Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown

The annual Meltdown festival took over London’s South Bank Centre this week. I saw Yo La Tengo’s rock ’n’ roll Q&A, and unfortunately missed a performance by David Murray, one of my favorite saxaphonists.

But the highlight was curator Ornette Coleman himself, in an evening dedicated to his “Shape of Jazz to Come”, the record which marked the transition from the era of Bird and the “cool” Miles Davis to the much wilder 60s.

Coleman shuffled on stage in a shimmering suit, playing from his 50 years of songs, and reaching back to an amazing version of the the famous prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite, as well as a take on “Rite of Spring” via his own “Sleep Talking”. He played with the current incarnation of his quartet, his son Denardo on drums, and Tony Falanga and Al MacDowell on acoustic and electric bass. Bill Frisell joined them on guitar for most of the evening, and rock goddess Patti Smith sang/spoke/chanted on Ornette’s 80s track, “In All Languages”. The Master Musicians of Jajouka (Not to be confused with “Joujouka”) came on for an almost unbearably intense jam on Lonely Woman, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating about “unbearably” — the droning Moroccan wind instruments put out a pretty ferocious but wonderful noise.
Ornette Coleman — Meltdown - 7Ornette Coleman — Meltdown - 9

The performance reminded of a morning almost exactly twenty years ago. I was living in New York City, and my friend Marc and I got up before dawn to take the subway down to Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan. There, we got to hear Sun Ra and his Arkestra along with trumpeter (and one-time Ornette Coleman sideman) Don Cherry greet the sun for the 1989 Summer Solstice. I don’t remember much from the event, just Sun Ra and the Arkestra playing and chanting “the sun…. the sun… the sun…” and Don Cherry sitting down, leaning against a wall, playing his pocket trumpet. I must have spent the day in a sleepy attempt at working at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies where I spent a year studying the Antarctic ozone hole, and I vaguely recall ending the night at Central Park’s Summerstage dancing away to Tito Puente.

Steve Reid, Mats Gustafsson, Kieran HebdenTo mirror that evening, albeit with many more skinny, pasty-faced white people in ironic t-shirts, I went back to Meltdown the next night for some post-rock jazz with Kieran Hebden, Steve Reid and others. Actually, the post-rock moniker doesn’t do it justice. If Ornette was playing the future of jazz in 1960, this is the future we’ve got now: undoubtedly jazz, but taking advantage of technology and forms of music that were barely contemplated fifty years ago.