Friday, April 14, 2006

Repost - Psychogeography... a day up in town...Ornette Coleman at the Barbican, May 2, 2005

Due to various problems with the Plexus web site, some of the archives have been lost -including this review of Ornette Coleman at the Barbican last year. So - I've re-posted it...



It always struck me as one of the quirks of English culture that no matter what direction one travels in to get to London, one should always say (apparently, according to my advisor on these matters) 'I'm going UP to town.' So I went to London yesterday to see Ornette Coleman at the Barbican, someone whose music I've followed for many years but never seen in the flesh before. This has been a good spate of gigs over the last few months – Evan Parker redux in Derby the other week and before that the mighty Cecil Taylor last November. Three heroes in a row and three revolutionaries all getting on a bit (as are we all, well, some of us more than others...) but still firing on all cylinders (as some of us are patently not... )

So I was sitting on the train chugging an over-priced can of Stella and thinking 'Hey, I'm going down to London,' when I heard the voice in my head – my spiritual advisor the Rev Mervyn Stockbridge Gould intoning over a pint of Archers before Evensong – 'One goes up to town, dear boy, from whatever direction one travels.'
As my daughter would say: 'Whatever...'

So after I'd gone UP to town by travelling in a southerly direction – ( i.e. downwards...)and arrived in St Pancras I decided to walk to the Barbican – as ever convinced that I know London like the back of my hand. At one point on Grays Inn Road I had a slight presentiment that I was travelling in the wrong direction – but reasoned: there are no wrong directions in psychogeographical tours – so I added Situationist mystery to a pleasant afternoon – down - up – whoops almost missed it – in town. Via the Calthorpe Arms, a pub I was sure that I had been in before – Young's Brewery and very pleasant – many years ago when I actually lived in London. But probably hadn't. Then as I sat over my pint (ordinary bitter for those who care about these things – which I don't...) I realised that I'd left my ticket for the gig at home... So I had another one...

A while later I found the Barbican by wandering around a part of London I had to admit to myself I don't know too well – apart from Leather Lane market but that's another story... the Barbican itself looks like it was designed by someone hoping to supplement his or her architectural income by running an army of muggers on the side, being perfect concrete territory within which to harass the unwary, but I don't live there so it's not my problem. Eventually found the Concert hall and got a replacement ticket from a charming person who wasn't put out by undergound cult heroes redux with amnesia breathing Young's bitter fumes over them – an everyday occurrence no doubt in da big city.

So off I went again – three hours to kill – was going to go to the Christian Marclay exhibition that my cohort Murray Ward wrote about so eloquently elsewhere in these posts - but – you know how these things are... I was psychogeographically navigating Smithfield and realising that all the bars were shut as it was Bank Holiday and in that part of the city there are obviously not many punters – when I came upon a place by accident/psychic alignment whatever – down a back street, a small bar called the Rising Sun, under the shadow of St Bartholomew's church.. ( Historical note: founded as an Augustinian priory in 1123 and also famous apparently for the dubious fact that sections of the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' regarding which I would rather eat my own excrement than have to watch again, were filmed in the 'vast and impressive interior'). Two people playing chess, an old couple getting quietly wasted and a very pleasant Antipodean I guess barman who was going to be my host for the rest of the afternoon. Because I was tired now, little sleep and too much to drink the day before, I needed the solace that only a place like this can bring. And it did... complete with amusement as a trio, two men and a girl came in and in that unselfconscious way that the very stupid have coupled to a complete lack of personal spatial awareness, proceeded to launch into one of those loud, amazing overheard conversations that provide you with a brief but bizarre insight into other lives, other scenarios... involving mainly a friend of theirs who was into making porno films on a farm down in Surrey somewhere... Gor blimey, guv'nor, nice to know that lovable locals still exist...

But what is this to do with Ornette Coleman? Patience... we'll get there.

For – going out to a gig, UP to town etc, is a TOTAL experience. The journey, the anticipation, the alcohol – not too much as you don't want to keep leaving the venue every ten minutes at strategic moments. But enough to enjoy the spectacle. I sauntered back from the Rising Sun and had a small Jamesons over ice in the auditorium as I sat and watched the pre-gig follies. Recognised a couple of people – not friends but faces around. Lol Coxhill for example, one of the great Brit sax players whom I used to see/hear busking round Leicester Square before he became better known – blowing wild free improvisations into the night on his soprano sax. Something about the spirit of Lol which reminds me of Ornette Coleman's freedom jazz dance. I also bumped into him on various late night channel crossings to Holland and back – accosted him a couple of times to tell him how much I liked his playing. But he wouldn't know me – just another late night lunatic wired on lack of sleep and too much cheap booze way back when. There must have been so many...

A lot of these people look as if they were cloned in Ronnie Scott's Old Place a hundred years ago or whatever and sent forth to roam the jazz venues of London. Or maybe I'm being unkind... But amusing to look at from a provincial point of view now I don't live in a city anymore. Or maybe I'm the only one here who has been psychogeographically navigating the back street bars of Old London.

