Wednesday, 20 August 2008

"Caught in Coleman's Spell": Ornette Coleman’s ‘Virgin Beauty’

Ornette Coleman (as, tp, vln) Charles Ellerbee, Bern Nix (g) Jerry Garcia (g -1,6,7) Al MacDowell, Chris Walker (b) Calvin Weston (d) Denardo Coleman (d, key)

1. 3 Wishes
2. Bourgeois Boogie
3. Happy Hour
4. Virgin Beauty
5. Healing The Feeling
6. Singing In The Shower
7. Desert Players
8. Honeymooners
9. Chanting
10. Spelling The Alphabet
11. Unknown Artist

Recorded in New York City, October 1987

I've been seriously digging Ornette Coleman over the past few days. I was on youtube, and, as you do, ended up on a video completely different to that I'd started off with (along the way, I think, I'd be looking at Wayne Shorter's quartet, life-enhancing as ever, and clarinetist Perry Robinson, who's so effective on Henry Grime's recently re-issued 'The Call').

Anyway, there's a bizarre video of Ornette performing a duet with painter/ pianist Mark Kostabi on Kostabi's game-show 'Title This'. I watch it every few weeks, fascinated and perplexed. I still don't feel I can really 'judge' it in a conventional sense. On one level, it's bizarre, absurdly melodramatic, and would probably become unbearable if it lasted for longer than three minutes. But as it is, there's something about it that is enormously compelling. It throws out Coleman's style nakedly; there's no dense three-guitar or three-bass texture, as with Prime Time or Ornette's latest band. Instead, there's just a piano, acting very much in an accompanying role, laying down chords which act as signals for Ornette to let off another intensely human cry or one of those ghostly bebop runs that appear in practically every solo he's ever recorded, most notably on 'Turnaround'.

So, I ended up at this video again - and then went on to some rare solo clips, recorded at the 1972 Berlin Jazz Tage, in which he's on piano (not his most convincing performance - compared to the alto which follows it, it's very heavy-handed and rhythmically lumpen). And then, 'Town Hall 1962', with the superb rhythm section of Moffett and Izenzon - of which a lengthy review will be appearing on Issue 2 of the e-zine I edit, 'eartrip'. And finally, the 1988 Prime Time record, probably best known nowadays for featuring Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on a few tracks, ‘Virgin Beauty’.

It's 'Virgin Beauty' that I'm going to spiel about here. Why? Well, firstly, I can find very little written about it, in comparison to the rest of Ornette’s output, and what there is is mostly negative. The All Music Guide has a typically pithy and rather off-target review which ends up saying something like "messy but rewarding after several listens". 'Messy' is one thing this record is not - despite the crowded texture, it's so clear - in fact, that's probably its greatest achievement (I’ll expand on this later). Meanwhile, Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz call it "dull, MOR funk, in which tougher material is obscured by a clotted rock mix."

OK, so a lot of people seem not to like Prime Time, and I can see why - 'Dancing in Your Head' has never been my favourite, this despite the fact that Ornette's playing is frequently attractive, in a rather more 'down-home' register than usual (as Gary Giddins puts it, "Coleman streams over the backbeat with dynamic certitude, offering one rousing lick after another, almost any one of which would fit the most primitive rural blues setting, or so it seems when one is Caught in Coleman's spell"). Only thing is, that irritating 'Good Life' melody keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box all over the place, and it really gets on my nerves. Miles Davis was utilizing repetitive melodic cells more successfully in his 70s fusion work.

Let’s put that idea on hold, and make way for a slight deviation – I always remember talking to someone about free jazz, and while they enthusiastically expounded the virtues of Albert Ayler, they dismissed Coleman. I think that sort of critical judgment arises from the fact that people approach Ornette’s music from the wrong direction. Thing is, I've never really thought of him as a free jazz musician. Yes, I know he was instrumental in the development of harmonic freedom and a step away from the reliance on chord changes, and yes I know that he made a record actually called 'Free Jazz.' However, I tend to see that particular enterprise as a one-off in his output - and his version of 'energy music' is very different from that put forward in similar large group enterprises, like Coltrane's 'Ascension' or Ayler's 'New York Eye and Ear Control' - less a form of screaming collective catharsis, more a form of (particularly animated) collective conversation. Let's take the example of ‘White Light’, the Jackson Pollock painting on the cover - whereas Coleman's music is the aural equivalent of the delicate dribbles that act like criss-crossing threads over the canvas (the sort of detail you'd notice if you looked at the painting close up), Coltrane's and Ayler's music has the effect of the canvas seen as a whole, in its monumental, overwhelming impact.

How is all this relevant to ‘Virgin Beauty’, and to the caveats I introduced about Prime Time earlier? Well, despite the instrumentation of Prime Time (drum machines, electric guitars, electric basses), and its incorporation of steady backbeats and funk grooves and rhythms, it's never felt like any other kind of jazz fusion to me, just as ‘Free Jazz’ doesn’t feel like any other kind of free jazz. Maybe it's just the unmistakable quality of Ornette's alto playing, but I think that quality is felt in the tunes as well – both in their particular melodic construction and in the texture which surrounds them. In the Pollock painting, each dribble, each ecstatically wavering line, has equal importance – and with Ornette, each instrument is equally important (and yet the music never looses a sense of order, while retaining a spontaneous edge).

