Disco Mystic: Ornette Coleman, Asha Puthli and Science Fiction

David Keenan explains how the free jazz icon transformed the notion of time on his 1972 album, with a little help from a then-unknown Indian vocalist

The 2014 release of (more of) Mike Huckaby’s re-workings of original Sun Ra reel-to-reels underlines the possibility of a portal between free jazz and disco, two genres that have traditionally been characterised as operating at opposite poles of black music – one serious, cerebral, the other playful, trivial. The point of transmission lies in their mutual insistence on the expressive possibilities of time itself, possibilities that find their locus in the complex rhythms of the body.

Science Fiction was an afro-futurist scrying mirror, or more properly, a disco ball.

In Made In America, Shirley Clarke’s landmark 1984 documentary film on saxophonist Ornette Coleman, re-released on DVD in 2014, Coleman explains his concept of harmolodics as being based around the idea that “each being’s imagination is their own unison and there are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky.” Even as it echoes the occultist Aleister Crowley’s infamous maxim that “every man and every woman is a star,” it anticipates the celebratory individuality and polymorphous sexual unison of disco. Indeed, Coleman’s music of the early 1970s visions the future raiments of disco in excelsis – its pneumatic rhythms; its erotic glossolalia; its confusion of sex and science – with 1972’s masterpiece, Science Fiction, as the fulcrum, an afro-futurist scrying mirror, or more properly, a disco ball, that would cast black futures from black pasts.

Disco is the sound of the future, now. And – just like science fiction – at its best, disco uncovers the fact of the present. Free jazz saw time, not as tyrannical, but as infinitely pliable, capable of endless nuance and extrapolation. Disco reinvented it as a system of erotics, with the potential for infinite play: a dance.

Coleman’s concept of black future music uses rhythmic time lags, not as a way of generating some kind of cumulative disorientation, like Terry Riley’s tape loops, but as a way of projecting a center of gravity that seems to exist outside of the track itself, somewhere behind or in front, giving the music of Science Fiction a uniquely powerful dynamic that balances aggressive propulsion and an odd, hovering, semi-static feel. This is time as trance, with bassist Charlie Haden and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins running in mid-air, the ground giving way beneath them like cartoon roadrunners.

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction (1971)

Science Fiction’s title track is particularly startling in this regard, not so much moving in time as vibrating with it, fixed in space by its simultaneous omni-directional logic, as the sounds of crying children compete with the poet David Henderson’s recitation. “Rock The Clock” is even wilder, funking up time with Haden jamming a wah-wah bassline that comes out of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? by way of an Andrew Weatherall DJ set, the sound of the phasing tones EQ-ed for maximum temporal disruption. Coleman and second saxophonist Dewey Redman (whose playing, Coleman says, was “one of the highest forms of spirituality I ever experienced”) break over the top with the euphoric application of overdubbed violin, saxophone and musette while Blackwell plays right through the middle.

But more than any of this, it is the presence of Indian vocalist Asha Puthli, the woman who fell to earth, that provides the oracular link, the passage to the future of synthesized freak. Puthli was a protégé of John Hammond at Columbia Records, but Hammond failed to find the right vehicle for her combination of classical Indian modulation, sci-fi sex kitten eroticism and Kate Bush-esque performance style until he passed her demo onto Coleman.

Ornette Coleman – What Reason Could I Give

Puthli appears on two tracks on Science Fiction – “What Reason Could I Give” and “All My Life” – where the group’s complex rhythms, pulling two ways at once, open out the ballad form in order for her to undress it completely. “What reason could I give,” she sighs, singing from deep inside the track, the third eye of the storm, “to live / Only that I love you / How many times must I die for love / Only when I’m without you / Where will the clouds be / If not in the sky / When I die?”

But just as Coleman helped invent Puthli as a future disco icon, Puthli took Coleman’s science fiction out into the wild. Over a span of ’70s and early ’80s recordings with titles like 1001 Nights Of Love and I’m Gonna Kill It Tonight, Puthli, under the spell of Coleman’s break with the past, minted a form of free-floating ultra-sexualised intergalactic disco that matched hyperventilating time with erotic electronics and surreal sonic environments.

Asha Puthli – Mister Moonlight

“Give me some space,” she gasps on “Space Talk” from her 1976 album, The Devil Is Loose, as though it’s essential oxygen for her. The video for “Mister Moonlight,” from 1978’s L’Indiana, is a Kenneth Anger film re-shot at Atlantis, with Puthli cast as a lunar goddess in undersea green as she wanders, lost, amongst a petrified court wearing totemic animal masks and barnacled in gold. “Take me into lunar glow,” she purrs, over tidal rhythms, and we feel the moon’s pull. By this point Puthli has gone so far out that she has space walked into inner space, wandering on the floor of the amniotic ocean, inside the time of the body itself. These are ragas for the cities of the red night, pure body music, no longer for the stations of the sun and the stars.

Coleman’s restless trajectory saw him move deeper into repetition and recombination in the wake of Science Fiction, with the inspired ethno-fusion of recordings like Dancing In Your Head and Body Meta representing his own deep soundings of the rhythms of the body. “Repetition is as natural as the fact that the earth rotates,” he told the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1997.

Asha Puthli – 1001 Nights of Love

Puthli’s own experiments with ethno-fusion were a little more hallucinatory, peaking with 1979’s 1001 Nights of Love, released on the appropriately named Autobahn Records, with a title track that cast her as a Bedouin mistress in an eternal Arabian night, complete with synthesized choral vocals, rhythm boxes and far-off desertscape F/X that give way to an unearthly amalgam of lonely vocal ragas, squelchy avant electronics and sitar drones. “We’ll be together in the future without knowing,” she swoons, “that we were together in the past one day.”

In the wake of Puthli’s run of underground albums across the 1970s and early ’80s she disappeared off the map for a bit, resurfacing in the 2000s after Notorious B.I.G. sampled “Space Talk” for his “The World Is Filled With Pimps and Hoes.” On 2009’s Lost she returned to 76’s “The Devil Is Loose,” one of her signature songs. “Wooed him all day by singing the blues,” she sang, “dined him all night by drinking the booze.” Then she falls into a heartbreaking, multi-octave reverie at the thought of Satan set free. Reality, in the world of Asha Puthli, in the music of Ornette Coleman, is for people who can’t handle disco’s fictions.

By David Keenan on January 9, 2015

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