Review: Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman at LJF2011
Photo Credit: Edu Hawkins

Ornette Coleman
(Royal Festival Hall, Nov 20th. Closing night of LJF2011. Review by Jon Turney)

Listen hard enough, and you can still almost feel the vibe from Ornette Coleman’s triumphant performance to close the Meltdown festival he curated on the South Bank in 2009. So would his reappearance on the last day of the LJF live up to that night of standing ovations and cries of “we love you, Ornette?” Hell, yes.

This was a reversion to the great man’s usual show, if you like. No Charlie Haden duet. No Flea from the Chili Peppers adding bass to Turnaround (in fact, unusually, no Turnaround). No wailing interlude from Master Musicians of Jajouka. The absence of guests gave a clearer view of the remarkable understanding between Coleman and his two long-standing bass players – Tony Falanga, thunderously emphatic on acoustic bass, and Al MacDowell, whose fast-fingered electric bass sounds more like guitar. It is perhaps a little like having Ornette’s contrasting bassists of old, Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro, at the same time. Falanga is Haden, typically keeping solid time and underpinning the leader’s shifting line, MacDowell is LaFaro, skipping around in lightning fast commentary-cum-anticipation alongside the man with the plastic alto sax.

The three together make a tight-knit trio, supported by Denardo Coleman behind the drums. Denardo, a drummer it is easy to hear too much of, exhibited an unusually light touch for much of the evening, using his cymbals and brushes to good effect. Some of the bluesy ballads still had backbeats, but they were fine too.

The quartet’s single set lasted over an hour and a half, with rarely a dull moment. Most numbers were short, but the Coleman song book is long. We had plenty from the very beginning of his recording career – sometimes pretty much as they were then, sometimes reworked a little. Round Trip, from a little later, was a welcome favourite, and Latin Genetics as jaunty as ever. Coleman stuck mainly to alto, the trumpet and violin excursions being a bit perfunctory these days. His intonation is occasionally more wayward, too– hardly a problem in this music – and he makes a few more squeaks, but the keening, swooping tone is largely intact. In mid-set, he eased off a little, allowing MacDowell to state themes and confining himself to a few flurries and trademark licks as the bass players explore the tune. But by the end he was back in the driving seat, signalling the switches of direction each number took. These are not as unexpected, or as inventive, as fifty years ago. But to me the effect was still as fresh, as invigorating as ever.

At 81, the man’s urge to play seems inexhaustible. And at set’s end, the clamour for an encore eventually brought him back for the customary reminder that he is one of jazz’s peerless melodists. Lonely Woman, played against softly plucked acoustic bass, became a farewell benediction.


Categories: miscellaneous

9 replies »

  1. Nice review – I like the Haden/La Faro analogy for the two bass players; it helps put this momentous concert in context – and four years ago, there were, extraordinarily, three bass players in the combo (Charnett Moffet was the other one)! As you remark, Ornette was indisputably in control – there was an amusing moment when he stopped the band after a few notes and (hope I heard correctly from the rear stalls) said, “that weren't right,” and laughing, after a brief pause insisted, “just make it better.” And a different reading of his Lonely Woman compared to Archie Shepp's a few nights earlier – nicely circular festival link.

  2. Interesting – well, if we want to get nerdy, let's have some more info, so to start with:

    Firstly, from wiki: 'Ornette Coleman used to play a Grafton (that he purchased in 1954) originally because it was the cheapest saxophone he could replace his first tenor with after it was broken. In the late fifties and early sixties, Coleman was sometimes known as “the man with the plastic horn”. However, Coleman subsequently replaced his Grafton with a white-lacquered Selmer alto instead.'

    'The Grafton saxophone was an injection moulded, cream-coloured acrylic plastic alto saxophone with metal keys, manufactured in London, England by the Grafton company, and later by 'John E. Dallas & Sons Ltd'. Only Grafton altos were ever made, due to the challenges in making larger models (i.e. the tenor) with 1950s plastic technology.'

    And it was invented by Hector Sommaruga who lived in Grafton Way, near Euston!

    All vestiges of the Grafton company finally disappeared in 1968.

    On the Selmer – from wiki – “The Selmer Mark VI is a professional model saxophone that is generally considered the Selmer Company's finest saxophone.”

    Ornette plays a white lacqeured Selmer Mark VI alto with a low-A key, of which, some say, there were 200 made.

    And on laquers, from another source:

    “The saxophone body is generally finished with some protective coating. Nowadays, that coating is usually a high-gloss brass lacquer or clear-coat lacquer which is baked on. Very old (and some new) saxophones were plated in silver, gold or nickel to protect the brass. There are also new anodized black nickel finishes, colorful lacquer finishes, and auto-body paint styled finishes. The finish is mainly designed for appearance, although it does have an effect on the sound of the instrument …”

    Any more nerdy comments welcome!

  3. Bob B, with respect, if I may correct you – I was present at the Royal Festival Hall, London in 2007, where Charnett Moffett was the third bassist – I'm not going back to Live at the Golden Circle Stockholm 1965 where Charlie Moffatt was the drummer.

    Charnett Moffett has been around, playing great jazz and funk since the late 80s, which is how I first heard of him – tracks on soul/funk shows – but most pertinent in this context is that he is the son of Charlie Moffett, Ornette's drummer of the mid 60s, and was born two years after the Stockholm recording! HIs first name is an amalgam of the names 'Charles' (from his father) and 'Ornette'.

    If you care to go to http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=26361 you will read the unforgettable introduction from the 2007 concert which I certainly still recall with a sort of wonderment, as follows: “As the band was announced and took the stage one by one, we could see this wasn't a rehash: “On bass—Charnett Moffatt; on bass—Tony Falanga; on bass— Al McDowell; on drums—Denardo Coleman; on saxophone, trumpet and violin—Ornette Coleman. Yes, three bassists.”

    The nearest we'll get to the RFH in the mid 60s are the sets recorded by Ornette, Charlie Moffett and Izenson at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in 1965! Charlie passed away in 1997, aged 68.

  4. I have to say I found the Ornette gig (the recent one!) a disorienting experience. Some of the time I felt privileged to be hearing something remarkable – the band very tight but with Ornette clearly in the driving seat and, while clearly limited physically, playing very distinctively and characteristically, and also playfully. At other times I felt that as if he was merely approximating what he would have done if he was on top of it and the tone was pretty harsh too. I've seen a number of reviews none of which express any of these reservations, so maybe it's just me. However I couldn't help feeling (as I snuck away to try to catch my train back to the provinces) that the audience were incredibly grateful to him for turning up (as they were 2 years ago when he appeared on stage with the Liberation Music Orchestra but didn't play).
    Did I miss it despite being there?

  5. I'd agree Ornette's own playing was uneven – as it has been for some years. My comments about easing off mid-set were meant to suggest that. But my feeling was it was a pleasure to listen to the two bass players while he took a back seat. And when he was good he was very good… A admit though that at this stage in his career I am always grateful to him for turning up!

    There's an interesting issue with these great octogenarians who still tour, isn't there? Do we judge them by their best work, or just enjoy the show? I still turn out for Ornette, but have skipped Sonny Rollins the last couple of times he played London. I've seen him perhaps a dozen times, and it seems I know the show too well – the DVD live at Viennes from a couple of years back, highly recommended, is a decent substitute for a very expensive trip to the Barbican. And it leaves a seat free for someone else who wants to see a legend in action.

  6. My first time to hear Ornette live – and I went along with the doubt in my mind “have I come to applaud the work of 50 years ago?” I left clearly with the feeling that I was still applauding the man of 2011. A great end to LJF.

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