It was almost the end of the year, and at last I felt like I was
finally starting to develop a real understanding of the new Ornette Coleman
album, which was finally in my possession (details to follow in a minute),
when a title written in giant, bold characters - Harmolodic Convergence,
it said - which appeared on my computer screen above a picture of a musician
whose face I knew so well told me that Sound Grammar had won the title
for Best Jazz Album of the year in the new - and, it appeared, drastically
downscaled - edition of the Village Voice Poll. My satisfaction in learning
about this fact is easily explained: far from being a meaningless "Lifetime
for a 76 year old musician who had released his first CD in about ten years,
the "critical consensus" of those polled by the Voice had paid
homage to the depth of an album that was, yes, highly communicative, but
also highly sophisticated and not terribly easy to get on first listening
- in fact, the opposite was true: Sound Grammar promised to be a case of
the classic album which will reveal its charms over time.
Now, it's quite obvious that if one chooses to buy an album in a
"real" (as opposed to "virtual") shop (of course, it's
not always possible, but "it's distributed in this country, no problem!")
in order to play his/her part in trying to keep those tiny shops alive, and
not going belly-up the way of Tower Records, one doesn't really have the
option of protesting when the album one had ordered is quite a bit late in
coming. But here circumstances are really funny: my disappointment in not
finding the new Coleman CD in the shop was greatly counterbalanced by the
satisfaction I felt as soon as I learned that the album had sold out! And
had to be reordered! Well, since I've known this particular shop-owner for
ages, I asked him how many copies he had sold. "One", was the answer.
So I had to start thinking (again) about the (still widening?) gap existing
"critical consensus" and reality.
Sure, there had been times when not only reality but even
"critical consensus" had been unfavourable to Coleman (the best
introduction to his biography and his music is still the nice book by John
Litweiler titled Ornette Coleman - The Harmolodic Life, published in '92
but which hasn't aged a bit). Listening to Sound Grammar - an album featuring
his recent, and highly original, quartet with two double basses - made me
want to listen again to some of my favourite albums in the Ornette discography,
from the still fresh-sounding classic Change Of The Century (which has Charlie
Haden on bass) to Volume 1 of At The Golden Circle, Stockholm (where the
bass in played by David Izenzon) to Crisis (was it ever re-released?) to
"special guest" role on Howard Shore's soundtrack to Naked Lunch.
Keeping in mind that it's jazz we are talking about, I'd say Coleman's
name to be well-known. An innovator whose innovations provoked heated controversy
at a time when controversy over musical innovations was still a possibility,
he has become part of the "classic elders" category, a musician
about whom a newspaper will talk about provided the right occasion arises.
But I'd say that his music is far from being "understood"
(and the definition of "Harmolodic", though coined by Coleman himself,
has ended up as being a smoke screen behind which one can hide one's lack
of understanding of the music). Alas, as it has been written, the one started
by Coleman is a "permanent revolution", which will never become
part of the mainstream. Only scholars, then, are left to discuss Coleman's
influence on the "Chicago School" of music-making, or the way his
definitely original - and at the time, bitterly criticized - violin playing
has revealed to be an important influence for some. While trendy magazines,
well aware that it's always the unknown quantity that sells best, have put
Coleman aside and chosen to champion Albert Ayler instead.
live in Germany in October 2005, Sound Grammar features the new quartet
with two bass players. "Haden plus Izenzon", someone has suggested,
and there's a pinch of truth in this, but reality is much more complex.
Of the two bass players, the most familiar name is without a doubt Greg
Cohen: sporting formidable technique, here Cohen has the role of a very
fast, and quite swinging - sometimes, literally - pizzicato. I was not
familiar with Tony Falanga, whose arco bass here is the real revelation:
now counterpoint, now independent line, often full of pathos. And while
the former has a deep, round sound, the latter has a drier tone, at times
quite reminiscent of a cello. On alto sax and, briefly, on trumpet and
violin, the leader is his usual fast and creative self, and his instrumental
breath is (quite prodigiously, I'd say) dictated more by his musical logic
than by his age. On drums, Denardo Coleman's approach is one that's functional
to the music as a whole, with a dry propulsion on cymbals and an ultra
dry and of fast release snare drum (with a metal shell, I'd say) which
goes "tà!" that give a touch of appropriate simplicity that makes
it easier for one to understand the bigger picture. The CD is very well
recorded, but I noticed that by adding a bit more volume and some more
highs made it easier for me to appreciate the work of the two double basses.
track Jordan could have been part of Change Of The Century, so typically
Coleman-sounding with its jumpy, "start and stop" theme. Good
saxophone solo, then Cohen in full swing, Falanga has a nice counterpoint,
then some in(ter)dependent melodic lines, solos by Cohen and Falanga, the
leader on a trumpet solo (surprising, at first sounding like Don Cherry!)
introduced by a nice drum roll, then theme, end.
was Francis Davis who noticed that the notes played by the double bass
at the start of the following track Sleep Talking, and which later return
as a part of the theme, quote the bassoon part of the introduction to The
Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky. The closing part of the theme - a descending
melodic figure - sees Falanga, Coleman and Cohen together for something
that to me sounded very Mitchell-like. (Here we could start quite a critic
discussion, mentioning the cover of a theme by Monteverdi recorded by The
Art Ensemble Of Chicago on Les Stances à Sophie, or the name of the track
that, forty years ago, opened Sound, Roscoe Mitchell's first album, and
which was titled... Ornette.) For me this is maybe the top of the album,
it has a solemn and concentrated air. The work of the double basses is
beautiful and lyrical, Falanga playing the melodic line under Cohen's solo.
Funny to notice how the atmosphere at the time of Coleman re-entering the
scene reminded me of another great Texan from Forth Worth, the late Julius
showing its age, Turnaround brings us back to the '59 album Tomorrow Is
The Question: it's a blues with a "cool" theme where the solo
is perfectly backed and enriched by the group. Matador has a highly joyous
theme with overt latin echoes (and tasty counterpoint from the double basses).
"triple" solo, and nice echoes of flamenco which one can hear here
For You has a nice lyrical intro by Falanga, a sad/bitter theme by Coleman
(which reminded me a bit of Henry Threadgill) and a musical development
that is melancholic, but not resigned. Funny ending, where the leader's
decision to play the theme then and there seems to catch the other musicians
by surprise. Call To Duty has a lot of swing, with the double basses going
full speed, then trumpet again, then the alto.
Only is for this writer the other high point of the album: theme played
by Falanga, backed by Cohen, then Coleman, who later introduces a faster,
more latin-sounding, theme. Then it's back to the first theme, with Denardo's
drums changing the mood, and a dense dialogue between the double basses.
X is probably the theme by Coleman that's today the most well-known, thanks
to the version he recorded with Pat Metheny. Here we have a real train
of a solo, always accelerating, and as soon as the violin (which starting
from about 7' reminded me of a country fiddle) adds itself to the basses
the effect is really great. Drum solo, theme, end.
Beppe Colli 2007
CloudsandClocks.net | Jan.