Ornette Coleman, Jazz Festival, Cheltenham
A masterclass in jazz history
Thursday 05 May 2005
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...
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 British tourists 'murdered' in Thailand: Pair's bloodied bodies found naked on Koh Tao beach
- 2 Vivienne Westwood says 'Yes' to Scottish Independence by declaring: 'I hate England'
- 3 Welcome to Cameroon, where drinking Baileys can lead to imprisonment
- 4 Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
- 5 Vogue under fire for 'Big Booty' article
Fifty Shades of Grey movie: New picture of Anastasia Steele unveiled
X Factor 2014 review: Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole clash over Rouge Kiss
Lego breaks out of the toy box and heads for the gallery
Exhibit B: 'Racist' human zoo installation criticised by protesters outside the Barbican
Doctor Who, Listen, review: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode
Daniele Watts: Django Unchained actress detained by Los Angeles police after being mistaken for a prostitute
The political class is doing what Hitler couldn’t – destroying Britain
Scottish independence: Nationalist leader Jim Sillars threatens pro-union companies with 'day of reckoning' after independence
Scottish independence: Yes campaign feels the heat as Alex Salmond's NHS claims come under furious attack
£23m Birmingham cycle scheme is attacked by Tory councillor for not catering to the elderly
Salmond accused of laughing off national debt with ‘what are they going to do: invade?’ joke