Even if you haven't heard a bar of Ornette's music, you probably know him as the "father of free jazz" (indeed, he released an important 1960's recording under that title) or the inventor of "harmolodics" (more on that in a moment) so it would come as little surprise that the evening was going to be more than a little "out," especially compared to last night's Dave Brubeck concert. And I recently noted that the older I get, the "outer" I like, but tonight might prove to be a challenge to that. Still, tonight's concert was touted as being in the mode of Sound Grammar, his 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning release. I own that CD and enjoy it, so my deepest plunge into free jazz would probably be just fine (though I wondered about some of the less-adventurous members of the audience, who may well have approached tonight with some trepidaton, as if riding a new roller coaster--will it be cool or scary?).
So just what is this "harmolodics" thing, anyway? From Ornette's website:
The richness of harmolodics derives from the unique interaction between the players. Breaking out of the prison bars of rigid meters and conventional harmonic or structural expectations, harmolodic musicians improvise equally together in what Coleman calls compositional improvisation, while always keeping deeply in tune with the flow, direction and needs of their fellow players. In this process, harmony becomes melody becomes harmony. Ornette describes it as "Removing the caste system from sound." On a broader level, harmolodics equates with the freedom to be as you please, as long as you listen to others and work with them to develop your own individual harmony.What this meant in terms of tonight's concert was that the tunes didn't necessarily have a formal structure beyond the heads themselves, which might be repeated several times. After the solo section, the head might also come back at any time, and tonight, it appeared that there was at least a partially conscious effort to keep the tunes short so that as many tunes could be played as possible.
The band itself was reasonably close to the Sound Grammar personnel. That recording included two acoustic bassists; Tony Falanga did bowed figures, while Greg Cohen did the pizzicato (plucked) ones (i.e. walking bass lines, etc.), and Ornette's son and longtime cohort Denardo on drums. Tonight's group had a new twist, as Cohen was replaced by electric bassist Al MacDowell, who tuned his instrument high and played it mostly like a guitar. (The festival program had stated that there were going to be three bassists, and we were wondering how that would work, but the program was in error.)
The concert began with a full-on sonic assault, one of many compositions that began and ended this way: A rapid-fire succession of notes done in unison with the two bassists, punctuated by Denardo's drums. Several tunes were done in that manner, including "Jordan," the opener of the new CD, and the title track from Song X, Ornette's 1985 collaboration with Pat Metheny. On the other side of the spectrum, there were several plaintive ballads, including "Sleep Talking" (also from Sound Grammar), and a few tunes that at least hinted at more traditional forms (such as "Turnaround," ostensibly a twelve-bar blues--and played as such by the likes of Joshua Redman--though that form would disappear during the solo sections tonight. There was also a most unusual treatment of one of the Bach cello suites, played mostly straight by Falanga, then improvised over by Ornette--sometimes in key, sometimes not at all. (If anything sent the purists to the exits--and I need to emphasize that this wasn't particularly widespread, but it did happen--the Bach deconstruction was probably it.)
For the open-minded in the audience, there was plenty to like, with the interplay between the two bassists being tops on my list. Because of the different setup, Falanga got to do most of the walking lines as well as the above-mentioned bowed passages, some of which were quite stunning. MacDowell acted as a comping instrument most of the time, though he had a few bass-like solo moments, as well as adding an extra color on the unison heads. There was plenty of eye contact between the pair all night, and they showed lightning-quick reactions in coming back to those heads, often turning on a dime to do so.
One of the most fun parts of the night was listening to the grooves laid down by the rhythm trio, even if they often seemed to be somewhat disconnected from Ornette's soloing. (In a pre-concert interview by the noted critic Bob Blumenthal, Ornette emphasized that his music was built on emotion; is it the analytical nature of students and teachers of music that made parts of this concert so cerebral, or is that the nature of the beast?)
In the discussion with Blumenthal, Ornette noted that he had little formal training ("I still need lessons" was his reply to such a question), and he came off as almost self-effacing in that area, as if he didn't know that much about music; someone in our group wondered aloud if he could play a standard. But this evening's set list (despite a stated desire not to "play the hits") showed that he's been making up his own rules for so long that some of his own tunes ("Turnaround," the uncharacteristically happy "Dancing In Your Head" and the encore "Lonely Woman") are standards in their own right. (It was good to hear the Blumenthal interview, as it was our only chance to hear him talk; not a word was spoken from the stage tonight once Ornette was introduced.)
As far as any criticism goes, I can only think of two areas: One, a lot of us thought it would have been nice to have more solo space for the two bassists; not only would it have been nice to hear more from them individually (not to mention Denardo, who really didn't solo at all) the music barely got to even breathe before Ornette came in on yet another solo, sometimes switching randomly over to trumpet (which he plays fairly competently for a second instrument; he evokes latter-day Miles on many occasions) and once to violin (which he used pretty much for a tremolo effect; he also played it left-handed for whatever reason). Two? Ornette has never really been known for his intonation, which was all over the place tonight (a problem largely avoided on Sound Grammar). But these are minor quibbles (even if the latter was probably a big issue for the uninitiated); it's great to see someone who has contributed such a great deal to jazz still out there at 78 years of age, doing new material, no less. This was likely another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those of us who hadn't yet seen him.
It may have been a 180-degree shift from Brubeck to Ornette in 24 hours, but this portion of the festival ended in fine fashion. I look forward to my next trip up here.
Other voices: Once again, read the review of tonight's concert by Paul Kaza, special correspondent for the Burlington Free Press, as well as another one from Brent Hallenbeck, arts and entertainment reporter from the same paper.
And in his own voice: Also check out an interview with Ornette by Dan Bolles of Seven Days, the alternative Vermont newsweekly that's akin to the Dallas Observer.