very soul of every event worth attending, whether in Harlem or the Hamptons. Jazz was almost unique in its ability to cut across cultural (read racial) and socio-economic divides.
Today, jazz is still vital, though fragmented, and profoundly unpopular, residing somewhere between personal responsibility and moral integrity on the mass appeal spectrum. The molten Velveeta cheese pumped through pipes throughout the nation referred to as "smooth jazz" bears as much resemblance to actual jazz as a lightning bug resembles lightning. This is music for people too cheap to buy opium. On the other extreme is music so avante garde (a phrase which assumes the garde will eventually catch up, which may not occur in this case) as to thoroughly alienate the jazz diehards who swung with Cab Calloway and hoped that jazz would evolve in a comforting way.
Ornette Coleman was not single-handedly responsible for this schism, but it would be hard to find a practitioner who reveled more enthusiastically in driving a stake through the heart of jazz that was "safe, comfortable, and predictable." Even fans who had bravely hung in there with Bird, and even Trane, found Coleman simply too annoying to be worth the trouble. Instead of retreating, Coleman took possession of this neighborhood, gleefully embracing it. In earlier efforts, like The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Coleman showcased his virtuosity in a way that was simultaneously elegant and challenging. In Stockholm he seems intent on offending, being weird, and always going left when every street sign points to the right. (His violin playing alone tells this story emphatically.)
Coleman is a truly great artist, and great art has many responsibilities. One is to be beautiful. One is to be true. One is to inspire. One is to challenge. In the process of challenging, great art frequently offends. (Many lesser practitioners believe that to offend is to be great, which is ludicrous. Much of what is called art is merely vacuously offensive.) This CD, and its companion, conveniently entitled Volume 1, are horses of a very different stripe, or zebras of a very different color.
By kicking the piano out of the family and abandoning any semblance of traditional "song" structure, Coleman created his own musical universe. This is fearless, uncompromising, demented music that makes absolutely no attempt to be accessible. Even among jazz aficionados it was marginalized, if not condemned. When you accept that every note Coleman plays he plays on purpose, and that he has an adventurous spirit Lewis and Clark might have admired, you will find this music fascinating and richly satisfying. The moment it starts to grate on your nerves, imagine how much poorer we would all be if we lived in a world where there was no one intrepid enough to imagine and perform it.