Monday, October 29, 2007

Reflecting on Ornette Coleman

Yesterday, in preparing for going to hear Ornette Coleman at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, I tried to explore the problem of what it meant to be a good listener to free jazz, particularly in the setting of a "live" performance. Having now heard Coleman and his group (an interesting combination of two acoustic basses, usually one bowed and one plucked, electric bass, and drums, along with an unnamed tenor player), I can now reflect on yesterday's thoughts about free jazz, Coleman's particular approach, and the listening challenge. It has been almost forty years since I last heard Coleman. At that time he had a trio with David Izenzon on bass (acoustic) and Charles Moffet on drums; and, in the course of the gig I heard, Coleman alternated between alto sax and violin. This time, while the violin was on stage, he never touched it but would occasionally put down his sax and play a few passages on trumpet (the instrument that, back in the Atlantic days, was played by Don Cherry).

This is probably as good a time as any to address one key criticism of Coleman, which is that anyone who tries to play several different instruments never cultivates the chops to play any one of them particularly well. (Eric Dolphy was subjected to similar criticism, as was Roland Kirk, who stirred up even more controversy by playing multiple instruments simultaneously.) In addressing this criticism it is probably best to separate the two basic idioms of Coleman's inventions. One is a frenetic burst of notes, sometimes reduced to brief gestures that end almost as soon as they begun but can also spin out into extended passages; these bear at least a distant family resemblance (which may or may not be intentional) to the "moment" style of composition that can be found in so many of the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. (I have previously suggested that the influence may have been from jazz to Stockhausen, rather than from Stockhausen to jazz.) The other is more sustained, giving the impression of a single linear voice, in contrast to the more rapid-fire passages that can sound more like multiple voices in a hectic chorus. In those sustained linear passages Coleman's sound is a coarse one, a major departure from the polished smoothness that we associate with so many of the great saxophonists from any period; and he rarely plays such passages on other instruments. So we just have to accept the fact that Coleman is not particularly interested in that sound we associate with Johnny Hodges playing classics by the Duke and Billy Strayhorn. Rather, Coleman's primary focus is on those bursts of energy; and, when he plays that way, I have to wonder whether or not his recordings are part of that "secret stash" that I have fantasized that Stockhausen keeps hidden in his basement. Coleman may not deliver the smooth sustained tone; but his approach to rapid delivery can be awesome, whatever instrument he happens to be playing. Even more awesome is when another "melody player" (such as Don Cherry) could deliver that same passage in unison with him. This made the anonymity of last night's tenor player more than a little frustrating (yet another item on my list of frustrations with SFJAZZ), since he seemed to have a good sense of how to keep up with that unison playing.

Let me now revisit yesterday's exploration of how the medieval trivium can guide one in listening to performances like Coleman's. As I said, the logic "may involve little more than a chain of spontaneous associations 'in the moment;'" but those associations are still informed by past experiences. I have no idea how many of the works on last night's program were new; but I know "Free" well enough to recognize that I heard it early in the evening. However, since Coleman was not performing with Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins (let alone making a recording in 1959), even a "classic" like "Free" still had its own set of associations. If listening to jazz is a bit like eavesdropping on a conversation, then, at least early in the evening, the conversations were fresh and alive. The problem was that, while the gig lasted for only about 90 minutes, towards the end of the evening, I found myself wondering if the performers had run out of things to say. There was no questioning their ability to make interesting conversation; but that interest did not seem to sustain over longer durations, such as that of the Atlantic Free Jazz recording. On the other hand, if the logic began to flag a bit towards the end of the evening, all of the members of Coleman's ensemble kept their grammar on solid ground, at least in terms of managing the embellished material in the context of that flood of embellishment that is so much a part of Coleman's style. That command of grammar then sustained the rhetorical delivery; but, without the support of innovative logic, after a while the ear realizes that it has heard pretty much all that there is to say.

This last sentence may give the impression of harsh criticism, but that would overlook the realities of the performance situation. Coleman has been innovating for over forty years; so is it reasonable to expect that he keep up with those innovations every time he faces an audience, particularly an audience that, out of the necessity of the seating in the Masonic Center, is so remote from him? Not every gig can make that you-had-to-be-there bid for immortality; and the sad truth is that mass audiences rarely "connect" the way we expect in a more intimate club setting. So last night was not necessarily the best of listening experiences; but it still had more than enough to offer, particularly in demonstrating that there is still much to hear on a Coleman performance.

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