26 February 2008


By Daniel Wild

It’s not every Sunday evening two massive cruise-ships, or floating hotels, embark and dock at Circular Quay. Nor is it every Sunday that Ornette Coleman plays at the Opera House. As the ship spotters moved about the harbour foreshore, enjoying the sun, bands and … big ships … a segment of the crowd made its way to the Concert Hall to hear one of the remaining legends of jazz. Among the expectant concert-goers were drummer John Pochee, “Freebopper” Mark Simmons, saxophonist Matt Ottignon and pianist Alister Spence.

As an appetiser we were treated to the music of Mark Atkins. As Coleman has played with the Joujouka musicians of Africa and expressed an interest in touring the Northern Territory it was a pity Atkins and Coleman didn’t play together. Not a show-off by any means, Atkins’ didgeridoo playing was evocative and summoned the spirit of the outback. One piece told of a showdown between emu and dog. There was the dog’s bark as it hunted the emu and the emu’s laughter as it outwitted the dog. These sound effects were superimposed on long undulating drones. Atkins also demonstrated that he can play a major third – a technical feat that Coltrane could do on his tenor sax. Atkins also called upon his days as a rhythm guitarist while accompanying himself on didj – a feat that must require a great deal of dexterity and concentration.

After a brief interval the doyen of progressive improvisation appeared. Ornette Coleman shuffled slowly on stage in a dapper blue suit, without his trademark hat, and spoke softly into the microphone. Any hints of feebleness were swiftly dashed as his band, which included two electric basses and one acoustic bass, with son Denardo on drums, launched into a typical Coleman tune – flighty, ethereal, at times lyrical then percussive – which seemed to be over soon after it started. Whether his compositions are short and packed with meaning, or whether I was simply lifted by the waves of sound and fell into a trance I cannot say. Coleman knows how to end a tune – the abrupt, but very tight finishes were always unexpected, whimsical, statement making, and entirely appropriate for jazz. Not like Coltrane’s habit of winding up and down modes when the piece is ending. Coleman’s abrupt endings signify the duality between the musical world of ideas and the blanket of silence that envelopes and jerks the listener back to reality.

Coleman’s melodic lines often floated around the perfect fifth and minor third, with suggestions of a pull back to a tonic. His inflections over the perfect fifth were lyrical and tapped raw emotion. The basses never sounded extraneous or busy. The acoustic bass was often bowed, while one electric bass played fast walking bass lines and the other was played almost like a guitar, achieving a soft, rounded and subtle sound. The counterpoint of three basses was exciting and a full of momentum. While Denardo’s drumming was fast it wasn’t frenetic, and left plenty of room for statements from Coleman and the bass players.

Conventional jazz idioms, such as walking bass and swing were not overused. Denardo often played straight 8s on the ride cymbal and against this regular pattern would emerge Ornette’s solos – within the frame, but not confined to the beat. It is hard to put your finger on his sense of swing. When he plays fast runs the beat is certain. When he is lilting around a note he has fixated on or puncturing notes in the air the swing is less certain. At times the music swung hard and would have suited the intimacy of a jazz club, but Coleman can not be pigeonholed easily. Some compositions, usually the slower ones, were right at home in the concert hall, as if the quintet had transformed into a chamber group. Classical themes explored included Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bach’s Cello Suit and Amazing Grace.

Ornette Coleman briefly played the violin in one of his pieces, getting a shimmering sound from rapid tremolo. His trumpet work was very interesting. It seemed as if one instrument melded into another – the transitions between the two instruments were not blatantly noticeable, but rather changed the atmosphere. Several times he elicited chuckles from the audience as he put his saxophone down and emitted some sharp animalistic sounds on the trumpet. This was a very refreshing concert. He duly gave the audience their wanted encore, finishing with Lonely Woman.

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