Saturday, March 29, 2008
Joe and i were fortunate to catch the Ornette Coleman show at Town Hall tonight. not a momentous show but a fun one, marred--or maybe just defined?--by idiosyncrasy.
Town Hall is a beautiful old theater on 43rd. hadn't been there before--would definitely be happy to go again. the music felt weirdly modest (unambitious?) for such a luxurious room. Ornette has been working lately with his son, Denardo, on drums, plus either two or three bassists. tonight he went with dos: Tony Falanga on upright and Al MacDowell (a 20-or-so-year veteran of Coleman groups) on electric. the quartet played for a little over an hour, probably about ten or 12 shortish pieces--averaging about five minutes--including some Ornette favorites like "Song X" and "School Work" (a.k.a. "Theme from a Symphony") and a few others i recognized but can't name (i'm bad with titles), some bluesy, funky pieces and one that sounded like a riff on a familiar classical theme. Ornette played short bits on violin and trumpet, but pretty much stuck to alto.
Ornette's tone remains a gorgeously free thing, soaring, crying, playfully sour; and his cometlike speed and facility are there too. it's not like hearing Bob Dylan now, his voice some husk of what it was: Ornette still sounds exactly as he did. (though he looks quite a bit more dapper: tonight he had a pretty slick plaid suit with a hat, and a nice white sax.) and as with all aging masters, he should be caught while he's here.
i don't want to come down on his band, but there's a sense in which they keep him earthbound, or perhaps dull the potency of his perfect sound. Denardo is, simply put, one of the strangest drummers i've ever heard live--strange in the sense that he can sound either shockingly clunky or scorchingly kinetic. during the slower pieces in the set, he usually resorted to a--sorry but it's true--godawful backbeat sort of thing; it just seemed like a default and it was a real deadweight to the group's sound.
on the uptempo tunes, though, you see how he's actually intensely locked in to his dad's concept (which makes sense, since he's been playing with him since he was a child). his approach is basically to stomp bombastically through the heads and then once the solo section starts, he kicks up this absolutely manic, harried ride pulse--it can barely be called swing. it's almost closer to a death-metal blast beat in that it's this barrage of eighth notes, both on the ride and, crazily, with his right foot on the hi-hat. it's intensely precarious and kind of unsettling--you feel like he's holding on for dear life. it's hard to imagine a player with less finesse, but there's something exhilarating about the way this sprinting, reckless pulse aligns with Ornette's zigzagging lines. after all, Ornette at his best often sounds like he's on fast-forward--he loves that high-velocity squiggly mercurial vibe, and Denardo can certainly summon that when needed.
so it was hard to keep your attention off Denardo, really, because he was quite loud and obtrusive. Falanga seemed to have his eye on him the whole time, almost like he was checking in to make sure he didn't fly off the rails. meanwhile, Falanga was keeping up these absolutely demonic tempos, walking lines that were just about as fast and smooth as any i've ever heard. MacDowell, meanwhile, just straight up sounded like a guitarist. Joe and i were trying to figure out if he was using a pedal or something, but whatever the setup was, the end result would have been pretty hard to ID as a bass in a blindfold test. lots of intricate chords, very busy; the walking was left up to Falanga and MacDowell was scampering around with Ornette, sort of soloing alongside him and offering what sounded very much like comping and nimble allusions to the melodies and such. it made for a very busy sound but it was pretty effective.
the briefness of most of the pieces made the set feel kind of choppy. you kind of wanted them to dig in a little more. but things came together nicely in the inevitable "Lonely Woman" encore. maybe it was just the core weightiness of the tune (it really is exquisite; i never get sick of it), but Denardo really found the right dynamic space on this one, easing up on that manic energy and keeping a nice midvolume pulse. what can i say? it's one of the great melodies and i was really happy to be able to check it out live.
that was my overall feeling on this one: sorta baffled by the band and the presentation at times, but excited i was there. in terms of legends appearing with subpar bands, i've certainly seen worse. i don't want to come down too hard on Denardo--i really like his playing on Sound Grammar and several other records--but live it was just kind of startling and spotlight-hogging. still there's something intriguing in the weird synergy he's got with Dad, a sense of fervent devotion to an aesthetic he was born into that i admire.