Dylan Hicks and Britt Robson discuss the recent Ornette Coleman concert

From: Dylan Hicks
Sent: Monday, April 25, 2005
To: Britt Robson
Subject: Ornette Coleman at Ted Mann


I'll try to offer some informal notes about Ornette Coleman's show this past Friday night at the Ted Mann Concert Hall. If I had to describe how I was feeling going into the concert I would have to use words like "sick" and phrases like "not well," so it's a testament to the set's quality that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. What's more, my wife, not a strong advocate for abstract jazz, was quite impressed as well. If memory serves, this concert was quite a bit better than Ornette's last Ted Mann date, for which he a brought a larger band, including a tabla player who wasn't much to my liking.

Coleman has given us relatively linear improvisations, but for this set he was decidedly in Cubist, magnetic poetry mode, and in top form. I love how his solos--next to the building is a forlorn yellow flower--insert unexpected phrases and seem to move from right to left or top to bottom and stop on a quarter. Also I love the space, and the piercing tone, unmistakable, nothing else sounds like that. "Once Only," the fourth tune (I didn't know it; thanks for posting the set list), was especially beautiful. As usual with Coleman, the pretty stuff is made prettier by the surrounding dissonance, or vice versa.

As has perhaps been noted too often, Coleman came up playing in Texas blues and R&B bands. He remains a great blues player. Do jazz musicians old enough to have played blues when it was a more widely popular African-American music play the blues better because it was learned and absorbed organically or is that merely a projection of the romantic, clich?-prone listener/reviewer? There's something to the former claim, surely, but it's problematic.

I'm shy about bringing this up, but does bassist Greg Cohen (there are two bassists in Coleman's current quartet; Cohen plucked, and Tony Falanga, for the most part, bowed) have one white hand and one red hand? Just curious. Cohen was great, by the way. (He's also a fine arranger, check out his work on James Carter's Billie Holiday tribute.) Denardo tends not to move me like some drummers do, but I'm always charmed by father-son acts, and you've got to love those *bang-we're-done* endings.

I'm sure glad he played "Lonely Woman," one of my all-time favorite songs. Like most people, I like to hear the hit(s). As he played it, I thought, might this, at this moment, be the best music being performed at any place in the world?

Dylan Hicks
Senior arts/music editor
City Pages

From: Britt Robson
Sent: Monday, April 25, 2005
To: Dylan Hicks
Subject: Re: Ornette Coleman at Ted Mann

This isn't going to be a very argumentative diablog. I loved your take, especially the line "...stop on a quarter."

As happened the only other time I saw him many years ago, I was struck by how slightly built Ornette looked. He came out in a subtle suit topped by a pork pie hat (a tribute to Pres?), with a shuffling gait sort of like Charlie Chaplin, only slowed by senior citizenry. Looking at the instrumentation--two bassists and a drummer--I was disappointed by the prospect of no great fireworks. That was my naivete. As the unique harmonies and dynamics of the quartet kept flipping open new facets in the cubist fashion you mentioned, the fireworks were there, but kaleidoscopic in their relatively soft volume and bled-together tones. Bassist Tony Falanga (stage left for the audience), usually played arco, like a cellist, while Greg Cohen's mostly fulfilled the instrument's primarily rhythmic function with pizzicato phrases.

The band either gelled or my ears and sensibility became fully acclimated during the third song, "Minor Business." Coleman was in particularly good form on alto all night (I'm not a fan of his slight, and brief, trumpet work), but the first of many sublime moments in the show for me came when his violin meshed with the other strings in creamy harmonies that were somehow both neatly modulated and (naturally) slightly rhythmically askew. And when he went back to alto, I was struck by how closely the tone hewed to what he had just played on violin.

You're right, the fourth tune, "Once Only," was gorgeous, a ballad with a lot of internal action yet very deliberately paced. The next song, "Jordan," opened like a Monk tune, with a headlong thrust and sturdy vamp that became the Lego foundation for all kinds of grafting and melodic asides. The sheer sonority of the violin and two basses again created a luxurious bonus you don't expect from Ornette, on both "Mob Job" and "Follow the Sound." The interplay between Falanga and Coleman's alto on "Mob Job" created exactly the sort of emotionally immediacy and rhythmic/harmonic gymnastics that Coleman craves in his music. It's the difference in grace between athletes traversing an obstacle course they've already scouted and intuitively dodging traffic or other multiple objects hurled their way without notice.

On the subject of the blues or any "native" learning, I think the first imprint is especially important in one's musical development. As much as I love reggae or soukous music, for example, it always requires a fleeting step to register an intimate listening connection, whereas the rock and r&b I grew up on require no such split-second adjustment--it is just there. Ornette's almost congenital (or maybe it is congenital) connection to the blues isn't so apparent in his trumpet or violin work, or even his compositions, but his alto exudes it. This gutbucket element seemed more pronounced later in the set, with "Mob Job," "Sleep Talking" and "Song X."

I agree with you about Denardo--he's not my favorite but the familial touch does add resonance--but I will say that his playing seemed less bombastic and more incisive than the earlier Ornette records on which he appeared. I don't think it's easy to let the spaces between two bassists and Ornette breathe and still by plying an energetic rhythm, and he succeeded at that on Friday.

Last but certainly not least, what this gig reinforced for me was how beautiful Ornette's music is. So much attention gets paid to the deliberately off-putting manner in which he forces you to listen with "new ears," from the quirky rhythms to the plangent harmonies and dissonant tones, that the stark tranquility, tender bittersweetness, or stray blossoms that regular occur along the way get short-shrifted. At 75, this guy is more accessible than ever--and still way ahead of his time.

Britt Robson
Senior sports/features editor
City Pages

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