Ornette and the Piano

Gratuitous rabbits. Photo by Maria Lupan (@luandmario) on Unsplash.

I’ve never deeply listened to Ornette Coleman’s Sound Museum, the band with Geri Allen on piano that produced two albums, each featuring mostly the same tracks as the other. Both are snapshots of malleable compositions, captured in different incarnations that are necessarily born of different moments in time, different pseudorandom number seeds.

That came to mind with the death of Ellis Marsalis at the end of March. His obituary in the Associated Press featured this paragraph:

“Ornette Coleman was in town at the time, and in 1956 when Coleman headed to California, Marsalis and the others went with him, but after a few months Marsalis came back home. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune years later, when he and Coleman were old men, that he never did figure out what a pianist could do behind the free form of Coleman’s jazz.”

It’s easy to sympathize with Marsalis, and in fact the story is a bit comforting, because Ornette’s music doesn’t seem pian-friendly. Ornette, of course, didn’t play to chord structures. His music was about building off of lines of melody. 

From the book Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music by Peter Niklas Wilson, discussing the Sound Museum albums:

[Pianist Geri] Allen and [bassist Charnett] Moffett, still relative newcomers to the harmelodic labyrinth, show no false modesty in the master’s presence but bravely accept the challenge of egalitarian interplay, where every instrument is both central and peripheral. Coleman did not often work with keyboards and Geri Allen has a difficult task inventing the art of harmelodic piano; she can be forgiven for resorting a little too often to the simple device of tone repetition.

Pianist Joachim Kuhn’s duo album with Ornette is a more wide-open space. He supplements Ornette’s composed lines with florid, harmony-packed playing — heaping doses of ornate classical harmony next to harmelodics. It still has Ornette’s sound but sometimes feels incongruous, too weighty. Some of the best moments feature Kuhn single-note pecking alongside Ornette’s bobbing sax, creating interweaving melodies.

Before any of this, guitar was a chordal instrument in Prime Time, particularly Bern Nix, adding color to a danceable type of avant-jazz. Here’s something interesting though: Ornette’s band in Italy in 1975, with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar adding extra slash and zig-zag. It’s an exciting way to apply a chordal instrument to Ornette’s music, and it’s too bad Ulmer never appeared on an official Prime Time record.

Whole Lotta Ornette Goin’ On — Saturday

How much Ornette Coleman can you take? Myles Boisen has organized an Ornette Coleman tribute for the afternoon and evening of Saturday, Sept. 26, at Berkeley Arts (2133 University Ave., Berkeley).

ornette-inallIt promises to be a great sampling of local artists and a full celebratory evening, from 4:00 p.m. to whenever. Don’t sleep on the Jon Raskin set that concludes the festival. Raskin is a member of ROVA Saxophone Quartet and certainly has lots to say with his horn.

Here’s the program, as copied from BayImproviser.com:


Ornettology big band, led by Myles Boisen
featuring Steve Adams – saxes
Phillip Greenlief – saxes
Chris Grady – trumpet

Sheldon Brown Trio:
Sheldon Brown – saxes
Richard Saunders – acoustic bass
Vijay Anderson – drums

Steve Adams/ Scott Walton Duo:
Steve Adams – saxes/ flute
Scott Walton – acoustic bass

MiniWatt String Trio:
Myles Boisen – guitar
Jon Preuss – guitar
Joh Ettinger – violin

Steven Lugerner Quartet:
Steven Lugerner – Saxophone
Danny Lubin-Laden – Trombone
Matthew Wohl – Bass
Britt Ciampa – Drums

Rob Ewing/ Jason Levis Duo:
Rob Ewing – trombone
Jason Levis – drums

Jon Raskin – solo sax.

Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)

esp-front-cropWith the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.

During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.

You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.

The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.

zitro-cropJames ZitroZitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.

Sonny SimmonsMusic from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.

New Ghost: Live Upstairs at Nick's (ESP-Disk, 2006)New GhostLive Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.

Ellis MarsalisRuminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.

