[JPL] Something Else - Ornette Coleman at Town Hall
eflash17 at comcast.net
eflash17 at comcast.net
Thu Apr 10 15:35:26 EDT 2008
I'm not sure if this has been posted yet, but if only every jazz piece was written as well as this one:
Definitely worth clicking the link above just to check out the amazing photo of Ornette.
Ornette Coleman at Town Hall
by Gary Giddins
April 14, 2008
Avid expectation invariably precedes a concert by Ornette Coleman, the revolutionary alto saxophonist, composer, and sometime trumpeter and violinist. But the revivalist fervor that accompanied his appearance at Town Hall on a recent Friday evening was something else. This was Colemans first New York appearance since a flurry of institutional crownings last year: the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award, and, from his native state, the Texas Medal of Arts. Most remarkably, he won the Pulitzer Prize for music, for his self-produced album Sound Grammar, his first recording in a decade; its the only time the award has ever been given for a commercial record. Broadway-scale ticket prices magnified the homecomingColeman has lived in New York for nearly half a centurywith an aura of exclusivity, and, in an eighty-minute performance, he did not disappoint. The audience emerged awed by his undiminished vigor and capacity to surprise. As my wi
fe and I pulled ourselves away from the Forty-third Street afterglow, she said, Explain to me again why he was so controversial.
No musician has ever roiled the jazz establishment quite as much as Coleman. Musical history is filled with jeering audiences and critics, but not many musicians have inspired personal violence. In Louisiana, in 1949, Coleman was summoned from a bandstand and beaten bloody by a mob which also destroyed his saxophone. A decade later, when he arrived in New York to play at the Five Spot, in Cooper Square, the drummer Max Roach came to listen and, as Coleman tells it, ended up punching him in the mouth. But musicians with a grounding in the classical avant-garde were more encouraging: Leonard Bernstein declared him a genius, Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto with him in mind, and John Lewis, the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, touted him as the most important jazz figure since Charlie Parker.
The object of this furor is a preternaturally gentle man who speaks, with a modest lisp, in visionary metaphors and bold assertions. Those assertions came initially, between 1958 and 1960, in a series of provocative album titles: Something Else!!!!; The Shape of Jazz to Come; Change of the Century. His double-quartet album, Free Jazz, ornamented with cover art by Jackson Pollock, made him, along with Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, the most radical and divisive member of a movement that set aside fixed meters, harmonies, and structures. His phrase free jazz became the war cry of an entire generation.
Although Coleman performs to packed stadiums at European festivals, he remains unknown to most Americans. Perhaps the chief impediment to greater popularity is the very quality that centers his achievement: the raw, rugged, vocalized, weirdly pitched sound of his alto saxophone. Considered uniquely, radiantly beautiful by fans, it is like no other sound in or out of jazz. Within the space of a few notesa crying glissando, say, or a chortling squeakColemans sound is as unmistakable as the voice of a loved one. Even now, in a far noisier and more dissonant world than 1959, listening to Coleman can be a bracing experience for the uninitiated. Colemans attitude toward intonation is unconventional. The classical composer Hale Smith once spoke to me of Colemans quarter-tone pitch, by which he meant that Coleman plays between the semitones of an ordinary chromatic scale. The core of Colemans genius, Smith felt, is that, however sharp or flat he is from accepted pitch, he is consis
tent from note to note. Coleman hears so acutely that even when he is out of tune with the rest of the musical world he is always in tune with himself.
Much of Colemans career has been dedicated to creating ensembles that complement this sound. He has usually avoided instruments with fixed pitch, like the piano, and instead has sought bassists and guitarists who, through special tunings or sheer empathy, can harmoniously balance his timbre and intonation. This search has led him to explore a wider range of contexts than any other jazz composer. He has written for symphony orchestra (most successfully, the 1972 magnum opus Skies of America), woodwind quintet, string quartet, and jazz trios, quartets, and a variety of other chamber-size ensembles. As early as the sixties, he was drawn to the possibilities of electric bands, a line of inquiry that led to his own version of jazz-rock fusion, which he called harmolodic. This neologism, contracted from harmony, movement, and melodic, gives some idea of a music in which harmonies freed from their tonal centers and rhythms freed from regular meters function as an integral, cont
inuously modulating whole.
At Town Hall, a few weeks after his seventy-eighth birthday, and after touring Croatia, Spain, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand, Coleman introduced his new quartet, made up of long-term alliesTony Falanga on bass, Al MacDowell on bass guitar, and Colemans son Denardo on drums. Coleman has long worked at a reconsideration of the relationship between the front and rear lines of the jazz ensemble. Jazz typically involves soloists improvising over a beat and bass line provided by a rhythm section, but, as jazz developed in the postwar era, rhythm instruments began to play increasingly active, liberated roles. Coleman always demanded greater involvement on the part of his bassists and drummers, even if the over-all shape of his performances remained tied to the idea of a soloist supported by rhythm. However, his preferred instrumentation in recent years, involving drums and two basses, as heard on Sound Grammar, has enabled him to retain the central role of his improvis
ations while increasing the prominence of the other musicians to the point where the ensemble displays the organic unity of a string quartet.
Colemans latest lineup took that idea to a new level. His plaintive alto centered the music, but it never flew beyond the gravity of the ensemble, and the quartet functioned as one. On bass, Falanga brought cello-like purity of sound, a sense of European classicism especially evident in pieces derived from that tradition: Sleep Talking, a piece that Coleman has been developing since 1979, echoes the opening of Stravinskys The Rite of Spring, and Bach begins with the opening of the first cello suite, before reordering itself with a funky backbeat. MacDowells electric bass, with its twangy sound and rhythm-guitar-like sliding chords, suggested at times a harmolodic frisson of contrary keys, realigning the harmonies. His contribution was consistently assertive, and, in the dark meditation of 9/11 (apparently a new piece) and the twelve-bar blues Turnaround, a version of Colemans 1959 classic Turnabout, it became a defining presence. Denardo Coleman, meanwhile, has su
rvived a peculiarly difficult and humiliating apprenticeship, having débuted, at the age of ten, on Colemans 1966 album, The Empty Foxhole. Colemans decision to feature his son in a role previously occupied by some of the finest drummers of the era was interpreted as yet another provocation, and the criticism was deadly. But Denardo continued to develop his skills in public, and somewhere along the way he became an essential member of the group. Now in his fifties, he plays with fierce drive, lacking the intricacy and subtlety of his predecessors but compensating with lightning reflexes that allow him to navigate between backbeats, shuffles, and machine-gun fills.
As for Coleman himself, the Town Hall concert was a reminder that, for all the innovation and the putative gauntlets hurled at musical conventions, the dominant mode of his music is lyrical. Colemans pieces still cross generic borders, but they do so more cheerfully than aggressively, suggesting an oddly universal equation that partakes of classical music, rock, blues, and country melodies. Coleman may, indeed, be the last great melodisttrafficking in the sphere of irresistibly hummable tunes, alternately happy and sad, that strike us in those unprotected areas of naïve pleasure that survive childhood. No better example exists than his standard encore and most celebrated ballad, the 1959 Lonely Woman, performed at Town Hall in a slightly abbreviated arrangement that underscored the deliciously yearning main melody, which haunts the mind long after the final notes have faded, like the memory of a wonderful idea. ♦
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