Ornette Coleman, Jazz Festival, Cheltenham

A masterclass in jazz history
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The Independent Culture

Some concerts transcend the usual rigmarole of artists presenting their musical wares to an audience and receiving applause, becoming in the process a major event. Ornette's outing at Cheltenham Town Hall was quite definitely an event, and a special one at that.

Now 75 years old, but looking a good 20 years younger, he arrived with his acoustic quartet. It was a group that carried resonances of his bands of the early days - the 1960 double quartet with two bassists, LaFaro and Haden, one playing arco, the other plucking; the 1965 trio with Moffett and Izenson; the late Sixties trio and quartet with Haden and Denardo Coleman - but it was also a band with a specific dynamic of its own. After the bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, and Coleman's drummer/manager/son Denardo, had filed on stage to warm applause, Coleman appeared. He was carrying his white alto sax, slim, silent and purposeful, and dressed in an aubergine satin suit, white shirt, grey-and-purple tie and black patent leather shoes. To top this off he was wearing a black pork-pie hat: unnervingly, he looked almost like an apparition of Lester Young. This was not the only rather odd thing about the group's deportment on stage: Denardo Coleman's drums were cordoned off from the rest of the group by a series of large glass screens, as if he had to enter some form of quarantine in order to play with the other three men. The audience waited for the music to start in order to have this strange arrangement explained.

Smiling gently, Coleman identified the first tune, "A Call to Beauty". He would not speak again until the concert was completed, the encores had been played and the audience was delivering a standing ovation. With his feet close together and eyes closed, his knees occasionally bending in emphasis, he articulated a brief, cryptically beautiful theme, his tone resonant and singing, his sound gigantic - it seemed impossible that it could be emanating from this small, unassuming man standing centre stage. But Coleman's playing is so strong, so nakedly human that even when it is at its most abstract or frenetic, it penetrates with extraordinary power, to be accepted on its own terms or not at all. That totality of commitment, combined with Coleman's ability to project joy and tenderness through his unique melodic conception, lifted the hearts of everyone present. On the second number, the elegiac "New York", he combined with Falanga to create uncannily beautiful melodic passages of intense melancholic beauty, while Cohen kept a firm grip on the rhythmic thrust. After that, Coleman steered his group through a succession of jaunty, complex, quixotic and downright manic themes, each played with aplomb and shuddering precision: even when the band were playing flat-out they would stop on a pin.

Though most of the evening, Denardo Coleman kept up a barrage on the drums that, muffled by the glass shields, sounded like noises from a nearby war zone being relayed at a truly frantic tempo, his bass drum and hi hat articulating a sort of frenzied two-beat dash like Baby Dodds on amphetamines. Much of the time he was, in fact, playing to a different rhythm from everyone else - not that they seemed to mind. When Coleman broke out his trumpet (and, on one occasion, his violin) the music became positively crazed for a few moments, but at the slightest nod between the musicians they'd all suddenly heave off back to the theme and stop in a trice, as if to say: what do you think of that? Well, what the Cheltenham audience thought was three encores worth, please. As one of these was the hauntingly beautiful "Lonely Woman", played with keening tenderness, it would have been downright churlish not to stand to salute a unique event from a great musician. Modestly, he smiled and said he hoped they'd play better next time. As if...