JAZZ / Regeneration games: Phil Johnson on the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the RFH

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The Independent Culture
This reunion of Coleman and Don Cherry, once free jazz's most potent twin strike force - the Keegan and Toshack of its day - was kinder to Coleman than to Cherry. Resplendent in a shiny purple suit, with a sly, laconic smile curling across his long upper lip in moments of repose, Coleman played full-bloodedly throughout, wailing that inimitable alto saxophone voice on lines of cartoon-like simplicity that suggested that he is still at the very height of his powers. By contrast, Cherry contented himself with choruses and a few wheedling solos on pocket trumpet, perched on his stool all the while like a truncated stick insect, and watching the rather showy efforts of young bassist Charnette Moffett with detached amusement. At the end, he padded off the stage in stockinged feet like a very old man, while only earlier this year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall he had danced and played the fool like a youngster.

Perhaps he was registering a protest. Certainly, Moffett performed with a conventional virtuosity that was sometimes at odds with the slightly shambolic air of the usual Coleman small-group sound. A large man who can make the big bass fiddle look cello-sized, Moffett thumb-slapped it like a bass guitar, bowed and scraped as much as he plucked and even used a number of nifty pedals to add reverb and digital delay effects. When in one long solo he improvised against the recorded pulse of his own instrument, Moffett ended up leaving Coleman playing at a quarter of the volume of his bassist, jeopardising the delicate balance of the music. Drummer Denardo Coleman - Ornette's son - continually picked up Moffett's lead with reggae rimshots while Cherry coughed and wheezed through his horn as if attempting to bring the music back in time to its now 35-year-old beginnings.

Coleman carried on regardless, his every note filled with an unerring sense of himself and his music. When he soloed with trumpet and violin, the change of instrument was less noticeable than the remarkable similarity of approach he brings to everything he does.

Despite the occasional mismatch of old and young, the concert sometimes reached monumental peaks of collective improvisation. Coleman is perhaps the greatest intuitive musical genius of the century, distilling through the odd, skewed phrases of his plastic saxophone a joy, a delight and a humanity that must once have attended the notes of Paganini. The suit, needless to say, had a pretty good game too.

(Photograph omitted)