Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Meltdown

Acoustic Ladyland - Clore Ballroom Sunday 14th June
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra/The Bad Plus - Saturday 20th June
Ornette Coleman with Baaba Maal, Flea, Charlie Haden and The Master Musicians of Jajouka - Sunday 21st June

The Meltdown festival has become something of a regular fixture in my musical calendar and the presence of the legendary Ornette Coleman as curator for 2009 made it completely unmissable. Sadly, I wasn’t able to catch as much of it as I would have liked but what follows is a brief dispatch from the shows I did attend.

Whilst their musical tropes are by now familiar, Acoustic Ladyland’s new line-up still comes as something of a shock. Tom Herbert departed to focus on Polar Bear and The Invisible some time ago and now superb pianist Tom Cawley has left to concentrate on his own more meditative music. Ruth Goller has picked up the mantle of aggressive, driving bass playing with consummate ease, but Cawley’s shoes must surely be particularly difficult to fill. Sensibly, Pete Wareham hasn’t tried to do that, instead opting for the terrifying presence of rock guitarist Chris Sharkey.

The new music isn’t much of a departure from their now established thrash jazz template, although whilst the group seemed to be treading water a bit on ‘Skinny Grin’, they now sound positively rejuvenated. The title of their new album (‘Living With A Tiger’) seems apt – this is a tougher, louder beast of a band. Seb Rochford continues to demonstrate his versatility by playing at about seven hundred times the volume he would deploy with Oriole or even Polar Bear, with heavy snare drum accents and swashbuckling cymbals in abundance.

The best of the new tracks slow it down a little, but keep it swampy – with what sounds like a pretty heavy Led Zeppelin influence. Space for improvisation continues to be minimal – but Sharkey’s dynamic bursts of noise have given this engaging, attacking sound fresh impetus. The group’s name continues to seem completely incongruous – and the one significant limitation is that it’s all a little one-dimensional. Hopefully one day Pete Wareham will surprise everyone by writing some ballads that are every bit as exciting.

I would have liked to have been able to stay through for the concert that featured Marc Ribot, Evan Parker and Han Benninck and also a surprise support slot from About, the new improvising group featuring John Coxon, Charles Hayward and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor. From the other reviews of this show that I’ve read, and from what Alexis has told me about the About project, the upcoming album that the group have produced should be one of the year’s essential releases. It’s encouraging to think that Taylor’s presence might bring freely improvised music to a new, broader audience here in the UK.

The final weekend saw Ornette Coleman himself perform twice, and a mouth-watering collaboration between Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley and Robert Wyatt. I missed the first Ornette Coleman show, although a compelling account of it can be found here:

Support for Charlie Haden’s project came from New York trio The Bad Plus. My opinion on this group has fluctuated widely from passionate enthusiasm through to complete frustration. Where once they concentrated on creating a modern standard repertoire from pop, rock and dance music (Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin etc), they now seem to have shifted to reinterpreting twentieth century classical music (they performed pieces by Stravinsky and Ligeti). I have no objections to this per se, but there’s increasingly something irritating about their studied quirkiness and intellectual playing. There’s no doubting their brilliant musicianship and supreme technical ability, but I can’t help feeling (as I think I’ve said in more than one previous review), that all this talent is now better served by their own compositions. There was plenty of support for this argument when the group unleashed the beautiful ‘Giant’, composed by bassist Reid Anderson and from their best album (‘Prog’), where some restraint and directness enabled the group to come alive.

Joining Charlie Haden, Carla Bley were a group of London musicians, including Shabaka Hutchings and Jason Yarde, demonstrating just how vibrant the Jazz scene in the capital is right now. Haden began the show by emphasising the political context of his recordings – with albums having been recorded under Nixon, Reagan, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr. ‘Don’t make another one!’ shouted a member of the audience, perhaps missing the point that the albums had been written and recorded as responses to the political climate. I don’t get the impression Haden had ever intended to instigate years of reactionary conservatism in the United States!

Reaction after the show from friends seemed mixed, largely due to some rather shambolic organisational difficulties. Apparently the concert had been timed rather carefully to arrange for an appearance from curator Ornette Coleman, which never actually happened (although he did appear at the end to embrace Haden). Perhaps the rustling to locate sheet music not yet on stage, the spaces that Haden needed to fill with some admittedly hilarious jokes and his struggling to announce the names of the musicians correctly may have turned collective ears against what was actually a rather powerful performance. Reviews in the mainstream press so far seem to have been overwhelmingly positive.

The concert featured music from throughout Haden’s career, but focused on most recent album ‘Not In Our Name’. This material could seem redundant in the brave new world of the Obama era, but a reiteration of the value of music as a means of protest and celebration can hardly be a bad thing. Indeed, whilst a lot of ‘political’ music can seem negative or aggressive, Carla Bley’s arrangements of tunes from the classic American songbook (particularly ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’) had a joyous potency.

The sound of a group this size is often a source of great joy, but the playing was often full-blooded and rich. There were some wonderful individual contributions too, from Shabaka Hutchings’ fiery and vibrant bursts of ideas contrasting with mellifluous trumpet solos. The dignity and humanity of the music came through in the group’s playing throughout.

