Tuesday, September 29, 2009

9 Points on Ornette Coleman at JALC

I wanted to get my thoughts down on Saturday night's Jazz at Lincoln Center concert while they were still semi-fresh. I might go back later and edit, add some text links, and maybe link to some other reviews. But for now, here are some from-the-top-of-my-head observations:

1. Ornette's groups have always had their own sound. Wherever he's been at in his career, the groups he's put together have been very distinct from their contemporaries. Which is to say that I think the current group (Ornette, Denardo, Tony Falanga, and Al MacDowell) makes a sound that no one else is making. It has some of the hyperactive rhythmic feeling of the Prime Time era, but almost seems to do more with less. While Ornette always sounds like Ornette, the current quartet as a whole has a tremendous range of sounds and moods at its disposal.

2. One of the best things about seeing live music (especially live music that features improvisation) is watching the interplay between musicians. This group is especially rewarding in this respect. Sometimes the basses locked into a groove with Denardo doing his own thing on drums. Sometimes all three seemed to be moving in the same direction with Ornette floating on top, around, and under. Sometimes each bassist was responding individually to Ornette, playing off what he was doing from moment to moment. Sometimes Falanga bowed a repeated pattern while MacDowell and Ornette went back and forth. Sometimes Falanga took the melody while Ornette improvised. Et cetera.

3. A big part of the group's versatility is ability of each bassist to sound like at least two different bassists. MacDowell can make his electric bass sound and function almost like an electric guitar, playing high note lines and picking out chords. Falanga's arco (bowed) playing is a key component. When he pulls out the bow, the whole tone color of the music shifts dramatically.

4. One of the highlights for me was the second tune, Sleep Talk(ing?), one of my favorites from the Ornette catalog, done quite slowly on Saturday night, with Falanga's bowed bass and Ornette's alto complementing each other beautifully. MacDowell was in guitar mode, and Denardo brought in a rock-ish beat toward the end that seemed incongrous at first but somehow worked to bring the tune to climax and conclusion.

5. Whether it was the live sound mix, a musical choice, or a slight weakening in the master's powers, Ornette horn was at times the quietest component of the group's sound, nearly getting lost at certain points before returning powerfully to the fore.

6. My initially Ornette-skeptical concertgoing companion briefly fell asleep and had a dream that consisted mostly of vivid colors (synesthesia?).

7. Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater, with its arrangement of seemingly free floating boxes and futuristic lighting scheme, looks like the meeting place of a particularly important committee of the Imperial Senate from Star Wars. I overheard some similar observations about the space. Good place to see a concert, though, I must say. Even my "cheap seats" in the balcony felt pretty close to the stage.

8. If I recall correctly, Ornette only picked up the violin once, during the first tune. The trumpet made a few more appearances, all of them brief and similar sounding.

9. This being my first time seeing Ornette, I don't know if he always spends so much time soaking in applause. The whole bowing/waving/leaving the stage/coming back out ritual was strangely extended but also kind of charming. The crowd's appreciation was real, and we did get two encores, so I'm not complaining.

Bonus Links

Nate Chinen's NYT review

Lament for a Straight Line's take

(Note: you will notice that these reviews are far superior to mine. If you're interested in knowing what went down on Saturday night, you should read them.)

Update: the versatile Fred Kaplan weighs in over at Stereophile and has a plausible theory relating to my point #5

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