In the daunting oeuvre of jazz revolutionary Ornette Coleman, the 1972 album “Science Fiction” is sometimes overshadowed. If the general music-listening public knows Coleman at all, it’s for his early, groundbreaking albums — “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” “This Is Our Music,” “Free Jazz” — or even for his later electric-guitar band, Prime Time.
But among Coleman aficionados, “Science Fiction” is valued highly. Pianist Ethan Iverson, of trio the Bad Plus, goes so far as to call it “one of Ornette’s very greatest albums.” With that in mind, the Bad Plus will play “Science Fiction,” in full, joined by saxophonists Tim Berne and Sam Newsome and trumpeter Ron Miles, at the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday.
It’s not like “Science Fiction” is a total obscurity, but it was the product of Coleman’s brief, bedeviled sojourn with major label Columbia, which didn’t give the album the full force of its market muscle on original release. (Columbia also issued Coleman’s one full-scale recorded symphonic work, “Skies of America.”)
The album included its share of sonic curveballs, like two trippy vocal numbers, “What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life,” featuring the Indian classical singer Asha Puthli, a bit of murkily mixed poetry-and-free jazz, and the free-backbeat squall of “Rock the Clock,” which featured Coleman sawing away on violin and bassist Charlie Haden playing plugged-in, wah-wah-inflected acoustic bass. The album also marked a turning point — Coleman’s last acoustic lineup before turning to Prime Time.
Still, all the hallmarks of Coleman’s early notoriety are here: his affecting, folk-like melodies, an infallibly swinging rhythm section (Haden joined by drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins), a sprawling, pan-tonal approach to harmony (which he later dubbed “harmolodics”), and a distinct, galvanizing, bluesy vocal tone on alto saxophone (as well as his less-admired “doubling” on violin and trumpet).
What’s more, the band is on fire. Coleman, trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman spin off trajectories from the leader’s melody lines and that fecund rhythm section with palpable excitement and explosive spontaneity.
For the Bad Plus, the choice of “Science Fiction” was a no-brainer. Aside from producing a compelling book of idiosyncratic originals, their covers of Nirvana and Black Sabbath — and of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” — have redefined what it means to be a jazz piano trio. And Coleman has always been part of that mix.
The band members discovered “Science Fiction” as teens, pretty much concurrently with Coleman’s other music. They were struck by the great playing and songwriting, but also by a production style that, at the time, was more familiar from rock and pop albums than jazz — although the sound was making inroads.
“It’s so obvious that Ornette and Miles Davis and all these guys were inspired by the way some great rock records sounded at the time,” says Bad Plus drummer David King, on a conference call over bassist Reid Anderson’s cellphone as the trio recently traveled by car from Cleveland to Milwaukee on tour. The experimental nature of the production is, he says, part of what struck him immediately. “It sounds of its day, but also timeless.”
The album’s production values and Coleman’s song-based approach to compositions, particularly on the vocal numbers, are aspects that make it a good entry point for non-jazz fans, the bandmembers contend. “That’s what I still love most about that record today,” says Anderson of the vocal pieces. “I find it extremely beautiful, and quite mysterious.”
Those songs, says King, are part of “a song-based aesthetic that might be out of some avant-garde rock music, or art-rock, like Sonic Youth or Pere Ubu” that could appeal to rock fans.
In concert, the vocal duties fall to Anderson. “It was cheaper than hiring a singer,” he says with a rueful laugh.
And then there’s all that great playing on the original record.
“It’s almost like listening to really good pop music,” says saxophonist Berne, in a separate conversation, about the soloists. “They just come out of the gate, and the solos are perfect. They last about two minutes, and that’s it. It’s so concise, no hesitation.” He singles out Dewey Redman’s tenor solo on “Rock the Clock” as “[expletive] insane. One of the greatest rhythm and blues solos! And in the middle of all that insanity, with Ornette playing violin!”
The band has played two shows thus far, and Berne says he has felt no pressure as the alto saxophonist to “play Ornette,” in part because of the ensemble nature of the arrangements. It’s not an alto-saxophone tribute, he notes. “It’s more like we’re playing some really interesting music that happens to be Ornette’s.”Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.