As promised, Robert Wyatt joined mid-set for two numbers sung in Spanish, Silvio Rodriguez’s ‘Tale of the Tornado’ and Haden’s own ‘Song For Che’ (which Wyatt himself recorded on ‘Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard’ and curator Ornette Coleman also performed on ‘Crisis’, if memory serves me correctly). If Wyatt seemed slightly nervous and hesitant on the former, the latter demonstrated his familiar and distinctive conversational style in more confident flow. His voice seemed natural and unforced on this beautiful and haunting piece of music. It was a joy to catch a rare onstage performance from him.

The set ended in truly compelling fashion, first with a majestic drum solo – one of those supremely controlled displays that began with a simple piece of phrasing, before developing it around the kit and embellishing it with flourishes both technically accomplished and musically intuitive. Haden of course made his individual statement too, although it was hard to tell whether his persistent requests to ‘turn the bass down’ were part of the by now jokey atmosphere or a serious irritation hampering him. If the latter, it wasn’t evident as the solo developed, characterised by singing lines and some knowing quoting of Coleman’s modified blues ‘Turnaround’.

It was a shame that the intended appearance from Coleman for ‘Skies of America’ didn’t happen, but perhaps an even bigger shame that the distracting hustle and bustle made everything seem a little on-the-fly and disjointed. The first part of the set seemed a little stylistically boxed too – with a Cuban piece followed by an arrangement with a reggae feel. On balance though, this was a powerful, musically thoughtful performance.

On paper, Ornette Coleman’s closing night performance looked potentially dangerous. With guest appearances from artists in residence Master Musicians of Jajouka, Baaba Maal and that well known free improvising jazzer Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers – this had the makings of a rather confused and confounding event. Thankfully, it proved to be nothing of the sort – and was rather a consistently engaging, wonderfully enervating concert experience.

The Master Musicians’ support set must have required some adjustments for most Western ears. I’ve not got a good enough musical ear to identify what precisely is so harsh about their sound – the pipes seem tuned against each other in very narrow intervals and it takes a while to locate the true pulse amidst their complex polyrhythms. Still, though, their visible sense of enjoyment and showmanship was enough to persuade me to immerse myself in their mesmerising and ultimately uplifting sound.

Ornette Coleman took to the stage immensely slowly, with a sense of fragility that made me a little nervous, especially as he struggled to connect his strap to his saxophone. As soon as the first notes emanated from his alto though, it became clear that the concern was entirely unwarranted. What a marvel that this pioneering figure can produce such eloquent phrasing and vigorous sound at the age of 79 (or 82 as someone else quoted, I’m not sure which is correct).

Titled ‘Reflections of This Is Our Music’, this concert might better have been dubbed ‘reflections of an illustrious and radical career’. Continuing to reject conventional harmonic accompaniment in favour of a two bassists line-up (Tony Falanga and Al McDowell), Coleman’s approach somehow still sounds as furious and otherworldly today as it did in the late fifties. Yet deconstructed airings of ‘Turnaround’ and ‘Blues Connotation’ suggest that those who view Coleman’s music as impenetrable or intractable are missing the point – here is a man who remains as in touch with the blues as he is with his own attempts to move away from form. Veering between violin, saxophone and even a brief spell on trumpet, he seemed gleeful, impish and full of ideas from both within and outside the jazz idiom.

Listening to ‘Blues Connotation’ particularly, I wondered whether the term ‘punk jazz’, which provided the title for a Jaco Pastorius composition and has since been lazily dished out to all manner of groups attempting some kind of jazz-rock fusion, might genuinely be apt for this group. They played throughout with a devil-may-care and visceral abandon that left my heart racing and my thoughts buzzing off in several directions simultaneously. Denardo is an unashamedly unconventional drummer, with a relentless but muffled sound that goes against the brightness and verve of most jazz drumming. He seems to have devised his own range of stick grips and frequently veers out of time, forcing Tony Falanga to work his way back into the fold and his conception of swing exists somewhere out on its own astral plain. Yet there’s something lucid and compelling about his peculiar stomp, and it imbues this already captivating music with an undeniable originality, even when the material being performed is the best part of 50 years old.

The choice of music is both richly satisfying (‘Lonely Woman’) and somewhat bizarre (a perhaps slightly hesitant recontextualisation of Bach’s Prelude to Cello Suite No. 1). The collaborations mid-set seemed like the perfect encapsulation of Coleman’s questing spirit and open-mindedness. I had admittedly been prejudiced against the appearance of Flea, but his intuitive playing somehow managed to make the three-pronged bass attack completely invigorating, and extraordinarily physical. His contributions often featured the language of disco and funk, which might be expected. What was less predictable was just how much of a positive impact his propulsive playing had on the overall sound of the ensemble. When joined onstage by the Master Musicians, it seemed as if Coleman and his group were initially grasping at something and not quite finding it but, slowly, a more singing tone emerged from the saxophone responding to the persistent dynamic of the Master Musicians. It was a tremendous, intoxicating cacophony.

After a trio performance with Charlie Haden for the encore, on which Haden’s bass sounded opulent and resonant, Coleman seemed reluctant to leave the stage, thanking the sound crew before embarking on a personal odyssey to shake as many audience members’ hands as he felt possible. Even when his security intervened he didn’t seem particularly inclined to be rescued. Whether this was an act of gentlemanly kindness towards his audience or an egotistical acknowledgement of his iconic status didn’t really matter – this man has earned the right to a long goodbye. Whoever they get to curate Meltdown next year has some big shoes to fill.

No comments: