Ornette Coleman Publicity Photo

Ornette Coleman Quintet

Royce Hall - UCLA - Los Angeles, CA

September 26, 2007

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10

Written by Eddie Shanken

Fri October 5, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT


Perhaps itís no surprise that Ornette Coleman received a standing ovation at U.C.L.A.ís Royce Hall before he even played a single note. Most members of the gray and graying crowd have been fans of his for decades, and these days, opportunities to hear the 77-year-old jazz innovator and living legend perform are few and far between. This begs the question: On a university campus that offers deeply discounted student tickets, where were the young hipsters who will continue to pass on the appreciation of Coleman after the rest of us have turned into compost? In fairness, the concert took place the day before fall classes were to begin. Just two weeks earlier, however, a youthful crew had packed the El Rey Theater for a sold-out performance by The Cinematic Orchestra, a U.K.-based ensemble, whose freewheeling, group improvisations are deeply indebted to trailblazers like Coleman. The outfitís popularity demonstrates clearly that Colemanís revolutionary approach to ensemble-style playing has crossed over from esoteric free jazz to indie music. Therefore, his legacy, in one form or another, is more assured than ever.

On this fine, September evening, Ornette Coleman played alto sax, trumpet, and violin, and he was backed by a band that included his son Denardo on percussion as well as Tony Falanga and Charnett Moffett, each on acoustic bass, and Al MacDowell on electric bass. This unusual configuration expands upon the already double-barreled bass instrumentation of his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning album Sound Grammar. This architecture also is not entirely without precedent in jazz: Bill Dixon has been performing with two bass players since the 1960s, and he occasionally even adds tuba to the arrangements.

Lest anyone think that two basses are more than enough, Colemanís trio of bassists and their instruments all possessed distinctive qualities that complemented each other and provided a rich, textural layering of sound. Falanga, with his strong classical background, played a large double bass, primarily using a bow. Moffett played a much smaller instrument (perhaps an acoustic piccolo bass), which he primarily strummed, though on occasion he drew a bow across its strings or struck them with a stick. MacDowell played electric bass with piccolo strings, which bring its register up an octave. Much of his playing was very melodic and relatively high in pitch, causing one concertgoer to ask him after the show what kind of guitar he used!

A trendsetter in fashion as well as in music, Coleman sparkled like a pristine jewel in a stylishly tailored, turquoise sharkskin suit; a black, felt, pork-pie hat; and white shoes with black accents and a chrome toe-cap. His white alto saxophone easily could have been mistaken for the infamous, plastic models that he previously had employed, though in actuality it is composed of white enamel over brass, with an abstract pattern tooled into its bell. It was custom-made for him by Selmer in the early 1990s, and it has been on loan indefinitely to him ever since.

After acknowledging the crowdís enthusiastic reception in a charmingly modest manner, Coleman announced the first song of the evening. He described Following the Sound as "the heartbeat of love, happiness, and security." His quintet took the audience by surprise as it leapt straight into an ultra, high-tempo flurry with a Dixieland feel. Denardo Colemanís arms became a blur as he cranked out an underlying rhythm on drums, which was reinforced by the ferociously bowed and plucked acoustic basses. Coleman blew blues-y melodies on alto, and MacDowell followed and complemented his licks on electric bass, which, indeed, sounded much like an electric guitar. In 2005, a reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote that Colemanís work required a Ph.D. to understand it. This may be the case in certain respects, but even the doctorates must put down their theoretical methods and allow the music to carry them away in order to comprehend its deeper message. One can try to analyze the emerging complexity, but a better approach, perhaps, would be to "follow the sound," as the opening songís title suggests, and to flow and become one with it.

The program contained a mixture of tempos and rhythmic patterns and, staying more or less true to Colemanís "harmolodic" music theory, each song contained multiple temporal signatures, polyrhythms, and melodic keys. Each instrument obtained parity with the others in contributing to the overall field of sound. In practice, some of the traditional roles of particular instruments remained and, while there were no solos per se, Coleman clearly led the group and generally took primary responsibility for the melodic coherence of the material. Although he drew heavily from Sound Grammar, he also interpreted a range of other compositions, including Turnaround (from his 1959 album Tomorrow Is the Question) as well as unreleased material, such as Those Who Know before It Happens, a hauntingly beautiful and elegiac ballad that would be very much at home on a movie soundtrack.

Jordan was taken at an even faster pace than Following the Sound. Listeners would have been hard-pressed not to feel their pulse quicken with the tempo, which would have pleased even hardcore speed-metal freaks. It began with a rapidly played melodic head of short duration, a quick, classic, bird call from Coleman that catapulted the band into a frenzy of free-jazz improvisation with which Denardo Coleman, at times, could barely keep up. The pulse was propelled by Moffettís impossibly fast, walking bass lines, which he punctuated on occasion by striking the strings with a dowel.

Taking the Cure began with a soulful, heartfelt introduction on alto sax that was backed by a slow, rock-inflected groove. Ornette Colemanís playing was remarkably sensitive and emotionally profound; his control of dynamics, attack, and micro-tonal pitch painted an audible picture of tremendous strength, beauty, and melancholy. He shifted between rich, earthy tones, wails, and screeches, all of which slid harmonically across pitches while remaining in key. On trumpet, Coleman created breathy, atmospheric wallows and cries. Falangaís bowed bass mutated into an ambient drone, while Moffett filled in the sonic field by also bowing his bass to which he applied a wah-wah effect. Denardo Coleman picked up the tempo just as his father switched back to alto. The three bassists then took turns recapitulating his licks with melodic bowing and plucking, sometimes mirroring the rising and falling of the saxís pitch and sometimes inverting it.

Over the course of the evening, the music was consistently rewarding and, at times, quite brilliant, though the ensemble playing was inconsistent. Falanga and MacDowell failed to connect on the heads that introduced and concluded several numbers. The band floundered during a few tunes, falling in and out of synch with each other, while Denardo Coleman occasionally dragged behind the beat. Nevertheless, when the ensemble really clicked, the tightness of the temporal and sonic synchronization created a coherent and steady sonic force, which had the effect of boosting Ornette Coleman to higher levels of energetic expressiveness on his alto. This demonstrated the potency that harmolodic music can have when the serendipity of group improvisation discovers its magic.

One of the most engaging songs of the night began with Falanga bowing what reviewer Phil Gallo identified as the theme from Bachís Suite No. 1 in G Major. Into this foundation, Denardo Coleman wove a down-tempo rock beat. His father joined on trumpet, knitting a cross-stitch that drew together the heterogeneous warp and woof of classical bass and rock drums, while also embroidering it with a sonic centerpiece. This combination of elements shared a kinship with what Paul Miller has described as "Rhythm Science," a pleating of diverse signatures that resonates simultaneously on multiple levels and yields a synthetic totality with a new meaning that could not be derived from its individual parts.

The Ornette Coleman Quintetís performance drew a persistent standing ovation that resulted in an encore of Lonely Woman. It was approached in yet another manner, with the bassists playing off each other beneath Colemanís deliberate, emotionally charged, and ultra-sensitive rendering of his classic song. Rather than earn a Ph.D. to understand his harmolodic approach to improvisational music, listeners can learn simply by attending multiple performances by the Ornette Coleman Quintet and "following the sound."

Set List: Following the Sound / Sleep Talking / Jordan / 911 / Call to Duty / Turnaround / Out of Order / Suite No. 1 in G Major / Those That Know before It Happens / Taking the Cure / Dancing in Your Head / Song World / Song X / Lonely Woman

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