Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ornette Coleman at the Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 9th July, 2007

The sky was darkening and it had rained a bit in the afternoon and I wasn't feeling too good but I made it back to the Festival Hall... Tonight, first up, the Byron Wallen Trio – an improvement on the previous evening's support act. More 'jazzy' - not that I am especially bothered about idiom - Wolf Eyes would have been a great start act in my book - but context is all... Yet...oddly enough, if Polar Bear had played tonight, maybe they would have fitted in better... does that seem overly perverse? It's a point I will elaborate on later...

Wallen opened on piano – a slow, ruminative and rolling broad-chorded piece to get his feet under the table, as it were – eventually joined by his drummer and bass player. He switched to trumpet for the second piece and most of the set – showing wide range throughout from bat-squeak to low growl – an interestingly large sonic palette edged with a supple yet vulnerable lyricism. His themes used simple fragments of melody but were effective and memorable, often pivoting on the bass to supply ostinatos drawn from the melodies which provided a level of continuity that he and the drummer weaved skilfully around. They played confidently, seemingly unawed by the occasion and went down well. A point: they come off the jazz tradition but have developed their own strong conception – Wallen has a penchant for themes that reflect his African heritage and allied socially conscious isssues without beating you over the head – all the more effective perhaps. He utilised a shell ( a conch?) at one point, for example, and produced a hauntingly beautiful sound that integrated with the piece rather than being some worthy World Music add-on. They used freedom and space and didn't sound like a bebop revival band or a group overconsciously trying to be accessible to a wider audience... this was mature stuff played with great ease and spirit... A band to check out further...

So: the house was well warmed up for the main event – Ornette and his ensemble, underpinned as ever by his son, the burly Denardo on powerhouse drums. Two bass players were advertised but he sported three – Tony Falanga and Al McDowell with Charnette Moffett added – one acoustic bass, one bass guitar, one electric standup. The sort of lineup that needs to be able to stay out of each others' way – which they pretty much did throughout. Falanga was mainly arco – one nice touch I noticed that showed the strength of his technique - and his hands - on 'Sleep Talking' (I think) when he held his thumb on a note for achingly long periods to create a bowed drone while using his fingers to trigger flurries of notes. Moffett arco and pizzicato, used his footpedals to good effect – I especially liked the wah wah combined with bow to create a swooning swooshing wave of sound. The bass guitar was played high up for most of the set, giving electric guitar figures – with some bluesy chording that reminded me of Jim Hall behind Jimmy Giuffre way back. McDowell drifted close to noodling a couple of times but in the main laid out some interesting and pointed lines. Denardo the grounding force – cymbals like razors, a strong flowing rhythm throughout – he's a heavy hitter, which is necessary, I figure, to keep this band on the track.

Ornette was the arrow – saeta/cante hondo indeed, a searing, wrenching all too human tone on alto, plus see-sawing freejazz hoedown on violin – hip yiha - and spare, smearing forays on trumpet, an instrument upon which he has always been at the very least interesting, in my opinion, and which he plays better than some would have you believe. Ok, he used some stock phrases on the sax – but they were his inventions to deploy and he powered the ensemble onwards throughout, leading them accurately through those typically convoluted themes that stop and start and end so suddenly. Although the congregation is very much a democracy - as befits harmolodic metaphysics/theory, there is a lot of trust involved, shown by the way he lets his musicians run with the balls that are bounced out – backed by Denardo's rock solid rhythms. Operating on several levels, which is one of the fascinations of his music – his alto often riding in a slow drift as the beat doubles behind on drums and the others trade of fragments that slide off his themes. Never far from the blues, as evidenced by the loping dance through 'Turnaround,' a theme which locks him firmly in the back tradition to demonstrate where he came from -and the distance travelled. His present band represents something of a fascinating recapitulation of his career – from early freejazz breakthrough to Prime Time's electric weirdfreefunk – the electronic instruments are still there but not as dominant, the rhythms strong but suppler perhaps than the Prime Time experience – to his diagonal take on the european classical canon – a Bach cantata from Falanga that eventually mutated into – something else... His music has always been all-embracing and wide-open - so much to get in under the skies of America and beyond - and this performance amply demonstrates the point. Many of the freedoms he sought and discovered are created by the spaces that open between the different layers as much as by the overall direction(s) taken.

He came back to rapturous applause and gave his usual encore – 'Lonely Woman' – and no problem with that to hear again the hauntingly beautiful refrain – where Falanga's arco bass comes into its own, especially... The crowd wanted more, of course – but a seventy-seven year old can only give so much...

Last thoughts... interesting to consider Ornette with more of the emphasis now on being a composer and bandleader – the invention is still there with sudden flashes of the old left-field trajectories on saxophone, more so perhaps in the briefer but fascinating outings on violin and trumpet - but he didn't take any long solos tonight. His power on alto is still intact, however, marred slightly by a shrillness/distortion that crept in on some of the high notes and was more of a sound system problem – a reverse echo, oddly enough, of Anthony Braxton the previous evening who had been almost inaudible at first when he switched to alto. (Maybe they are still coming to terms with the acoustics of the new building?). This band serve as the perfect vehicle for him to ride out on with the overall fire of his imagination to drive it home. We came to praise Ornette and celebrate the fact that he is still with us and leading challenging lineups – this wasn't the heritage circuit. He deserved the warmth of the acclaim for what he has given – and what he gave this night – with such generosity.

