Ornette Coleman's Meltdown has proved to be the most interesting in years, as many had hoped it would. After a run of somewhat safe choices, Coleman's selection as curator of the Southbank Centre's annual music festival came as a shock, but the decision seems to have paid off. Sell out concerts and an extremely positive critical response will hopefully encourage the organisers to venture as far out into the ether as they have done this year in their search for future curators. In the interests of diversity, perhaps a return to notated music might not be too much to ask? Having said that, someone like Jonny Greenwood or Bjork would likely provide as eclectic and vital a programme as Coleman (and his son, it must be said, who reportedly did most of the inviting) has.
After earlier exploratory and engaging concerts all conceived around the Coleman-derived theme of Harmolodics from, amongst others, Fred Frith and Mike Patton, Baaba Maal, Marc Ribot and Evan Parker with Han Bennink, The Roots, David Murray, Patti Smith, and James Blood Ulmer, this year's Meltdown drew to a close over the past few days. The second weekend of the festival saw it come to a conclusion with two climactic (and, from the few people I spoke to who managed to secure tickets, deeply impressive) performances from Ornette Coleman and guests. Betwixt these events was a long, loose, and sometimes (unavoidably, which I'll come to later) shambolic performance from Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, with Carla Bley on piano and arranging duties, and Robert Wyatt on vocals and trumpet for two pieces.
Support came from The Bad Plus, an American jazz trio famed for their hard-edged and fun and often quite intelligent deconstructions of some very famous pop songs (such as Blondie's 'Heart of Glass'). Here their short set allowed for no such jubilation. Instead the group, perhaps mindful of the venue, performed two of the reworkings of contemporary notated pieces that are included on their most recent album For All I Care; Stravinsky's 'Variation d'Apollo', and Ligeti's Fem, alongside a not entirely convincing Song X and two originals.
The performance suffered a little from the strained and routine structural mechanics of each arrangement — chorus followed by solo followed by chorus — and the too self-consciously feral fills of Dave King on drums very often worked against the steady impetus of the other musicians. The Stravinsky paled in comparison with the lustrous string sheen of the original, though the tight interlocking rhythms of the Ligeti were given a particular esprit that matched the charm of the groupís wonderful reworking of Milton Babbit's Semi-Simple Variations (which is viewable on YouTube with hilarious dancing accompaniment). The two originals were satisfying enough, with the closing Giant, written by the bassist Reid Anderson, showing off a more compacted, focused, and lyrical edge that had not been much in evidence previously. Though admittedly straining against the status of opening act, The Bad Plus nevertheless left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
The brevity of the first half was not matched in the second. Charlie Haden on bass and his ad hoc orchestra of eight brass players (many of whom were local musicians joining Haden for the night), one percussionist, and one pianist, gave a sprawling set which took in material from each of the ensemble's four albums over the course of two hours. The last thirty minutes of these were spent by the band basically busking on 'We Shall Overcome' and Coleman's Skies of America, whilst we all waited for the not-so-secret surprise guest (no prizes for guessing his identity) to turn up. Unfortunately on this occasion a musical reunion of Haden and his former bandleader Ornette Coleman was not to be, the saxophonist seemingly arriving too late for any possible collaboration. The audience had to make do with a deeply-felt hug between the two men, and some characteristically charming and guileless observations on music and life from the bassist.
Earlier the band had offered a steady stream of tautly-conceived arrangements that swung from canonical standards (a moving trumpet-led evocation of the 'Going Home' section from Dvorak's New World, 'We Shall Overcome', 'Amazing Grace'), to originals (Haden's wily Song for Che and clarion call Not In Our Name, Bley's poignant and deeply-moving Blue Anthem), to more modern pieces, such as Bley's incredible reggae-tinged reworking of Metheny and Bowie's This is not America. All of these pieces are united around the theme, in line with the principles underpinning the group's very existence, of freedom and political empowerment. This attitude carries over into the generally lucid and transparent little big-band style of arrangement too, with the ironical and bitter voicings Bley gives to some of the chords in the conventionally-understood patriotic anthems such as Amazing Grace, for example, attesting to the disenchantment she and Haden felt in response to the Bush regime's innovations in the art of jingoism and disrepute.
The structures were kept quite loose, with linking passages and composed heads being nicely balanced by a steady variance of styles and emotions in the solos. Particularly impressive was the lissom and velvety trumpet playing of Michael Rodriguez, and the astonishingly fertile and responsive acoustic and electric guitar playing of John Parricelli. Almost as impressive but operating in a quite different register were the two local saxophonists, Jason Yarde on alto and Shabaka Hutchings on tenor, both of whose playing veered more towards pyrotechnics of explosive gesturing and extremes of pitch, without ever losing sight of the molten textures and tones around them. Bley offered gentle though often productively cajoling support on piano. Wyatt came on and was as emotionally communicative as he is on record, though he struggled somewhat with the line and with the Spanish diction in the Cuban ballad.
Haden soloed infrequently, but offered an astonishingly unfussy and calm ten minute unaccompanied bass solo during 'Overcome' which was as refreshingly effortless and subtly detailed as the sax playing had been effusive, even including one or two quotations from Coleman melodies at points. My one reservation about the performance, and admittedly it is quite a large one, was that the music is so polite. The sense of on-the-edge danger of Colemanís work was almost entirely absent here; tellingly, for me, it was in the group horn improvisation which briefly soared away from the confines of structure during the elongated Skies of America, given whilst Haden looked into the wings awaiting Ornetteís elusive arrival, that a real spirit of liberation, of empowerment, of community, was made manifest. It left me longing for more dalliances with the Harmolodic spirit, and confirmed the reservations that had been brewing throughout regarding the overbearing equilibrium and symmetry of the music-making. It was a richly-coloured, well-proportioned, sensitively-conceived equilibrium, but it was an equilibrium nonethless.
Photos: Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden