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Posts tagged ‘Ornette Coleman’

Harmolodics: the truth at last

ornette-harmolodicsSo I’m wandering into Mayfair on Monday, on my way to the launch party for this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, and I have 10 minutes to spare. On Dover Street there’s an antiquarian book shop called Peter Harrington. I’ve never been in there before but there’s some nice stuff in the window so I open the door.

Within a couple of minutes I’ve forgotten all about the stuff in the window. There are clues to what’s about to happen in a shelf of jazz-related publications, including Johnny Otis’s Listen to the Lambs, a signed copy of Dizzy Gillespie’s To Be or Not to Bop. and a complete set of Les Cahiers du Jazz, 1959-64. But then I see a display case. Inside it — alongside a signed photograph of Sonny Rollins mowing a lawn in Sweden, taken by the famous jazz critic Randi Hultin, rather incongruously juxtaposed with an autographed and dedicated copy of Marc Bolan’s volume of poetry, The Warlock of Love — is a sheet of manuscript paper. The word scrawled at the top is “Harmolodics”. The signature at the bottom is that of Ornette Coleman.

Harmolodics was Ornette’s system of musical organisation — one apparently based on a highly personal disregard of regular methods of transposition for wind instruments. You knew it when you heard it: it was what made his music sound the way it did. But whenever interviewers asked him to explain it — and I was among their number myself — the answer was so gnomic and cryptic as to be beyond normal comprehension. Which was certainly not to say that there was anything wrong with it.

Anyway, this piece of manuscript paper headed “Harmolodics” contains eight staves of musical annotation and looked as if it might explain something. Seeking enlightenment, I sent my snapshot of it to the pianist Alexander Hawkins, who shot back a reply within an hour. It turned out that, by coincidence, he had just been transcribing some chords from Prime Design/Time Design, Ornette’s piece for string quartet and drums, dedicated to Buckminster Fuller and recorded in 1985 at the Caravan of Dreams festival in Fort Worth. Interestingly, he was immediately struck by certain similarities. Here’s an extract from his reply:

On the third line up from the bottom on the Ornette manuscript, that Eb-Gb minor 10th/compound minor third interval… is embedded in the string quartet harmony. Ornette’s chromatic scale (4th stave down) yields this harmony when it is read with different clefs. So that first pitch (the flattened note on the bottom line of the staff) of course reads as the Eb in the treble clef, and as a Gb in the bass clef. If you then invert that interval of the minor third, you get a major sixth; and sure enough, a major sixth is the voicing between the ‘cello and viola in the quartet… This system of ‘equivalences’ you can also see in Ornette’s bottom two staves. The arpeggio which he spells out – bottom line, first four notes – reads Eb – G – Bb – D in the bass clef, or Cb (=B) – E – Gb – B in the treble clef. Hence, perhaps, the next four notes on that bottom line, which in the bass clef read of course B – Eb – Gb – Bb. (Although I can’t at present explain with this isn’t B – E natural – Gb – B natural: it seems unlikely that Ornette would slip up on two accidentals)…

I was told by the bookseller that the manuscript was the property of the dedicatee, a man who had helped Ornette with archiving his papers and had been given it as a present. It may have been lying around on Ornette’s floor; there’s what seems to be the faint trace of a footprint, possibly from a trainer, on the right-hand side.

In case you’re thinking that it might be a nice thing to have hanging on the wall, here’s the sticker price:

£10,000.

Nico in London, 1971

I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin over the past year, and every time I walk past the giant KaDeWe department store on the Ku’damm, I think of Nico. It’s where in 1953 she hung around one of the entrances, a beautiful blonde 15-year-old hoping to be spotted by someone from the fashion department. She got lucky, and from there her career took her to Paris, Rome, London (making a single for Andrew Loog Oldham’s new Immediate label in 1965), and New York, where she joined Andy Warhol’s troupe of “superstars”.