Melody is the primary motivating force behind Coleman's work. At times it can sound like everyone is soloing at once: the rhythm section is not a 'rhythm section' as such, if one thinks of the supporting role that phrase tends to connote – yet at the same time it is very much concerned with generating rhythm. Listen to the deep grooves Haden and Blackwell get into on, say, 'Una Muy Bonita' – it’s not too much of a stretch to see this lineage continuing with the funky guitars, bass and drums of Prime Time. While I agree with Brian Olewnick, who finds Deonardo and Weston's playing on ‘Virign Beauty’ rather too staid and stodgy, without Ronald Shannon Jackson’s spark, it’s clearly not the case that Ornette has simply dumbed-down the backdrop – this is tricksy and complex, carefully composed and stitched together. The lines, or repeating cells that each instrument is playing could be the principal melody – it just so happens that they’ve been arranged so that some seem to be in the ‘lead’ and some in ‘supporting roles.’ It’s not just Ornette playing over lazy funk. If you can’t appreciate this, you’re probably doomed never to fully ‘get’ what Prime Time is about.

Again, it’s about approaching things from the wrong angle. One might easily overlook the complex nature of the music - might even see it as rather stiff, and overly arranged, rather than embracing the 'natural technique' that Ornette is seen as embodying (and does, to some extent). To answer this, the comparison I'd make here is actually Don Van Vliet, who's often cited as having been influenced by Coleman (mostly by ignorant rock critics who think that Vliet's untrained saxophone sound-paintings are somehow similar to Coleman's intricately melodic variations). Yet they share a similar approach to ensemble writing - Vliet's more deliberately 'sloppy' and not holding together, Ornette's always slightly 'not right' (most obviously in his treatment of pitch), yet locked-in more tightly. Each instrument plays lines that may go off in very different directions, individually, yet mesh together to create a coherent diversity. From a musician’s viewpoint, it requires great discipline and attentiveness to what's going on around you, and the fact that it's so easy to overlook indicates just how well this particular group of players pull it off.

The relationship between soloist and rhythm section is best illustrated when things almost fall apart, four minutes into 'Borgeois Boogie' - it seems like the track's going to end up with rather a botched conclusion, Ornette rushing to finish the melody so that it fits with the rhythm section, but you realize that this was all part of the plan when the drums carry on, rock-steady, the basses re-enter with that strange shuddering, repeating riff, and Ornette blasts in on trumpet. Well, maybe it’s wasn’t part of the plan – maybe someone did cock up, maybe Ornette did have to play the melody faster than he’d have liked, but that makes things seem that much closer to the edge, that much more exhilarating. And it’s therefore very apt that it’s a trumpet solo that takes things out – there's something incredibly strange about his trumpet playing - it evades being pinned down technically, and while it's less a 'pure sound' tool in his hands than the violin, becoming increasingly melodic as he grew more familiar with it (it's almost 'straight' on 'Chanting'), it still retains its ‘otherness’ to this day.

There’s so much to admire texturally. The double electric bass texture is delicious; I’m a particular admirer of Jamaaladeen Tacuma's sound (check out 'Honeymooners', where he gets a little space to himself). Those sounds are very 80s, but, in Tacuma's hands, they become something to be savoured rather than deplored (I must remember to check out Weston and Tacuma's work with Derek Bailey on 'Mirakle' again). And that thick guitar backdrop is so clear and yet so dense. My only caveat would be the electronic drums and the synths, which thankfully aren't pushed too far up in the mix (on ‘Chanting’, keyboardist Deonardo is playing some rather nice counterpoint to the lovely trumpet melody, but on a tinny sounding instrument that foregrounds the tendency towards sentimentality already latent in the tune).

Jerry Garcia's contributions amount to the textural rather than, as one might expect, the flashily soloistic, and that’s probably a good thing – we avoid the syndrome of the rock-star guest performer doing their thing regardless of what’s going on around them. Coleman is the only soloist here, even playing some unaccompanied alto on the first half of ‘Unknown Artist’ – and Garcia stands out no more and no less than the other guitarists, Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee. He doesn’t even appear on some of the album’s best tracks, such as the brief but strong 'Spelling the Alphabet', which sees the band divided up into three groups who throw bits of the melody at each other before uttering it in thrillingly fast unison, Ornette launching off into between speedy and those long, keening notes over a clattering clangour of the electronic drums, bass-dominated repeat of the melody. He’s also absent on the title track, which is one of the most sublime ballads Coleman's ever laid down. One thing that might not be talked about that much is the use of overdubbing - it's very discreet, but very effective. For instance, during the opener, a single trumpet stab recurs at regular intervals, on the beat, or in the aforementioned ‘Virgin Beauty’, what sounds like a slight-slowed down version of the opening melody, low down in the mix, comes in behind Coleman's solo, about two minutes into the piece (and, a minute later, violin underlies the last rhapsodic breath as the melody sounds out one last time).

What stands out most about this music, though, is its sheer sense of fun. Sometimes this means that there’s a tendency towards short, almost throw-away tracks (‘Desert Place’ is almost pop music, or would be if it didn’t feature Ornette’s overdubbed, eastern-flavoured alto/trumpet duet). Yet, most of the time, things come off beautifully. While a title like 'Bourgeois Boogie' might suggest sardonic social comment, even satire, the effect of this track is as intensely joyous as anything Coleman's done. And so, even if, as critic Robert Christgau points out, 'Virgin Beauty' is "the quietest of the Prime Time records--lyrical, sublimely reflective, autumnal at times"; and despite Don Van Vliet's pun on the saxophonist's name as 'Ornate Coldman', such joie-de-vivre shouldn't go unacknowledged. That virgin beauty is still as fresh today as it was twenty years ago.


euskir said...

the kind of music that will be around forever...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I've loved this record since it came out and am a little surprised how few people got it.