Soundtrack on my mp3 player – an interesting serendipitous mix – Miles and Trane – Miles who famously said that he hated Ornette's music in the early Sixties, silly old tosser – although I don't know whether he recanted. Velvet Underground – revolutionary music from the NY rock underground that would have had ears for the contemporaneous Free Jazz underground. Then some Ornette out of the blue– Una Muy Bonita from one of his early albums. Still fresh... An omen...
But enough... to the gig...

First – the support, Andy Sheppard and drummer, Kuljit Bhamra. Using electronics, Sheppard looped his sax playing on tenor and soprano over the Indian beats, playing music which was – pleasant. That sounds damning with faint praise and maybe it is. I enjoyed what he was doing but thought: is this what you get when jazzers get fed up with playing the complexities of post-bebop whatever and discover technology? Plexus do this stuff better, for God's sake... There was a bucolic, folksy ambiance to it all, Sheppard not straying far from the scale patterns it seemed, underdrummed by the admittedly skillful and fluid playing of his cohort. But an overheard comment at the end of their set (as a thousand or so of us rushed to the bar for a quick one summed it up: 'Bit Bollywood isn't it... Sound good in an Indian restaurant...' A certain degree of racism buried in there, maybe – but it was true. I think the context worked against it. We were here to witness one of the true revolutionaries of jazz not listen to twiddly attempts to get on board the world music gravy train... The Barbican crowd seemed to like it...

Then – Ornette. This incarnation he'd reverted to an acoustic band – drummer: his son Denardo, two bass players, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, one playing pizzicato, the other arco. A great sound, bringing odd echoes of the western classical art music tradition into a clash with – the BLUES. Because never forget - that's what underscores all Ornette's music. They started off fast, then playing a wrenchingly beautiful second number. Often in the ones that followed there were several pulses going – Denardo laying down a fast, jazzy rhythm interacting with the two basses– strummed plucked and bowed, a buzzing, vibrant sound – and Ornette sometimes floating over it in short phrases or single notes, sometimes locking in or bouncing off it in fast flurries. For a seventy five year old man he played wonderfully – his alto had a piercing vocalised quality - like an arrow to your heart. As good as that.

And he looked frail but supercool. Wearing a snazzy whitish/yellow? suit (the lighting disguised the actual colour) and one of those pork-pie hats with the little feather in the side that if I wore it would make me look like a cheesy bookmaker at the racetrack but on him looked – a Hat Supreme.
He also played trumpet and a smattering of violin – and the old controversies about his mastery or otherwise of his secondary instruments seemed irrelevant. The trumpet was fluid, plaintive, the violin just right – I've heard him play wilder stuff on record – but tonight it just blended into the string driven sound so well. The crowd responded mightily so much so that -

Of course there had to be an encore: not surprisingly – 'Lonely Woman' one of his early masterpieces. Sometimes you wonder what all the fury was about so many years ago... so much of what he played and plays just seems so -RIGHT – and his writing has always been lyrical with melodies of great beauty and his playing is just an extension of his composition – or the other way round. Or both... Ornette has always been a supreme melodist... to hear this tune played so majestically...

So. A partisan review maybe but as I left I went away contented – everything I wanted and more, a freshness still to his music, and enough raw edges to keep it moving... Andy Sheppard – well, it's not for me to to tell you, but a few more unpredictable turns would...

The cunning plan to get to St Pancras before closing back-fired. I thought: time for a slow pint and mull over the evening in the station bar – then the wait for the last train won't be so long. But it was shut. Bank Holiday? Perversity? Who knows? This is England after all, where we accept this crap. A hastily-bought carry-out wasn't the same... but it couldn't ruin The Day I Went To See Ornette Coleman...

8 comments:

Molly Bloom said...

Oh, I'm wondering why you've posted this twice. I liked your description of 'going UP to London' as I've had this conversation lots of times and often get told off for saying 'up' when perhaps I should be saying 'down'. My Grandpa always told me off and corrected me when I used to say, 'Can I get down from the table?' when he said that I should be saying, 'Can I get up?' and when I say, 'Shall we go into London?' and I am corrected. 'But you live IN London'

I've been in that Rising Sun pub when I went to the market. If I remember correctly, someone was playing chess then. Hopefully it was the same people! And yes, it's great to listen in to other people's conversations! You hear the most bizarre things. I think it's funny that they were talking about making porn films. Why do people talk so loudly though. Do I really want to hear every detail of their conversation? I would be mortally embarrassed if someone listened into my conversation. But maybe I should start talking loudly about bizarre, imaginary events. Then again, look at my blog!!!!!

I like the joy of the last paragraph too. This country is always closed, closed, closed. I think it's really funny that we're supposed to be so great in London, but often you go 'up' town (hee hee) and find everything is closed until lunchtime. I want it now! And everything closes so early. It's quite depressing. I'd love to have 24 hour life!