She returned to London in March 1970, her hair now the dark red favoured by her former lover, Jim Morrison. I arranged to meet her for an interview one Monday afternoon at her hotel, the Princess Lodge, off Kensington High Street. We went to a pub on Church Street, opposite Biba. She talked about going off to Ibiza, perhaps permanently (she would die there 18 years later). At some point during our conversation, a middle-aged man in a tweed suit came and sat down quite close to us. She didn’t seem to have met him before but soon she was saying goodbye and the two of them were leaving the pub together and disappearing down the street. I never quite worked that one out.

She was, of course, a marvellous enigma. Or not so marvellous, if you didn’t like the noise she made when she fired up her portable Indian harmonium and emitted that stentorian contralto, a voice like a church organ pipe. I loved it.

She made two appearances at the Roundhouse that month, and then vanished. A year later she was back, and a lot more people wanted to interview her. We were on the brink of the belated embrace of the Velvet Underground and all their works. So on February 2, 1971 she was in a BBC studio to record a session for John Peel.

This month the four songs she taped that day are released on a 12-inch 45rpm EP by Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, under the title Nico 1971: The BBC Session. The songs are “No One Is There” and “Frozen Warnings” (from The Marble Index), “Janitor of Lunacy” (from Desertshore) and “Secret Side”, which would be recorded three years later for The End, her Island album.

What these recordings allow us to appreciate is the strength of her performance. Her voice was always consistent in its accuracy and confidence; what also strikes one here is the strength of her playing of the small pump-organ. She was a very late starter in music: her soul-mate Morrison taught her how to write a lyric, and she bought the harmonium from a hippie in San Francisco in 1967.

According to her biographer Richard Witts (Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, Virgin Books, 1993), Ornette Coleman told her that the normal way to approach a keyboard was to play the chords with the left hand in the lower register and the melody higher up with the right hand. He suggested that she might try reversing the process — which she did, with striking results.

Witts also reports Viva, another Warhol superstar, remembering that Nico practised the instrument incessantly: “She had this fucking harmonium… she would practise it for hours, simple things, chords — really annoying stuff — for hours on end. She was very serious about it, dreadfully serious, like a Nazi organist. She’d pull the curtains across and light candles around her and do this funereal singing all day long. It was like I was living in a funeral parlour.”

Whatever torture her housemates endured, it turned out to be a perfect combination, enabling Nico to perform in more or less any environment, with or without accompanying musicians, for the rest of her career. John Cale did a wonderful job of adding startlingly original arrangements to The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, but it’s interesting to be reminded by these four tracks — broadcast on Peel’s Top Gear on Saturday, February 20, 1971 — of how she could manage perfectly well without that armature.

* The signature is from a letter Nico wrote me in 1974, shortly before the release of The End, asking — too late, alas — for certain minor modifications to the artwork, including a request to make the title look more like that on the sleeve of the Doors’ albums.

Ornette Coleman 1930-2015

Ornette by Ian DuryIt was 1961 when I first heard the sound of Ornette Coleman. I was 14 years old and I’d somehow scraped together the money to buy This Is Our Music, his latest release. I’d been getting interested in jazz, devouring anything I could find. Every word I read about Ornette, even the scornfully dismissive stuff that was about at the time, made him sound interesting. And, of course, I loved the cover, with its Lee Friedlander photograph of four young men — Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, and Charlie Haden — looking impossibly cool.

So I took it home, put it on the Dansette, switched off the lights, and lay down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes I moved only to get up and turn it over. And then I listened to it again. The effect has never gone away.

To me, Ornette’s music sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Nothing about it — the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences — bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues.

(That sound impressed me so much that three or four years later I bought a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, just like Ornette’s, and invested in some lessons with the lead altoist in a local dance band, who also worked the music shop from which I bought it, and was more of a Paul Desmond man. I didn’t get far. Particularly after the night when, during a club gig with the R&B band in which I played, I got up from behind the drums and attempted to insert a bit of free-form improvising into the middle of a Bo Diddley medley. This was 1965: eat your hearts out, Magic Band, Contortions, Pop Group. And even Prime Time, come to that. But it didn’t go down well, and I couldn’t afford to keep the horn. I think I got £30 for it. They’re rare now, not least because they stopped making them in the ’60s, after which the tools and jigs were destroyed. If you dropped them, they cracked and couldn’t be repaired. The last one I saw for sale in a shop, a couple of years ago, had a price tag of £1,500.)

