More than fifty years after Ornette Coleman’s music broke onto the jazz scene, it still conveys something of ‘the shock of the new.’ There are many ways to describe it: modernist, oblique, abstract, ‘free’. Yet though it remains distinct, audiences have come to appreciate Coleman’s many connections to the jazz tradition, his arresting melodies and his approach to improvisation, which continues to open up fresh possibilities and new challenges. The absence of a chordal instrument in his ‘classic’ quartet of 1959 is often noted, but another critical element in his music of that time was that there was no first and second line—saxophone, trumpet, bass and drums performed on an equal footing, which imparts a special character to both the group sound and to individual improvisations.
Much of Coleman’s output has a keening pulse and an undertow of sadness expressed as a kind of bright-eyed defiance; even joy is marked by a certain over- -the-shoulder glance, or perhaps with a touch of devilment. However one hears it, the music requires a combination of exuberance and precision to be found only at the highest levels of musicianship. And instrumental virtuosity must be matched by group coherence and, of course, a love of this quite unique music.
Although the entire evening was a dedicated homage to Ornette Coleman, it certainly wasn’t an attempt to replicate the original recordings—nothing could be further from the intentions and spirit of the man. And besides, these are master musicians, able to summon up everything that is innovative and creative in Coleman’s music, in ways that emphasise its verve and vitality, in voices all their own. Dutiful and reverent they weren’t.
The entire evening was thrilling, from start to finish: it felt like one continuous highlight. Toni Kofi started and sustained his alto playing at a level that even a good many respected saxophonists would strain to reach. The sheer power, expressiveness and articulation of his solos were a wonder; likewise the range of styles he had at the ready. Byron Wallen was an inspired choice for the trumpet role: fleet, inventive, soulful; and one of the many pleasures of his performance was that he was able to move the melody in almost any direction, seamlessly, while still retaining the spirit of Coleman’s music and the integrity of the band’s approach to individual numbers. The combination of Toni Kofi and Byron Wallen was remarkably powerful—and at times, quite beautiful.
It’s a notable feature of a Coleman quartet that bass and drums are so integral to the compositions—these are not supporting roles, and in Larry Bartley (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums), we had two musicians who seemed born to play this music. Bartley’s long, solo introduction to ‘Lonely Woman’ didn’t so much render down the song, but capture its essence (while displaying virtuoso technique); and Rod Youngs was the most attentive, responsive and creative of drummers. His accents and embellishments were a show in themselves—and he was captivating to watch, too: in turns, subtle, vigorous and even comical. His one long solo started as a slow burn, but before the end, the entire room was alight.
For all the demands this music makes at both the individual and group level, all four musicians were clearly in their element; and they had sufficient in reserve for quick musical asides, including bebop and Monk passages. At the end, Toni Kofi made plain that their next number was definitely the last, but the audience wasn’t to be denied. And we were still on our feet as they left the stage.
© J. Whitman