Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle, Volumes One and Two

After two LPs for the small Los Angeles label Contemporary, Ornette Coleman was signed to Atlantic Records and recorded a series of amazing albums that befuddled, bedazzled, enraged and engaged audiences and critics.  Still, the music business was hardly beneficent to the vast majority of jazz musicians and Coleman decided not to sign a new contract with Atlantic in 1961.  Instead, he hoped to be able to create his own destiny through recordings and concerts and the move proved to be one in which for most of the period from 1962 to 1966, hardly any music was performed or recorded by this uniquely innovative and talented artist.

Last night, YHB finished the interesting 1966 A. B. Spellman book, Black Music: Four Lives (a.k.a. Four Lives in the Bebop Business), in which the journalist details the lives and careers of four then-neglected or struggling musicians, these being the protean pianist Cecil Taylor, the almost-unknown pianist Herbie Nichols, alto sax stalwart Jackie McLean and Coleman.  It is often depressing and saddening to hear how these men, despite their remarkable talents and commitment to their music, were mistreated by club owners and label executives and the chapter on Coleman also is a reminder that his way of composing and creating with ensembles was heavily criticized by other musicians, not just jazz reviewers.

Finally, though, in 1965, Coleman was signed to Blue Note Records and a series of recordings made during a two-week engagement at The Golden Circle club in frigid Stockholm, Sweden in early December were released in two volumes the following year known as At the Golden Circle.  Coleman and his trio, including bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett, perform remarkably individually and the interplay between the three is impressive.

Notably, lines notes by Swede Ludvig Rasmussen make the case that Coleman's "emotion range is fairly limited and if it were not for the variety of his music, we would certainly consider it tedious."  This seems like a backhanded compliment at best, but Rasmussen continued that "the content of his music is mostly pure beauty, a glittering, captivating, dizzying, sensual beauty."  According to him, "a couple of years ago, nobody through so, and everyone considered his music grotesque, filled with anguish and chaos."

It seems strange to think that a listener could find that Coleman lacked emotion and yet played with great beauty, but, in a way, Rasmussen's point might be grounded in a perception that unlike John Coltrane, whose powerful and intense soloing indicated great groundswells of emotion, Coleman's "variety" seems more playful and joyful in terms of the exploration of sound and, perhaps, "pure beauty."  Glittering actually seems a particularly apt way to express much of what came forth from that plastic alto sax and it is, indeed, "captivating" and, maybe, "dizzying."

Rasmussen, moreover, highlights the shock of discovering how innovative and impressive the largely-unknown Izenzon, who was a highly-skilled classical player who performed regularly in chamber music groups and orchestras, was and YHB agrees that the bassist stands out for his unusual way of complementing Moffett's drumming and accompanying Coleman.  He compares Izenzon to the late Scott LaFaro, whose virtuosity was very noteworthy.  In fact, in Four Lives, Coleman is quoted at length talking about why he so often used white bassists (Izenzon, LaFaro and the sublime Charlie Haden), while one of the few black players he used was Jimmy Garrison, the longtime member of John Coltrane's classic quartet.

Concerning Izenzon (who died of a heart attack after chasing a man who robbed him in New York), Coleman commented that "he knows that he's Jewish, he knows his conception of that in relation to the human struggle," but also noted that "he has a feeling of superiority about his playing, playing with all those symphony orchestras, but he backed up that feeling of superiorty with an ability to do anything that's possible to be done on the bass."  He followed with a discussion about the difference between "hearing music" and having a technical virtuosity, as well as asserting that a bass is "a more expressive instrument to non-Negro, non-black people" and that this was why he used mostly white bassists.  Whether using a bow, especially on "Dawn" on Volume 1, or plucking, found abundantly throughout, Izenzon's strength, clarity and manner of accompaniment are something to behold.

Moffett, whose son Charnett is a very fine bass player (and was featured on Sonny Sharrock's mind-shattering Ask the Ages album, featured here not long ago) may seem underappreciated in this context, but his use of counterpoint along with that of the bassist, gives Coleman the freedom and space to perform all manner of solos and yet keep a swing and rhythm that hold down the bottom line, especially when Izenzon steps out to try something new and interesting outside of keeping the rhythm.

With Volume 2, the track "Snowflakes and Sunshine" is a marvel for many reasons.  First, Moffett's triple time approach to the drums and the leader hauls out a violin, which he took up during his long absence from the scene and debuted only recently at a Village Vanguard engagement in New York, and launches screeching, abrasive sounds that led to much criticism from musicians and critics.  Well, so did Coleman's adoption of another instrument, the trumpet, which also makes its first recorded appearance here and which was so identified with Coleman's early musical soul mate, Don Cherry.  Probably if a listener approaches Coleman's "playing" of these instruments as ways to bring a certain "color" or "texture" to his music, it might go over better?

In any case, Volume 2 is more intense that the first, but the two are excellent recordings that showed that Coleman's mid-sixties work could be quite exciting and compare favorably with the more-heralded Atlantic years of 1959 to 1961.  Those interested in hearing these fine live albums are encouraged to seek out the 24-bit remastered Rudy van Gelder editions issued by Blue Note in 2001. 

Already a legendary engineer known for bringing out superb sounding records at the time, van Gelder's remastering on CD reveals a notable difference from the original masters.  Interestingly, Charles Mingus, a notorious eccentric by about any standard, refused to work with van Gelder because he argued that the engineer manipulated the natural sounds of musicians for his own creative purposes.  On the other hand, van Gelder was sought out by musicians and producers for his advanced studio set-ups and the results of his "secret recipe" at the soundboard.

Coleman, meantime, went on to record two studio albums with Coltrane's classic rhythm section of Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones before leaving for a stint with Columbia Records and then emerging in the 1970s with a more electric sound via his Prime Time ensemble. HIs music will be regularly featured here and the 82-year old master is still active (YHB got to see him at U.C.L.A. a couple of years ago and he sounded great, if a bit fragile.)

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