Silent Score for a Sound Movie

PART II
Ornette Coleman
Chappaqua Suite
Columbia : 1966

OC, alto sax; Pharaoh Sanders, tenor sax; David Izenzon, bass; Charles Moffett, drums; Joseph Tekula, orchestral arranger; plus 11 studio musicians.

Several key Ornette Coleman albums have fallen through the cracks, but none have been quite as cursed as his soundtrack to the movie Chappaqua. For starters, his elaborate 80-minute score wasn’t even used in the film!

The story goes like this: First-time director Conrad Rooks spent four years globe-trotting to make his cult film Chappaqua. The intriguing cast included Moondog, Allen Ginsberg, Ravi Shankar and French theater legend Jean-Louis Barrault. The descriptions make it sound like a Beat version of El Topo, avant la lettre. Clearly it’s some kind of headtrip movie when you’ve got William S. Burroughs playing the part of “Opium Jones.”

Once the main filming was almost complete, Rooks approached Coleman about doing the score. Ornette hesitated but finally was convinced to tackle the enormous project. He took his outstanding trio of Izenzon and Moffet into a New York studio with arranger Joseph Tekula and a small orchestra to record for three intensive days. It was Ornette’s most ambitious musical endeavor to date – creating four seamless longform compositions that successfully blended his harmolodic jazz with a classical orchestra and matched the images of the film.

Everyone involved was immediately struck by the results. Chappaqua Suite contains some of Ornette’s most passionate and fluid playing, in addition to the fascinating compositional structures and unusual sonic textures. Although it plants the seeds for his orchestral Skies of America project, in many ways it remains a singular album in his vast discography. Even his 1991 soundtrack for Naked Lunch – which shares sonic affinities with this – is far less expansive and complex.

Here’s where the story gets strange. Upon hearing the finished soundtrack, Conrad Rooks freaked out. The album’s liner notes state that he was worried about using “music so beautiful in itself. Should not its strength do harm to the picture instead of serving it? Should not the pictures wrong such a musical achievement?” The upshot: Rooks rejected Ornette’s score and got Ravi Shankar to do it. It was likely little consolation that Ornette got to appear in the film as the “Peyote Eater.”

This rejection was either (1) a strange case of artist humility with Rooks realizing that Ornette’s score was far superior to his own movie and that it deserved its own life or (2) a case of giant brass balls with Rooks thinking up some bullshit to wiggle out of a situation that he had struggled to create. We’re not sure what to believe, especially as “Part II” shows that Ornette’s soundtrack could be effortlessly moody and cinematic.

Although the album was given its own life, it quickly went out of print. Chappaqua also fell into obscurity and today the movie may be even less known than the record, though it’s probably a close call. Life went on. Later that year, Ornette’s trio recorded both volumes of their acclaimed At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm albums for Blue Note.

EXTRA:

Pharaoh Sanders is listed as appearing on the album, but apart from some stray moments in “Part IV,” we don’t hear it. Anyone have definitive info on this? Is he buried in the mix? Or are we going deaf?

We’ve only managed to catch a few stray minutes of Chappaqua. We were impressed by the remarkable color cinematography of fave photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank, but otherwise didn’t see enough to have an opinion. Has anyone out there seen the full thing?

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4 Responses to Silent Score for a Sound Movie

  1. no, sanders appears on well under 50% of the album. it’s mostly a long-form showcase for ornette’s playing, and as such probably unparalleled in his discography.

  2. Wow! Fantastic stuff! I saw the album cover (different than the one you posted, one with Ornette) exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art last year when they had their series on jazz soundtracks in film. I wondered what in the world this record was and have wanted to hear it since. Alas, the movie was not shown in that series. Not surprising given that it ended up not having any Ornette at all.

  3. I’m old enough to have seen the movie and heard the album when they were released back in the day & I’ve seen & heard them more recently.

    My sense of what might actually have happened is that Coleman didn’t make music cues to support the moods of specific scenes in the movie. He just provided Rooks with about 80 minutes of music in twenty minute chunks for a movie that runs about 80 minutes.

    There really would have been no way for Rooks to have used the score that Coleman provided without chopping it up into very short pieces so that the film’s dialog, sound effects, etc could also be heard.

    If Rooks had done that to Coleman’s score, you’d be writing a blog post about how Rooks had done a disservice to Coleman’s music by deleting most of it. Rooks couldn’t have known at the time that the music wouldn’t get released well and would be considered one of Coleman’s most fugitive records.

    Still, I think Rooks made the right decision: better to be known as someone who couldn’t figure out how to cut up a long work by a master musician without losing most of it than to be known as the guy who DID cut it up.

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