Scott Amendola’s Week

Some interesting upcoming shows featuring drummer Scott Amendola:

Thursday, April 8 “The Good Life: The Music of Ornette Coleman.” Part of  SF Jazz’s Hotplate series, where local musicians delve into the catalogue of one of the greats.  Amendola (drums) has assembled a quartet of Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Trevor Dunn (electric bass), and Rob Sudduth (sax) for the occasion. Held in San Francisco at a cozy Mission District bar called Amnesia.

Goldberg, Dunn, and Sudduth all used to play together in Graham Connah‘s bands in the ’90s.  Good stuff.

Friday, April 9 — At the Starry Plough (Berkeley), a double bill.  First, Amendola vs. Blades, a funky duo with Wil Blades on organ.  Check out the review in the L.A. Times.  Then, a reprise of the aforementioned Ornette quartet.

Saturday, April 10Kinhoua, noted in this old post.  This is one of the Larry Ochs not-jazz projects, teaming up Ochs on sax, Amendola on drums, Korean vocalist Dohee Lee using her voice as a wordless instrument, and one more person — previously a cellist, this time Trevor Dunn on bass.

It’s going to be a rewarding show covering more abstract territory than the Ornette or Blades shows. The show also marks Kihnoua‘s debut CD release, on the Not Two (or is it NotTwo?) label.

Kihnoua performs at the Jazzschool in Berkeley — where I think I previously saw Kinhoua with Okkyung Lee on cello. Kinhoua then goes on for a tour of Europe starting in late April.

UPDATE 4/7, 5:00 p.m.: A message to Larry Ochs’ mailing list says the new Kihnoua CD will be available at the show for $10.  It won’t be in retail until May and will likely cost a lot more at the time, so you’ve been notified.

Ornette at 80 (Bix at 107)

On the West Coast, I’m still not too late to wish Ornette Coleman a happy 80th birthday.

I was out of town in November when he played at Davies Symphony Hall, possibly the only time I’ll realistically have a chance to see him. (I keep crossing my fingers for some kismet on my annual business trips to NYC, but it’s like hunting fireflies with a frisbee.) And now, I’ve nearly missed the all-day tribute to Ornette on radio WKCR.  I redeemed myself by catching the last 15 minutes.

Kudos to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for not forgetting one of that city’s musical sons. Reporter Preston Jones went to NYC for an interview that ran about 10 days ago.  Sample Ornette quote:  “I think every human being has a moment of something no one understands but themselves.”

The New York Times was less on top of things; Corey Kilgannon’s blog entry refers to realizing it was Coleman’s birthday and requesting an impromptu visit. Coleman, busy writing music, grants the interview (more like a casual chat), oblivious to birthday-party preparations around him.

On the east coast, the day has ended, and WKCR is now into its all-day Bix Beiderbecke tribute, honoring the short-lived trumpeter’s birthday. (They do this for a lot of jazz greats; WKCR is a treasure for any stripe of jazz fan.)

Not knowing much about Bix, I just now looked up his bio in Len Lyons’ The 101 Best Jazz Albums, an excellent resource, published in 1980, that covers jazz from the earliest days up to the then-modern free jazz.

I’m glad for the education, but … good gravy, it’s depressing. Bix died young, and “while he was alive, his name appeared in print only three times,” Lyons writes. A jazz legend who battled alcohol, died young, and was underappreciated by the general public in his time… guess I should have seen that one coming.

All the more reason to appreciate that Ornette is feted and still an audience draw. His 2006 album, Sound Grammar, was a real ear-opener; you could argue it sticks to the crowd-pleasing fast stuff, but it’s so amazingly fast, so bursting with energy. Ornette is 80 and still creating, and still around to hear the applause. That’s something we should all be grateful for.

Playlist: May 22, 2009

KZSU playlist for Friday, May 22, 3:00 p.m. to 5:50 p.m.

A trainee named Leigh was helping me out with this show, doing much of the engineering and planning one full set on her own (that’s the pop grouping with Belle and Sebastian in it).

Steve Adams of ROVA Sax Quartet fame is doing a CD release show this weekend for his trio disk. ROVA themselves are also having two performances at Kanbar Hall in San Francisco. We played some tracks to note those shows, as well as little nods to Sun Ra’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz To Come (the album with “Lonely Woman” on it, although I opted to play a lesser known track).

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