Thursday, 10 July 2008

ORNETTE COLEMAN: Beauty Is A Rare Thing

I’ve been bombarded with emails (OK, I had one email) asking me why I haven’t “done” Pacific Ocean Blue yet and the simple answer is that I’m not sure I’m qualified to write about it; as magnificent as it is (and the extra tracks, including all the surviving material, complete and incomplete, from the Bambu sessions, make it even more magnificent than the humble, Walkman-friendly cassette reissue I bought out of Virgin in 1992 and luckily kept – younger readers may wish to consult their grandparents for full explanation of what a “Walkman” was), I feel that proper understanding of its spaces, its long, measured (or immeasurable) silences, its sudden Neptunian eruptions, can only really be gained by full immersion in its Californianess; i.e. you have to have lived in California to appreciate its sense of isolation, benign or otherwise, breathed the same atoms (or versions of them), appreciate the vastness. I think this may be one for my (Californian) wife to tackle.

Likewise, although the four members of Ornette’s 1961 quartet all arrived from different places, they were all more or less raised in Los Angeles , and “Beauty Is A Rare Thing” is a glassy pearl of sparkling hugeness which I think could only have been conceived in L.A. With Coleman’s music, but especially with his ballads, you have to think of his songs – and true songs they all are – as gently unwinding stories rather than squared-off declarations of schematic intent. Perhaps this more than anything was what warned off all the jazz boys back in that particular day; barlines occurring as naturally and unforcedly as commas or semi-colons might appear in a long, meditative piece of literature. So the top line melody of “Beauty” is a declaration – although there are no words as such, Coleman’s pauses while playing the tune suggest that, like Lester Young, he’s working very hard to remember the lyrics – which takes as long to state as nature and life require. Behind – no, around – him, Haden and Blackwell stay on bowed bass and (mostly) tuned tom toms throughout the performance, their waves quietly but intently lapping at the feet of Coleman’s soul.

There is a climactic squeak from the alto, but as this returns at reasonably regular intervals throughout Coleman’s subsequent solo we can delineate this as an aural comma or barline, punctuation to help determine the part of the exposition that we have reached. Cherry nudges in like rusty marmalade; picking up immediately on Blackwell’s New Orleans subdivisions he seems on the verge of turning the performance into calypso (and as Kevin LeGendre’s sleevenote to the CD reissue of This Is Our Music attests, I’m not the only one who spots prototype rude boy in those shades Cherry’s wearing on the cover) but catches himself and drifts between warm extended tones and quick but not frantic flurries of notes. Periodically he and Coleman lock blessings of horns and squeal, fulfilled, towards the sun.

Then Coleman re-enters, methodically unpicking and expanding the central song; Haden’s continuo suddenly responds with an impromptu, upwardly scuttling figure and he becomes more active, Blackwell always alternating between solemn tom tom circularities and gauze mists of cymbals. The music absorbs, contracts and expands with a solitary sense of community, priceless, exotic, tender, stroking, endless, green, turquoise and then aquatic blue and they combine for a sated sigh of an ending and it is, as simply as anyone could phrase or frame it, love.