Later on I was fortunate enough to meet Ornette several times, and to discover his unusual mode of verbal expression. Like Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, he had a way of answering your questions by taking off in a wholly unexpected direction, making several detours, and finally ending up with a completely logical pay-off. That process could take several minutes, and you had to align yourself to the cadences of his thinking if you wanted to get the most from it.

The most striking encounter was at Abbey Road in 1972, when he was recording The Skies of America, his extended orchestral piece, with the LSO, conducted by David Measham. The work had been written to feature his quartet alongside the orchestra, but union rules made that an impossibility. So it was just Ornette and the straight players, some of whom displayed a ready disdain for his score. To be fair, it did make some unorthodox and occasionally severe demands — usually in terms of the upper range of the wind instruments — on a bunch of players including one or two who liked to fill the gaps between takes by propping a copy of the FT on their music stands and checking the progress of their shares. Some inaccurate copying of the parts didn’t help.

The trumpeters made an informal deal between themselves to alternate the highest notes in order to save their lips from damage. At one point, after the orchestra’s percussionist had observed, quite seriously, that it would help to have three conductors working simultaneously, Ornette took a pair of sticks and showed him exactly what he wanted.

So a degree of pain and struggle was certainly involved in the recording, but it sounded marvellous as the composer took out his alto to play along with them. He was wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, a silky cream shirt, and multicoloured patchwork leather boots. Ornette’s self-designed wardrobe was just another facet of his originality.

When the album appeared, it was with a sleeve note in which Ornette wrote: “The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them this century than any other country: assassinations, political wars, gangster wars, racial wars, space races, women’s rights, sex, drugs and the death of god, all for the betterment of the American people.” And somehow he managed to get a sense of all that into his 41 minutes of pure American music.

I heard it performed live a couple of times in New York and London, featuring the quartet with the larger ensemble, as originally intended. As time went by it was gussied up a little to smooth away some of the rough edges and make the orchestra players’ lives a little easier, but I don’t think it ever sounded nearly as good. It needed those tensions to bring out the ideas behind its conception. To me, it still sounds like a masterpiece, the product of a mind in which simplicity and complexity achieved a perfect coexistence.

* The image of Ornette Coleman is from Ian Dury’s design for the first UK edition of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A.B. Spellman’s classic portrait of Ornette, Herbie Nichols, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor, published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1967. You can find a short piece I wrote about Ornette’s significance for the Guardian’s music blog here: http://bit.ly/1FbgxSA

The Road to Jajouka

Scan 132760001The Master Musicians of Jajouka came to London’s Commonwealth Institute in September 1980 and, over the course of five nights, practically blew the place apart through the force of their sound. That was the initial shock: the sheer volume and energy produced by eight men playing rhaitas — a double-reed instrument — and five others playing side drums. It was the first chance most of us had been given to see and hear these Sufi musicians from a village in the Rif mountains, and they more than lived up to their legend. The use of circular breathing and layered rhythms was a revelation, as was their casual mode of presentation. “The musicians did not treat their work with undue reverence,” I wrote in The Times. “They shared jokes and exchanged winks with members of the audience, who were encouraged to participate in displays of come-as-you-are dancing.”

The short season was part of a tour arranged to raise funds to ensure the preservation of their ancient culture and way of life. Three decades later the struggle seems to be continuing, to judge by the appearance of a new CD, The Road to Jajouka, in which recordings of their music are blended — by way of sampling, remixing and juxtaposition — with that of various western musicians. “One hundred per cent of the net profits will go to the Jajouka Foundation,” the sleeve informs us.

