Ornette Coleman, Meltdown Festival, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 25 June 2009
Ambling onstage in sparkly silver suit and lime-green shirt, Ornette Coleman displays the disregard for prevailing tastes and fashions that has shocked jazz fans for half a century and more. Okay, inventing Free Jazz was one thing – but lime green and silver? What kind of way is this for a man on the cusp of 80 to dress?
As it happens, the clash of colours – all the more startling when Coleman's famous white plastic alto-sax joins the palette – is effectively a visual analogue of his musical method, constantly seeking out hitherto unheard sound combinations and somehow making them work together. Tonight's show offers "Reflections of the Shape of Jazz to Come", threads and footnotes to his groundbreaking 1959 album, performed with his usual trio of two bassists – a double bass providing low thrummings and bowed passages, while the electric bass chips in chords and runs, like a combined rhythm and lead guitar – and son Denardo, a polyrhythmic blur of industry driving even the most entangled skeins of sound along.
The first few pieces start abruptly, take the least predictable turns, often incorporating passages of complex unison figures, and end just as abruptly. Typically, the turbulent activity set up by the three-man rhythm section serves as a kind of flood-surge, atop of which Coleman's sax and trumpet lines bob and weave. Some tunes are like maths puzzles, a form of musical higher calculus that occasionally drifts too far from fun for my taste: at times, it seems like a series of attempts to make the tangential fit into the scheme of whatever it is that unifies a particular piece.
For a couple, including one based on the Prelude to Bach's G Major Cello Suite, the double bassist Tony Falanga bows his bass, fretting high up the neck to derive a cello tone, while Coleman adds a violin part before switching back to sax to share a sort of semi-classical cacophonous lament.
For the latter part of the show, unannounced guests join the quartet: first, the omni-talented guitarist Bill Frisell plays along for a few numbers, including a lovely, languid blues lope, then Patti Smith arrives to ruminate about Sumerian hieroglyphics, "the word" and non-verbal communication on "In All Languages", which seems to segue straight into another piece. "Think we're done? We're never done!" declares Smith, an observation that takes on an ironic slant when the eight-strong support act The Master Musicians of Jajouka file on, setting up a double-reed drone of four shawm or shenai, over which Coleman essays trumpet and sax phrases discernible as a version of his "Lonely Woman".
Although the four Jajouka percussionists at first seem uncertain of the precise rhythm – and given Denardo's animated flurries, who could blame them? – they eventually settle into one of their typical hypnotic grooves. Yet their monotone drone and simple beat all but drowns out any interactive rapprochement with the jazz combo. Not only that, but like some maverick clockwork device, once started, the Jajouka musicians don't seem to have any means of stopping until they've wound down, thwarting the other musicians' several attempts to arrive at some satisfying conclusion, until after about a quarter of an hour, Ornette manages to catch the eye of their leader, Bachir Attar, who instigates a rapid dissolve of their pulsing, other-worldly drone.
The swiftness with which Coleman then ends the piece gives clear indication of the sense of relief flooding not just over the audience but over the performers too. The quintet's set-closing dash through the nagging, childlike melody of Ornette's "Dancing in My Head" likewise suggests the euphoria of players demob-happy at being released from some restrictive prison of rhythm. All in all, an enthusiastic, energising evening, albeit ultimately a little exhausting.
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