A mind-blowing two days – Polar Bear seemed stranded on the ice to this listener - and picking up a previous point, perhaps they would have been better suited to beginning the monday night (with the excellent Byron Wallen combo's freer rhythms coming before Cecil and company). Ornette's music comes out of the blues, embraced electricity early on – and rock – and combined them better than most by keeping a cutting improvisational expansive edge that fusion in the main could not or would not attempt, so there was that sense of not being so very far from 'social' music, of engaging with popular forms in the same way that Miles Davis did. Taylor's muse took him down different routes. Can we say that Ornette was more linear, taking the older implicit – and explicit - freedoms of the blues into choppier waters, Cecil Taylor, with a pianist's conception, exploring – and shattering – harmonic forms with a denser formulation? Rhythm too – Ornette's was a freed-up bop rolling, Taylor's becoming a more abstracted pulse. But these visions are not mutually exclusive - Taylor uses melody more than you might think and the call and response structures of his culture coupled to a sharp bluesy edge and Ornette's ensembles achieve a thrilling complexity where the lines criss-cross through in often joltingly exhilarating counterpoints and spatial movements – but I'm reminded of that quote by Bill Evans where he says that harmony is just counterpoint anyway. Whatever... the final point is that these giants are still with us and still indicating from different – yet surely compatible - positions the dynamic possibilities of freedom in music - and beyond. There are no narrow roads here...

9 comments:

Sam Britton said...

You're right when you say that Ornette's band is really an accumulation of all of his experiments over the years. I was struck by just how well the three bass players worked and how much this contributed to a sense of really independent harmony which Ornette seemed totally at ease navigating. Equally, I remember the last time I saw him being blown away by the synthesis between him and Denardo, they really play as if they were almost one, it's quite extraordinary. Having seen them live together, I see the 'Empty Foxhole' in completely another way. It's a shame that I still don't think 'Sound Grammar' captures the group at their best. I really hope they release another record off the back of this tour.

Rod... said...

I have a theory that tries to link Ornette to the Texas musics of Bob Wills and company - western swing was an amalgamation of different styles piled on top of each other - country, big band swing, blues etc - and the implied freedoms of blues singers like Lightning Hopkins - may be a bit far-fetched but fun! I agree about his relationship with Denardo - I saw him a couple of years back (were we at the same gig?) and felt the same - Now that Ornette doesn't solo so much at length, he lets his band play for him - held together by Denardo at the back and the guv'nor at the front. I do like Sound Grammar (intend to put up a track later today or tomorrow in a mini-celebration)-but the recording is not as good as it could be - drums are muddied. They really should record this band though!

mapsadaisical said...

I would have loved to have seen Wolf Eyes (who are playing in London next week) on Sunday night, with Braxton sitting in - now that would have been awesome!

Rod... said...

'Black Vomit!'

Rod... said...

... next week? Must try to get there...unless they are up hyere as well - better check!

Mr Blister said...

Thanks for the excellent Ornette review

Rod... said...

...thanks for kind words!

Sam Britton said...

I doubt we were at the same gig as I had to go to Turin to see them last time... interested in your theory about the mid-western musical lineage. Certainly, when I listen to a lot of early recordings of musicians from that part of America made by Alan Lomax et al, I can hear there is a kind of emotional immediacy that is very similar. There is perhaps also a similarity in how many of the early blues players learnt their instruments and how Ornette learnt to play the saxophone. I know John Fahey was big on trying to identify tunings and cataloguing ways of playing invented by many of these players (a lot of which have found their way into contemporary popular music). I think it would be really interesting to see a comparative study that places Ornette in relation to this tradition... anyone game?

Rod... said...

... had I but world enough and time! To misquote Marvell - although I have been doing some work on these connections - basically because new forms don't just spring out of nothing - and it's fun teasing out the antecedents. I have an interest in the fifties as that's where the energy starts to really build up to escape bop's recurring chord changes - by losing the piano in Coleman's case (although he played with Paul Bley early on who was open to what he was doing) - just as Gerry Mulligan did and Jimmy Giuffre did - who was also from texas, like Coleman, was a west-coaster, had an interest in folk forms/blues and eventually ended up playing free jazz... I wonder if the west coast was a big factor in Coleman's development - certainly you see an interest in more linear form out there through so-called cool jazz onwards. Cecil Taylor, with a denser, more ostensibly 'european' pianistic take travels a different road - can one line that up as more 'east-coast?' A bit simplistic I know and there are many cross-overs. But Ornette always reminds me of Lightning Hopkins in some way - especially the sureness of what he was doing - the famous quote that sums up freedom maybe - 'Lightning changes (chord) when Lightning wants to.' Texas as a border state has an incredible mix of styles and genres as well...