I've lived in New York for 13 years now, and I've seen some mighty unexpected things in that time. But I can honestly say that among the many things I never expected to witness firsthand, a large Carnegie Hall crowd whooping it up over a violin solo by Ornette Coleman certainly ranks right up there. Wasn't this the same unschooled scraping that once was viewed as amateurish, unmusical, maybe even heretical?
Well, it was and it wasn't, actually. Technically speaking, Coleman stills holds the violin "wrong," still plays it "wrong," still gets "wrong" sounds out of it. But jazz -- or some jazz, anyway -- has become more accepting of idiosyncracy than it was in 1965, when he first scratched a fiddle onstage during a tour of Europe. And in his current working band -- a quartet that includes bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, with son Denardo on drums -- Coleman seems to have hit upon a context in which his violin playing sounds not merely acceptable, but appealing.
Of course, it's just possible that if you make it to a ripe old age without compromising your maverick principles, you'll get a rousing ovation just for showing up... even if your music still scares the bejeebers out of the masses. Especially, even.
Most of the music that Coleman played during his briskly paced set (90 minutes including the encore) on Friday night at Carnegie Hall was material that he's been working on with this band for the past several years. I hadn't heard any of these new pieces before; generally speaking, they consisted of an annunciatory head, a lengthy collective peroration (sometimes seemingly tightly arranged, sometimes more spontaneous) and a sudden return to the head at the conclusion. That these tunes felt more cohesive than what I'd heard the last two times I heard Coleman -- both times with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins -- probably speaks to the fact that this band has actually spent considerably more time actually playing together in recent years, and has worked its book in accordingly.
Of course, this being Coleman, a wild card is never out of the question; in this case, it was the addition of electric bass guitarist Al McDowell, formerly of the saxophonist's electric band, Prime Time. My friend Pete was concerned in advance about the potential for trouble: Carnegie Hall is the city's finest room for acoustic music, but it can also be an unmitigated disaster for amplified performances. Unsurprisingly, Pete's concern was entirely warranted; in his New York Times review, Ben Ratliff rightly (and wittily) describes the sound at the opening of the show as "a dog's breakfast." Coleman's keening alto was audible enough, as was Denardo's steadily rippling pulse. But Cohen's low-end pizzicato was a massive, muddy blob, Falanga's arco playing had all the substance of a mosquito circling the backside of your ear, and while McDowell could be seen grabbing and repeating snatches of the leader's melodic line, there was little in the sonic mix to actually prove it was happening. Coleman's trumpet -- every bit as unorthodox as his violin playing -- seemed to be used as a device to signal a change of direction or to cue the conclusion, like the vibraphone in Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians.
Somewhere in the middle of "Sleep Talking" -- i.e., "Sleep Talk," the Rite of Spring-quoting opener from Coleman's Of Human Feelings -- the sound came into focus. And it was also here that this band's remarkable integrity was first and best revealed. Denardo, to put it bluntly, has never been a drummer known for clockwork precision; truth be told, his time flickers and wows like a light bulb during an electrical storm. But from the time that the 10-year-old drummer first sat down behind a kit on Coleman's 1966 album, The Empty Foxhole, it's been clear that Denardo does in fact possess an innate musicality that his father finds inspiring. Again, this band proves an ideal fit for Denardo's particular feel, Cohen's rock-solid time in particular freeing the drummer from metronomic entrapment. There's nothing unsteady or tentative about this quartet's feel, and Denardo's touch has grown more masterful over the years. So secure is Coleman with this group that, following a trumpet call to rally the troops, he re-entered on alto at an angle so oblique to the course of the band, you wondered how they'd possibly end up on the same page. Moments later, they did.
Another thing that Pete had mentioned in advance (since he'd seen this band a few times before) is that Coleman is allowing himself the luxury of playing longer and slower these days. I figured he meant during the ballads, but I was mistaken. During the third tune, a tumbling head led to a percolating rhythm, yet once the bassists and drummer hit full boil, Coleman unspooled long, luxuriously floating melodies, like vines hung ripe with rich, succulent notes and dangling phrases. McDowell played the foil, tagging along after the leader and repeating his choicest phrases, while Falanga's bowing providing more of an environmental wash. A cascading figure from the bassist coaxed Coleman to take up his fiddle for the first time; a barn-burning dance macabre brought out Cohen's bow, as well.
A achingly gorgeous ballad (along the lines of "Kathelin Gray" ) was followed by a familiar-sounding tumble of wit and simultaneous motion. The evening's sixth tune was its most surprising: a long, droning rumble from the three bassists over a ripple of cymbals elicited a keening melody from the saxophonist -- business as usual until Denardo responded with a desolately pounding, plodding straight rock beat. The result was primal, parched and ritualistic. When Coleman interjected with a jaunty new melody, half the band seemed unwilling to follow; for long moments, the music hung suspended between the first theme and the second. Coleman finally shattered the impasse with a violin solo of monomaniacal intensity, culminating in a series of dramatic sweeps and Herrmann-esque stabs. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Coleman proved himself more than capable of shock and perhaps even genuine discomfort.
A happily rocking hoedown, another langorous ballad and a bubbly calypso-esque tune (similar to "The Good Life") followed, the last taken at such a clip that Coleman and son practically danced alone while the bassists were left shuffling like elephants in tutus. A striking version of Coleman's 1959 chestnut "Turnaround" found the saxophonist sometimes playing his melodic lines well off the beat, reminiscent of great balladeers from Lester Young to Willie Nelson. "Song X" brought the set to a manic close; a torrid "Lonely Woman" was served up as an encore. The audience -- not a sold-out house, but not far off -- exploded in approval. Coleman accepted this with grace, every bit the quiet revolutionary he'd always been...if perhaps one of the very few revolutionaries lucky enough to be rewarded with such a response for simply remaining cussedly true to his own unique vision.
Phil Freeman has also posted his thoughts on the show, here.
On Saturday night, I caught Peter Eötvös's Angels in America in Boston. But that's a tale for another time and another place. Suffice it to say that I found it a tremendously effective work and a deeply moving experience, and that Thomas Meglioranza is an exceptional performer. If you're in Boston (or can be), get yourself out to one of the two remaining performances, on Tuesday, June 20, or Saturday, June 24. I'll share more when I can; meanwhile, newly minted PhD Dr. Christina Linklater of St. Botolph's Town (who I met all too briefly, only later to discover a previously unsuspected connection between the two of us) has a report of that performance, and Vilaine Fille was surely check in before long.
Queensrÿche - Operation Mindcrime (EMI deluxe reissue)
Harry Miller's Isipingo - Which Way Now (Cuneiform)
John Cage - Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano - John Tilbury (Explore)
Miles Davis - Live Around the World (Warner Bros.)