S&H  Jazz concert Review

Ornette Coleman at The Barbican, 23 March 2001 (TH)

This concert was the first of Ornette Coleman's two London appearances and was centred on the trio of Ornette on alto sax, Denardo Coleman on drums and Charnett Moffett on double bass.

For the opening moments of the concert I was mesmerised by how real they sounded. I'd never heard him live before but Ornette sounded exactly as my imagination had construed him from listening to LPs. The whole trio did.

Yet my imagination had hardly situated them in the Barbican Hall. In fact the Barbican Hall and places like it didn't exist in the 1960's, or didn't exist for jazz: jazz was played in clubs, and the record of Ornette's I listened to most often was Live at the 'Golden Circle' Stockholm which had that club sound I was now hearing, and had Charnett's father, Charles Moffett, playing drums. Well, here they were on the big stage with the coloured lights. The trio played the first half alone, but added Silvie Jensen on vocals for a couple of pieces. In the second half Ornette added Badal Roy on tablas, Prabhakar Karekar and Sussan Deyhim on vocals, and Guowei Wang on erhu, to make up a special project with the title 'Global Expressions'.

It seemed to my ears that the trio tired just a little as it went along, and in particular, after a fair start, I felt Denardo wasn't contributing at the level of the other two - wasn't giving the same energy. Ornette's playing, though familiar to me, was still full of surprise moves. It seemed strange that he'd ever been criticised for lack of technique. He obviously had all the technique he needed. If anything he almost played too technically. At the moments when his playing became repetitive, the accent fell on how well he articulated the phrases.

Although he does sometimes play legato, the typical Ornette phrase is a group of articulated notes, with an attack that fills out the tone just after the note starts to sound. These note groups often sound like a variation on a fragment of a simple tune: but each fragment is given a different tilt, specially by the way it comes in and goes out: the next fragment belongs, as it were, to a different tune: but Ornette thinks fluidly over the jumps and it all hangs together like the individually awkward ribs of a Calder mobile.

The architecture of the whole piece is simple, a cup to hold the parts in. The trio repeatedly plucked endings out of thin air that had some of the feeling of the endings of completely free improvisations, but mixed with the feeling of the end of a tune. They just knew when the ending was there. But it hadn't been arrived at by the usual kind of musical logic. Only afterwards, from the perspective of the ensuing silence, it seemed logical.

Charnett Moffett's playing was consistently generous and playful. At various times he threw in off-beat ostinati, effective use of bow on bass-body percussion, seriously fast arco technique, very long sustained pizzicato notes and what sounded like a fuzz box. His entries were often superb and on unexpected notes, notably after an unaccompanied alto sax solo. Under Silvie Jensen's free lieder vocal, he was positively inciting her to greater rhythmic tension in her phrasing.

As he introduced Silvie to the audience, Ornette stated that 'Music is a system of belief that everyone has automatically.' I think he meant that a sense of confidence and knowledge of oneself is what can empower any person to enter a musical situation and be effective. This is certainly what he himself has put into practice in his own life, starting from the position that music is, in the first place, the natural expression of the human individual, rather than a set of rules of behaviour which must be internalised.

However, what was most evident from even before Silvie Jensen's first sound, but especially in the quality of that first sound, was that here was a classically trained singer. Indeed all the musicians who were invited as guests of the trio this night were evidently well-trained within exacting musical traditions. Silvie Jensen in effect represented the thin edge of a contradiction that widened to bursting point during the evening: the freedom that Ornette espouses doesn't grow beyond the intimacy of his trio except in counterpoint to sets of rules and traditional styles.

And the problem is exactly with this counterpoint.

First of all, the quality of the interaction diminishes. It becomes more symbolic than actually musical. Secondly the desire for tolerance and transcultural respect all too easily allows the degeneration of pieces into self-indulgence on a grand scale. Thirdly, the surface of what is being presented flips into a kind of world-music spectacle; one has the feeling that the group is literally floating away, that it is no longer real, that it is mediated.

The reverb added to Ornette's sax, possibly for an unaccompanied solo, stayed in for the rest of the evening. The sound became blurred: I started to notice the indistinctness of the kick-drum. Things are not helped by the fact that Asian musicians come from traditions of modal extensivity. Guowei Wang on erhu played a more-or-less continuous solo from the moment he came on stage to the end of the concert. At one point he very accurately imitated all the most hateful aspects of jazz violin for what seemed like several minutes. The rhythm section, now containing Badal Roy on tablas, barely gelled at any point, with Denardo finally settling for playing inaudibly. The rhythm became slack, the fire and punch of the trio lost. Ornette himself played politely off-mic. There were virtuosic and spirited contributions being made but they were largely ineffective because of the messiness and homogeneity of the whole.

In fact by far the most effective contributions in this part of the concert were made by Ornette himself when he briefly took up the violin and then the trumpet. Both these interventions were played emphatically with clearly defined and articulated figures that stood well out from the background morass. So far as the second half of this concert went, they were in fact the thing it was worth not having walked out for.

Tim Hodgkinson

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