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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

The Royal Festival Hall, London
June 21st 2009

Did I ever tell you, Serge, about the time I met Tony Bennett? I have to say it was something of a nerve-wracking experience. We were promoting his concert in Edinburgh a few years ago, and after an opening set from Diana Krall, were invited ‘backstage’ to meet the artists. Ms Krall was larger than life. Mr Bennett, on the other hand, and much to my dismay, seemed like a shrunken figure in a trench coat. Charming though he was, I spent our five minutes or so of conversation looking at him and thinking that there was no way he could possibly be able enough to perform on stage; like a drowning man I saw a career-condemning disaster pass before my eyes.Back in my seat, I watched with gloom and resignation as the diminutive figure in the Burberry appeared at the back of the stage; his band already in position playing a warm-up tune.

What happened next was simply magical, almost out of the greatest tradition of British pantomime. One of Mr Bennett’s people gently removed his coat, and as he walked, at first unsteadily towards the stage, he was transformed, from old man to superstar, towering in the glow of the footlights, the audience eating from his hand.
I had a similar experience with Ornette Coleman. Reports from earlier Meltdown gigs were not good. He played briefly with Yoko Ono, didn’t show up for Moby, and was carefully helped onto the stage during the Patti Smith gig to say a few quiet words before being helped off again. And when he took to the stage for this last of his Meltdown gigs, featuring ‘Reflections’ on his groundbreaking 1960 album This is Our Music, my fears might have been confirmed. Nattily dressed, but slight and frail, he didn’t seem set for a powerful performance.
But one should never underestimate the greatest of great musicians, and after a wobbly start, which featured mainly new material, Coleman’s playing grew in both strength and verve until he dominated the stage just as Tony Bennett had done that night in Edinburgh. Now I’m not a great jazz man, but let me say that at its best, Coleman’s playing was electric, mixing moments of well-rehearsed melodic phrasing with unexpected staccato and plaintive outbursts, accompanied by the occasional turn to his trumpet and violin. Listening to his playing, engrossing ‘though it was, it’s hard to understand now why he caused such a furore back in the 1960s. What was revolutionary then seems almost mainstream today, harmolodics and all, and there was so much structure to the tunes that it’s difficult to know where the description ‘free jazz’ (apart from being an album title) came from.
Ornette Coleman
L to R: Tony Falanga, Ornette Coleman, Denardo Coleman
At the backbone of this performance, providing the canvas for Coleman’s brush, were a prodigiously powerful trio: Tony Falanga on double bass; Al MacDowell on electric bass (which he played for much of the evening like a lead guitar) and Coleman’s son Denardo on drums. Falanga and MacDowell played in pretty much perfect harmony, questioning and answering each other with increasingly complex rhythms and riffs. Denardo, who has been playing with his father (and polarising critical opinion) since he was ten, was a noisy and sometimes sloppy counterpoint. But when the three clicked, the sound they created was almost overpowering. And when they were joined by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, the foursome took on the character of a funk-fuelled express train heading down the track towards the audience at breakneck speed. And all respect to Mr Flea, who demonstrated himself more than capable of standing in such exalted company. In fact he was, as the phrase goes, ‘on fire’ when the band were joined by the horn and drum-wielding Master Musicians Of Jajouka, (or at least one version of the performers who use that name) whose repetitive and hypnotic playing formed the backdrop for a gloriously cacophonous improvisation: three thundering bass players; unwieldy, crashing drumming and Coleman’s saxophone crying and wailing above it all. It was a moment, almost as exhausting for the audience as the musicians, that few who were present will forget.
Not that Coleman didn’t have one more ace up his sleeve. A perfectly-constructed encore which brought long-time collaborator, bassist Charlie Haden to the stage for ‘Lonely woman’, a wonderfully delicate composition where both performers, supported by a remarkably restrained Denardo, pulled off that magical trick of expressing as much with the notes that they didn’t play, as with the ones that they did. It was a tender and gentle contrast to the frenetic moments earlier, and left the audience on their feet as it ended. Then Coleman, walking like a man who’s shed more than a few years during the performance, returned to the stage to shake the hands of his many admirers in the crowd and was still doing so as we left. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)
Listen: Ornette Coleman on MySpace

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