Monday, June 15, 2015
Coiling the spring: Ornette & Co.'s fast-forward mirth/mania
I've spent the past few days glued to WKCR, which is spinning Ornette around the clock through Wednesday, June 17, at 9:30am EST, and to my own rapidly growing Ornette Coleman collection. The concentrated listening is wonderful; the occasion is sad. Every time a major artist dies, I wonder about the cycle of tragedy and tribute—why was I not immersing myself in Ornette's music, say, a week ago, filling in the gaps in my knowledge? (The 1987 reunion of the classic quartet, both studio and live, and the pair of Sound Museum albums from 1996 are two spots in the discography that I'm now seriously investigating for the first time.) That said, I've returned to Ornette regularly since I first began loving his work roughly 20 years ago—WKCR's March 9 birthday broadcasts were always drop-everything propositions for me—but there's just so much music out there. At least we know the man felt the love while he was still alive. This is a good opportunity to mention that Ornette's friends and contemporaries Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor, born approximately six months after and one year before OC, respectively, are still with us. Remember it well, every day.
I think that when you love an artist's work, you carry their sound in your head, the same way you carry a friend's voice. That's why I don't place much stock in canonical thinking regarding music or the arts in general. An artist may be great, but if what they do doesn't speak to you on that private level, all the talk of their greatness, as though it were a foregone conclusion, can grow oppressive. And that can be the case even if, maybe especially if, the given artist's work does speak to you. Sometimes, for me, it can be hard to square the writer-about-music's job of having to dutifully recite the reasons for an artist's "importance" with the private sensation of why I love their work. I get why the "important" part is important. It's because, in some larger sense, the very act of speaking about a key figure's life in shorthand is important. When a major artist dies, we summarize their achievements for the benefit of those who might not be familiar with their work. But as I hinted at in this quick, by no means definitive (not being modest; just saying that definitiveness wasn't even my intention) Ornette piece for Time Out New York, the tagline version of a given artist's greatness can often feel very remote from the private truth of that same greatness, as it plays out within the heart and mind of a specific listener.
I love Ornette Coleman not because he Revolutionized Jazz, but, in part, because he was able to cultivate a circumstance in which something like this might occur:
It's no coincidence that I also cited a track from Science Fiction when we lost Charlie Haden just 11 months ago. With very few exceptions, when I think about what a given jazz hero means to me, I think about that figure in an ideal group context. For me, there were two ideal Ornette Coleman group contexts (all respects to the best of the electric years, esp. this 1978 ensemble): Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins (CCHH), heard on "Civilization Day" above, and Coleman/Redman/Haden/Blackwell (CRHB). I feel that both reached their apex during the early ’70s, and specifically on this album, which features performances by each of these two configurations, as well as by a hybrid ensemble; the 1971 Belgrade concert by CRHB is equally godly. (Though I should say that judging by the 1987 recordings I'm currently savoring, CCHH kept right on evolving upon their reunion, and, though technically Ornette-less, Old and New Dreams, the Redman/Cherry/Haden/Blackwell band which fused the two groups cited above, illustrated the Coleman Concept just about as well as the master's own greatest groups.)
"Civilization Day" illustrates one key facet of that Coleman Concept, which is speed. The threshold thereof in jazz. How far can you push it? Charlie Parker had already pushed it pretty damn far. But Ornette, it seems to me, did as much as anyone to explore the border of chaos and control. Certainly there was plenty of that happening in the work of both Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, but neither group ever concerned itself with the kind of gleeful mania heard on Science Fiction.
When I take a personal inventory of what I love about Ornette, I arrive at the idea that he drilled these bands so extensively, coiled their collective springs so tightly, that all four players, whether in the CCHH or CRHB configurations, could just blast off into this white-hot yet almost mirthful kind of fast-forward mode. "Free jazz" was many things to many people: explosion, expulsion, dirge, catharsis, meditation. To Ornette it was the license to dance on a molecular level, at tempos so extreme they seem almost cartoonish.
The deployment of the drums in "Civilization Day" is masterful. The way Higgins drops out after the head (:14), leaving Coleman and Cherry to twist and writhe and wriggle, coiling that spring tighter and tighter before blasting back in with a swing at once steely and buoyant. The brashness, the drive of the band at full-tilt during Cherry's solo. This is the banishment of all that has ever been boring about jazz. Haden doing his part to further coil the spring around 2:25, embarking on one of his epic, brain-bending, upward-moving Haden Slides, till you think your skull's going to burst at the simultaneous tension and drive and motion of it all. And then Higgins out again around 2:50, leaving Coleman and Haden to rev in the starting gate for a few precious seconds before the drums come back in. And once they do, Haden sounds even more hellbent, perversely shifting registers/gears (3:14–3:25) as Higgins steps on the gas. The zipping, darting Coleman wail, the expression of a man on a sonic trampoline, soaring ever higher. Wiggling and shimmying. Singing and dancing. Higgins coiling the spring for 15 almost unbearably tense seconds (4:35–4:50), bashing out snare-cymbal accents at three-beat intervals as Coleman whoops and screams. And as before, when the full-tilt swing resumes, it sounds even more maniacal, more driven, more fun. The drum solo ironically a quick breather, a respite from the CCHH mania, which returns in classically hyperbolic form during the final head.
Is this "free" jazz? Or is it the most controlled, the most together that jazz has ever sounded? It's a circumstance of group sympathy so profound that these concepts become synonymous. So that the band, collectively, is unfazed by an objectively absurd tempo. So that they sacrifice no control or precision of expression even in these circumstances of pure, adrenaline-fueled daredevilry. (There is this speed-demon aspect to the later Coleman bands with Denardo on drums, bands that, as you can hear on the Sound Museum sessions and Sound Grammar, summoned their own special kind of fast-forward mania, but with all due respect, no drummer could rival Higgins and Blackwell when it came to the challenge of maintaining a flawless sense of pocket/groove at breakneck tempos.)
As a listener, you feel like a kid on a carnival ride: "Faster! Faster!" This to me is the core OC sensation, the one to which my listening brain flashes when I think about the Ornette I know and love. It's him, yes, but it's also the hive-mind circumstance he was able to foster among his bandmates. Like Coltrane or Davis or Lacy or Braxton or Ellington or Giuffre or Shorter or Rivers or Evans or Mingus or Lehman or Threadgill or any other major figure in composed/improvised music who at one time or another has managed to align their concept perfectly with one or more fixed groups of collaborators, Coleman found that group ecstasy with CCHH and CRHB. It's there on record, and it is immortal.