The album is produced by Billy Martin, the drummer with Martin, Medeski and Wood, whose entire membership appears on the opening track, together with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Others who turn up on subsequent pieces include the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, drummer Mickey Hart, the bass guitarists Bill Laswell and Flea, the guitarist Lee Ranaldo, the Sirius Quartet and  the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Howard Shore, the Canadian composer who is credited as an executive producer of the album. Shore’s interest in this music probably has its origin in his collaboration with Coleman on the score for David Cronenberg’s 1991 film of William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, in which the Jajouka musicians were featured.

This is not the album to buy if you’re after a full-strength blast of the Boujeloud rite of the Jajouka musicians. In general, however, the mash-ups work well. I love the sound of Ribot’s squibbling guitar and the string quartet against the massed rhaitas on “Into the Rif”. Coleman’s alto improvisation against the layered rhaitas of Bachir Attar on “Jnuin” recalls the visit to Morocco that produced the track “Midnight Sunrise”, included on the album Dancing in Your Head, released in 1977, with a fragment repeated on the Naked Lunch soundtrack (if there ever was a western musician attuned to the vision of these Sufis, it’s surely Ornette).

Many of us know a great deal more about the sounds of the world than we did in 1968, when Brion Gysin took Brian Jones to Jajouka, or in 1980, when Jajouka came to London. Or, indeed, when Burroughs called them “the 4,000-year-old blues band” (we now know their music dates back a mere 1,300 years). The new CD is a reminder that increased familiarity hasn’t robbed this particular music of its power to astonish and mesmerise.

* The photograph of the Master Musicians of Jajouka is from the CD insert and was taken by Cherie Nutting. Jajoukafoundation.org is the relevant website for information and donations. There’s a fine chapter on Jajouka in Blues & Chaos, a collection of pieces by the late Robert Palmer, edited by Anthony DeCurtis and published by Scribner in 2009.

The home of the hits

RW & Ornette

Since everybody else seems to have shared their memories of Television Centre, the home of most of the BBC’s visual output for the past half-century, which the corporation finally abandoned to the developers today, I might as well join in. It was from that distinctive building in Shepherds Bush that the first series of The Old Grey Whistle Test, which I presented, was broadcast live on Tuesday nights in 1971-72, and here is a photograph (by Robert Ellis) of Ornette Coleman being interviewed by me on the programme in 1972.

Ornette was not your typical OGWT guest. He was in London to record his symphonic work, Skies of America, at Abbey Road with the LSO, and I had to plead a bit with the producer, Mike Appleton, to get him on the show. It was one of my happiest moments of the series, along with the appearances of Curtis Mayfield and John Martyn, and the night Dr John came into the studio and, in the guise of Mac Rebennack, sat down at an upright piano and spent a mesmerising 10 minutes working his way through the history of New Orleans keyboard styles. And who would not have cherished the night Captain Beefheart arrived to present his paintings to the world? They were strikingly excellent, and gave an indication of the direction he would take when he re-adopted the identity of Don Van Vliet a few years later.

A lot of the series wasn’t so much fun for me, particularly some of interviews (notably those with a near-psychotic Jerry Lee Lewis, a sneery Mick Jagger and a sarky Randy Newman — each one no doubt a justified response to my indifferent interrogational technique). That’s why I called it quits at the end of the first series and returned to the typewriter. I thought the programme needed someone more extrovert to front it. Mike, however, chose to hand the baton to Whispering Bob, who was even quieter than me. It wasn’t for a couple of decades that Jools Holland and his producer Mark Cooper came along with Later, which in its early days was almost exactly the kind of programme I’d have liked the OGWT to be: musicians playing live, without many restrictions.

That first series was broadcast from a studio called Presentation B, which measured 32ft by 22ft and had been designed for reading the news. Somehow bands managed to crowd into it, along with a couple of big old 1950s-style cameras, while the production staff occupied a control room the size of a phone box. And Curtis Mayfield’s wonderful band turned their amps all the way down to 1 but managed to make their short set sound and feel like the best gig happening anywhere in the world that night.