ORNETTE AT DISNEY
by Gerry Fialka
Once in a great while, one
attends a live music concert that constructs a heavenly haven, yet
still rattles your psyche. This happened to me in the fall of 2004.
Ornette Coleman last played Los Angeles in 1990. His November 12th,
2004 concert at the Disney Hall was a grand return in a somewhat
overwhelming venue. Just walking up to the Gehry building brings to
mind a huge train crash. Inside the auditorium, you are immediately
struck by what appears to be a giant match stick explosion - organ
pipes. (I overheard one lady ask, "Look at those big pieces of wood.
How did they do that?") The vast amphitheater was warmed when Charlie
Haden and band took the stage as the opening act. He commented that the
pipes looked "like kryptonite." I shed a few tears as the first low
notes of just bass and piano set a profound emotional mood. Then Ernie
Watts' sax cut new contours onto the ceiling's multi-imagery curves
which reached up to the white walls glowing behind the pipes. But it
was all just a little too white and nice for me, especially as I
prepared mentally to be in the presence of Ornette. Haden's set was
breathing, not gasping. There was a smooth resolve to Charlie's
â€œsolid-jackson-ness." Definitely beautiful music, however it
was contrasting with my anticipation of Ornette, who plays closer to
the fury of Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. That group's heartfelt
revolutionary air got Haden arrested in 1971 in Portugal for dedicating
â€œSong for Che" to the black liberation movements in Mozambique
After an opening rip-roaring reception from the audience, Ornette spoke
gently, "Thank you. I hope you won't be disappointed." In the LA
WEEKLY, Greg Burk commented on his intro, â€œ...(as) one of
improvisational music's most extreme polarizers for 50 years, he knew
what to expect." As Ornette fired up the first song, "Jordan," his band
- drummer Denardo Coleman, and dual bassists Tony Falanga and Greg
Cohen - fueled the flames.
â€œColeman proffered songs marked by their capacity to swing,
bite or even cry," wrote Phil Gallo in VARIETY. Very rarely does
someone deliver the goods so solidly and honestly as Coleman does. I
didn't just tear up, I wept wildly (what James Joyce called
â€œlaughtears") as the skies of America opened with soaring
angelic sax solos, buzzing basses and turbulent drums.
Denardo's hi-hat leg wagged frantically to Falanga's fiery bowing and
Cohen's rapid walking bass assault as Ornette held the reins to the
mercurial flow. The sudden accurate stops were contrasted with infinite
sensibility. This music makes sci-fi real: the signs sing, the
squealing snake is eating its own tail. Reality reverberates Icarus'
dream. We are off to see the wizard of us, combining chaos with the
cosmic. Coleman rejuices the joy of music as radar. The questions
beckon. They stare you in the face.
Don Heckman recalled in the LA TIMES: â€œBackstage Friday, he was
asked about a comment he once made - that when he realized that he
could make a mistake while playing in free style, he knew he was on the
right track. 'Well, yes, that's right,' said Coleman, 'A mistake is
having to resolve something that's out of place. Tonight, for example,
I decided to look for the mistakes while I was playing. What I mean by
that is that, if you're a horn player, usually what you try to do is
resolve what the bass player and piano, or two bass players, are doing.
Well, I don't try to resolve that way, I try to resolve everything in
relationship to the key, and tonight that approach brought everything
together between the two basses.'" The vitalist Coleman retrieved the
key that magnifies the spatial vortex of living community - tactility.
Mid set Coleman swam against the current by picking up the violin and
sawed up a wall of fluid boldness. Some shot for the exits. On the
HowlingMonk.com website, LeRoy Downs wrote, â€œThose who remained
cheered extra loud to compensate for those who vacated the premise much
too early. It was almost like boiling out the impurities leaving the
clean pure refreshing vitamins and minerals for those who appreciate
eating right; a healthy dose of music for the soul." The explorers hung
tight to his wings in precise flight over childlike spontaneity. For
all the taste we heard earlier from Ernie Watts' solos, Ornette's alto
expressed dynamic note selection which transcended even the unknown
territory where King Curtis might back the Master Musicians of Joujouka
Ornette's solos are integrated into his compositions just like his
harmolodic theory is his life. He has stated, â€œYou can think
harmolodically, you can write fiction and poetry in harmolodic."
Ornette retrieves the â€œcomplex clairvoyant" words of Marshall
and James Joyce's FINNEGANS WAKE. Tony Gieske's review in HOLLYWOOD
REPORTER deemed, â€œHis is a language on top of a language, one
the other understood." T.S. Eliot said that genuine poetry can
communicate before it is understood. And Coleman is the ultimate
communicator for those willing to participate in that understanding of
The concert seemed to supersede any sense of time passing.
Unexpectedly, Greg's bass solo transported the listeners onto a vast
highway. The drivers were simply staring at the stars when suddenly the
ol'super nova himself Coleman beamed back in. The accuracy of this
ensemble's sudden stops startled me back to earth and reminded me of
the words yelped by Venice philosopher Ralph, "Angelic mindfuck ! "
Frank Zappa said that composing music is like sculpting air molecules.
Coleman built a safe house in the Disney Hall that night for the
liberators to rise from the stale dust of normal jazz. Coleman's crew
effervesCed more questions in their musical-cave-painters cavern. In LA
CITY BEAT, Kirk Silsbee described Coleman's ability to use a venue as
â€œ...a laboratory to reorder the DNA of chord changes, keys, and
tempos." Dali called this â€œphoenixology." Coleman sets the mood
for the construction of a home for all diversity. Ben Watson's
turn-the-ear-into-an-eye-opening book entitled DEREK BAILEY AND THE
STORY OF FREE IMPROVISATION reprints Ornette's liner notes for the 1977
LP version of Coleman's DANCING IN MY HEAD (sadly missing from the CD):
â€œI feel that the music world is getting closer to being a
singular expression, one with endless musical stories of mankind. Is
there a mood everyone wishes at the same time and space? By listening
and dancing one finds those wishes to come true in whoever might be
playing or singing."
I once asked Charlie Haden what was the old American folk song he
played in the middle of an Ornette tune as a bass solo. He said, "Old
Joe Clark." "Who wrote it?" I asked. "Nobody wrote it!" Haden declared.
His answer perfectly describes the universality of Ornette's music.
Every note feels as though it is being created for the first time, yet
it recalls previous modes of music we've already experienced. This
mimetic comprehensivism dangerously combines blues, jazz and beyond. It
reminds me of the adage Ray Charles got from his grandmother, "Life is
like licking honey off the thorn of a rose."
It was so appropriate when Charlie Haden stepped back onto the stage
for Ornette's encore of â€œLonely Woman." The 74-year-old Coleman
had turned the Disney Hall into a heaven constructed of an air molecule
sculpture much like Simon Rodia's Watts Towers - proving to be unique
monuments to the human spirit and persistence of the visionary. Simon
called his towers "Nuestro Pueblo," which means "our town." On that
November evening, we all became angels with trumpets in Coleman's town.
Ornette forged from the collective clay the architecture of "Nuestro
Gerry Fialka 310 306 7330 firstname.lastname@example.org