Rod... said...

...whoops, seeing double... the surplus review now deleted...
It was interesting to explore the Barbican area last year as I've been down since several times to concerts - one of those areas that I just assumed I knew and then reqlised I didn't. The west end and west london were my old stamping grounds - lived out in south ken and then stamford brook with my wife(as then was)...

Molly Bloom said...

South Kensington is really beautiful. I'm afraid I'm a South London girl.

The best thing that I saw at The Barbican was a retrospective of Derek Jarman's career just after he had died. It was lovely. It truly was. It was also very moving as some primary school children from the local area had recreated a garden in Jarman style outside near the fountain. It was heartbreaking. There were all of his paintpots and paintbrushes just lying around and his little books that he had written in. It was like being in his house. Poor old Derek. His little books inspired me to start one of my own at the time and strangely enough (synchronicity is a strange thing) I have mine next to me now as I'm about to use a little quote from it for a piece I'm about to do right now!

Rod... said...

Derek Jarman was (and is) a great favourite of mine - watched 'The Last of England' again a while back and thought it a visionary film in the tru e sense. I read some of his books years ago and was taken by his humanity and humour - one of those radical brits who don't fit any ideological straitjacket. Never seen much of his art, which I would like to- must seek it out. I don't know if there is anything currently on exhibition as I'm down in (shit -UP) in london quite a bit.
I used to live in Seymour Walk, many years ago -when Lionel Bart had a large house at the top of the street. We lived in two-room boho squalor for a couple of years - I walked down there a couple of years ago and hardly recognised the place! Mind you, it was pretty up-market when I lived there but there were a couple of decrepit cottages still - one of which of course, we inhabited. I'm thinking of doing some pieces on London in the sixties, not from the appalling sentimental angle but as I remember it - also links in with a putative book on the underground music scene of the time - not the rock one, but the acoustic/folk and free jazz one which fed it in many ways. I was in an odd position as a very small bit player who rubbed up next to quite a lot of better known people. Time, of course, is the factor (at my back I always hear etc.)... As a memoriam to my late wild first wife, Barbara who flitted round Soho bohemia and showed a young provincial boy how to behave...

Molly Bloom said...

That sounds like great fun living in that scene. I don't like the idealised view of the bourgeois hippies that did Woodstock and just ate flowers and all that shit. I like the gritty Sixties. Derek Jarman lived in Soho and he literally had pennies at the time. It's amazing how these great artists and film-makers are just sidelined by the utter cak that comes out now. It's one of my bug-bears. Terence Davies cannot get the money to make a film and Channel 4 promised to fund people like Jarman, then chickened out. I always think, no-one would really say that they were currently enjoying and appreciating a Jeffrey Archer novel, and yet, people are always banging on about how 'great' shit films are. No, really. Really, really shit films. When I'm at work, I have to grit my teeth continuously as they describe the utter trash they watch. It's depressing it really is. It's like what you said about 'Four Weddings' - I laughed at you rather eating excrement. I haven't even seen that film once. I refused to. It's the same with 'Titanic' - when I was doing my MA - my lecturer, who I had previously quite liked, was going on about how wonderful it is and inside I was just thinking, 'You fucker!' and we were discussing films and he was just showing this utter shite for us to discuss. I brought in 'An Angel at My Table' and 'The Terence Davies Trilogy' and they were just 'No, we can't look at that' even though it fitted into what we were discussing at the time. It was truly depressing.

You should look at some of Jarman's work.

I have just finished my next piece. However, it is truly depressing and I think maybe I should take it down. Oh well....

I'm sorry to hear about your wife. That is really hard for you. Is that Amelia's mum? Did this happen a long time ago?Barbara sounds like a free spirit and someone who looked after you. You've had a rough time of it. I hope things are going ok for you now. Sending virtual Stella for you. Take care.

St Anthony said...

To my shame and chagrin, have never seen the good Mr Coleman live. I read a review in one of the broadsheets that said it was probably the last time we'd see him over here, and probably the last big jazz event ... neither of which, I hope, is true. Sounds like a performance to treasure, though (even given the vagaries of our wonderful rail system).
Amazing now, as you say, the antipathy that Ornette's music used to provoke - if nothing else, you'd think people could hear the sheer humanity and humour of the man and his music. That Miles, shouldn't he have known better? Mind you, I suppose he didn't get where he,um .. got .. by being a nice guy.
Saw a very nice piece in the Guardian today about dear old Albert Ayler and this new documentary about him - sounds good.

Molly Bloom said...

Come and enter my competition. You'll be great at it.

Molly Bloom said...

Your answers/questions were fantastic. Go and see if you won!!
If so, you'll have a story later....
I wonder if you are up yet, after that cheap red wine. Hee hee.

PS - Did you see in the paper today that there is going to be a massive Miles Davis retrospective on the radio + a documentary this year - I think I saw it in the Observer Review section.