Disc two of this two-CD set chronicling Ornette Coleman's two bass quartet tour of Italy in 1968 has been fairly available to fans before as Live in Milano, 1968. The first disc of 2006's Complete 1968 Italian Tour is 45 minutes of unheard prime Coleman with David Izenzon, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell from Rome, where Coleman mixes the reedy shenai and trumpet in with his trademark alto. The sound quality is not the greatest -- these are audience recordings, not board tapes -- but not that bad, either, given those parameters. No pieces are duplicated and Coleman is quite animated and expansive in his playing -- the two-bass interplay sends his alto soaring and stretching out, especially on the Milan disc. The Rome concert is more compact, with four pieces clocking in between 10-13 minutes, and opens with a version of "Lonely Woman" that goes in a far more buoyant and upbeat direction than usual. The sound reduces Haden to a fairly subliminal level here, swallowed up by Izenzon's bowing and Blackwell being, well, Blackwell: his own African-New-Orleans-chop-funk-swing-thing-masterful self.
The midtempo "Monsieur le Prince" jumps into a strong Haden walking foundation, with Izenzon filling the middle arco-style, giving Coleman a broad band connection to bounce around and off rhythmically. Izenzon's bass drops in and out, a very effective sonic guerilla element (or the "X factor") employing radical low string sounds at times. "Forgotten Children" pits Coleman playing bluesy trumpet against the Izenzon arco; shades of Albert Ayler are evident in the melody here and Coleman displays a more impressive command of this secondary instrument than he sometimes does. Be it open bell or muted, he isn't missing or fracturing notes and is conveying deep feeling. When Blackwell lays out later, the exchange between the two bassists nears the chamber zone, before an abrupt reentry by the full quartet is marked by supercharged walking from Haden and Blackwell powerhousing through a brief solo. It is (as usual) impossible to predict where the music may be heading, all part and parcel of Coleman's endless capacity for surprise.
Blackwell shows off his New Orleans roots on "Buddah Blues," setting up a powerful, physical undercurrent with Haden that leaves Izenzon a bit nonplussed concerning how to fit in. The piece quickly veers off towards freer territory with Haden coming through much stronger during this track supporting Coleman's shenai -- all reedy wails, trills, slurs and smears, and bumblebee flurries. "Tutti" is the "Dancing in Your Head" theme five years before it officially took on that name, but the echo-y room in Milan renders Izenzon hard to make out, and Haden fares even worse. But it hardly matters because Coleman and Blackwell are simply flying, and an unusual honking section closing Coleman's solo gets a big crowd response. "Three Wisemen and a Saint" finds Coleman again going for more flurries, honks, and wails than is customary for him. It's enough to make you wonder if something set him off that night (for better or worse) because his playing sounds agitated and notes are just pouring out of the alto. He finally lets more space in on the lyrical ballad "New York," Izenzon supporting with a yearning undertone to the melody. The piece is a reflective summing up, with some detail in phrasing or pure emotion invariably sustaining interest just when you think he's gone back to the central motif once too often.
Coleman's regular group for the prior few years used the same two-bass formation. With Haden, Izenzon, and Blackwell here, though, the arco bass tones seem to offer musical possibilities that inspire Coleman to improvise at great lengths and the music here is hard to argue with despite the sound shortcomings. Coleman wasn't very far removed from his self-imposed mid-'60s creative hiatus here, and Complete 1968 Italian Tour is a worthy addition to the catalog of European concert recordings documenting this era, sound quality and all. Fussy or audiophile ears are hereby forewarned, though.