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Arts Festival Review: Ornette Coleman

Arts Festival Review: Ornette Coleman

Review by Tyler Hersey

Ornette Coleman
Michael Fowler Centre
February 22, 2008


The Michael Fowler Centre continued its streak of hosting the greatest names in jazz history on Friday with an astonishing and challenging set from saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Following seminal icons Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny into Wellington's finest hall, Coleman proved that a frail 78 year old body can still house one of the greatest musical minds on the planet. Coleman's first visit to Wellington comes at a fascinating time in his life; while old enough to have collapsed on stage at a concert last summer, he is musically virile, winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music for Sound Grammar, his best album in decades.

Without speaking to the audience, Coleman shuffled on stage in an electric blue suit which hung on his gaunt frame like fresh dry cleaning on a warped coat hanger. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and in Coleman's case they are dead wrong. The band launched into a frenzy of notes, quickly falling into a massive groove propelled by flourishes of drums and electric bass. With the agility of a player half his age, the saxophonist ripped line after line of quick arpeggios, stringing together sheets of notes which darted in and out of the chord progression. Accompanied by the highly unusual pairing of three bassists and a drummer, Coleman turned in a focused 80 minute set free of the usual jazz trappings of extended solos and endlessly repeated forms, opting instead for powerful group statements which lasted no longer than the average pop song.

Supporting the saxophonist harmonically were Tony Falanga, who played upright acoustic bass and acted as the band leader (even going so far as to turn Coleman's sheet music and point out to him which songs to play), and a quiet Al McDowell, who played his four string electric bass like a guitar, supporting Coleman's sax solos with lush chords and gentle arpeggios. Holding down the low end on a second electric bass was virtuoso Charnett Moffett, whose father Charles played drums for Coleman in the 1960s. That chair is now filled by Coleman's own son Denardo, who showed massive chops and a thirst for adventure obviously inherited from his father.

Leaning heavily on the material captured during the live recording of Sound Grammar, Coleman and his band proved completely comfortable with every song, building up massive walls of sound before breaking them down to their basic melody and chord progression. Moffett's furious walking drove the band alongside Denardo Coleman's relentless ride cymbal work, which filled every possible beat underneath his father's impressionistic solos. Even Coleman's 1959 classic “Turnaround” has been re-envisioned by this group, with the fragmented melodies from Coleman's alto sax held aloft by the band as if suspend on a cloud of swirling bees or a twisting waterspout.

Halfway through the concert, a gorgeous reading of the collapsing ballad “Sleep Talking” from Sound Grammar provided a welcome respite from the preceding frenzy. Half Duke Ellington-style bebop ballad and half Arabic tone poem, this performance exemplified the diverse ability of Coleman's current band. Beneath the rubble of stacked chords and complex harmonies lay a bare, sensual melody, continually exposed and re-covered. Perhaps this innate sense of “song” is what sets Coleman's work apart from the sprawling labyrinths of other free jazz practitioners; a well crafted melody remains at the core of every avant-garde sonic exploration, regardless of how deep it is buried under piles of chords and polyrhythms.

So crucial are the contributions of each member of this band that is difficult to assess Coleman's playing on its own. Leaving behind the conventional jazz structure of extended solos over a set form, the band seemed more like an electric chamber group playing alien classical music with a blues rock edge. Falanga's acoustic bass filled the roles of many instruments - at times harmonizing with Coleman's sax like another horn, at others providing counter melodies in the manner of a backup vocalist. So dense and textured was the music coming from the stage that it was initially hard to determine from which instrument each sound originated – I kept looking for singers, string players, and horn sections that didn't exist.

Having switched from acoustic to electric bass for this tour, Moffett clearly relished his role as bus driver, thumping out funk grooves and furious bebop walking lines with equal aplomb. And while it was often difficult to discern exactly which part of the sound McDowell supplied, his playing shone during the ballads and slower sections. Denardo Coleman played with an intensity level which pushed the band into high gear at a moment's notice, although it did occasionally overpower the other players in the Michael Fowler Centre's responsive acoustic environment.

Coleman's band now sounds much more aggressive and solid than it did on the tracks recorded for Sound Grammar, much of which I attribute to Moffett's use of electric bass rather than the acoustic used on the album. Throughout the show, there was a furious intensity about each song which is balanced by the gentle nature of Coleman's melodies. And nowhere was this Jekyll/Hyde mentality more apparent than the end of the concert, when the scattered blues funk of contemporary Coleman compositions “Song X” and “911” was followed by a gentle encore of his most famous tune, “Lonely Woman.” This duality of musical purpose is the most compelling feature of Coleman's current work - just when chaos seems to reign, all detritus is momentarily swept away and a beautiful song comes shining through.

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Ornette Coleman on Arts Festival website [includes audio samples]

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