Wednesday, 20 August 2008

"Caught in Coleman's Spell": Ornette Coleman’s ‘Virgin Beauty’

Ornette Coleman (as, tp, vln) Charles Ellerbee, Bern Nix (g) Jerry Garcia (g -1,6,7) Al MacDowell, Chris Walker (b) Calvin Weston (d) Denardo Coleman (d, key)

1. 3 Wishes
2. Bourgeois Boogie
3. Happy Hour
4. Virgin Beauty
5. Healing The Feeling
6. Singing In The Shower
7. Desert Players
8. Honeymooners
9. Chanting
10. Spelling The Alphabet
11. Unknown Artist

Recorded in New York City, October 1987

I've been seriously digging Ornette Coleman over the past few days. I was on youtube, and, as you do, ended up on a video completely different to that I'd started off with (along the way, I think, I'd be looking at Wayne Shorter's quartet, life-enhancing as ever, and clarinetist Perry Robinson, who's so effective on Henry Grime's recently re-issued 'The Call').

Anyway, there's a bizarre video of Ornette performing a duet with painter/ pianist Mark Kostabi on Kostabi's game-show 'Title This'. I watch it every few weeks, fascinated and perplexed. I still don't feel I can really 'judge' it in a conventional sense. On one level, it's bizarre, absurdly melodramatic, and would probably become unbearable if it lasted for longer than three minutes. But as it is, there's something about it that is enormously compelling. It throws out Coleman's style nakedly; there's no dense three-guitar or three-bass texture, as with Prime Time or Ornette's latest band. Instead, there's just a piano, acting very much in an accompanying role, laying down chords which act as signals for Ornette to let off another intensely human cry or one of those ghostly bebop runs that appear in practically every solo he's ever recorded, most notably on 'Turnaround'.

So, I ended up at this video again - and then went on to some rare solo clips, recorded at the 1972 Berlin Jazz Tage, in which he's on piano (not his most convincing performance - compared to the alto which follows it, it's very heavy-handed and rhythmically lumpen). And then, 'Town Hall 1962', with the superb rhythm section of Moffett and Izenzon - of which a lengthy review will be appearing on Issue 2 of the e-zine I edit, 'eartrip'. And finally, the 1988 Prime Time record, probably best known nowadays for featuring Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead on a few tracks, ‘Virgin Beauty’.

It's 'Virgin Beauty' that I'm going to spiel about here. Why? Well, firstly, I can find very little written about it, in comparison to the rest of Ornette’s output, and what there is is mostly negative. The All Music Guide has a typically pithy and rather off-target review which ends up saying something like "messy but rewarding after several listens". 'Messy' is one thing this record is not - despite the crowded texture, it's so clear - in fact, that's probably its greatest achievement (I’ll expand on this later). Meanwhile, Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz call it "dull, MOR funk, in which tougher material is obscured by a clotted rock mix."

OK, so a lot of people seem not to like Prime Time, and I can see why - 'Dancing in Your Head' has never been my favourite, this despite the fact that Ornette's playing is frequently attractive, in a rather more 'down-home' register than usual (as Gary Giddins puts it, "Coleman streams over the backbeat with dynamic certitude, offering one rousing lick after another, almost any one of which would fit the most primitive rural blues setting, or so it seems when one is Caught in Coleman's spell"). Only thing is, that irritating 'Good Life' melody keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box all over the place, and it really gets on my nerves. Miles Davis was utilizing repetitive melodic cells more successfully in his 70s fusion work.

Let’s put that idea on hold, and make way for a slight deviation – I always remember talking to someone about free jazz, and while they enthusiastically expounded the virtues of Albert Ayler, they dismissed Coleman. I think that sort of critical judgment arises from the fact that people approach Ornette’s music from the wrong direction. Thing is, I've never really thought of him as a free jazz musician. Yes, I know he was instrumental in the development of harmonic freedom and a step away from the reliance on chord changes, and yes I know that he made a record actually called 'Free Jazz.' However, I tend to see that particular enterprise as a one-off in his output - and his version of 'energy music' is very different from that put forward in similar large group enterprises, like Coltrane's 'Ascension' or Ayler's 'New York Eye and Ear Control' - less a form of screaming collective catharsis, more a form of (particularly animated) collective conversation. Let's take the example of ‘White Light’, the Jackson Pollock painting on the cover - whereas Coleman's music is the aural equivalent of the delicate dribbles that act like criss-crossing threads over the canvas (the sort of detail you'd notice if you looked at the painting close up), Coltrane's and Ayler's music has the effect of the canvas seen as a whole, in its monumental, overwhelming impact.

How is all this relevant to ‘Virgin Beauty’, and to the caveats I introduced about Prime Time earlier? Well, despite the instrumentation of Prime Time (drum machines, electric guitars, electric basses), and its incorporation of steady backbeats and funk grooves and rhythms, it's never felt like any other kind of jazz fusion to me, just as ‘Free Jazz’ doesn’t feel like any other kind of free jazz. Maybe it's just the unmistakable quality of Ornette's alto playing, but I think that quality is felt in the tunes as well – both in their particular melodic construction and in the texture which surrounds them. In the Pollock painting, each dribble, each ecstatically wavering line, has equal importance – and with Ornette, each instrument is equally important (and yet the music never looses a sense of order, while retaining a spontaneous edge).

Melody is the primary motivating force behind Coleman's work. At times it can sound like everyone is soloing at once: the rhythm section is not a 'rhythm section' as such, if one thinks of the supporting role that phrase tends to connote – yet at the same time it is very much concerned with generating rhythm. Listen to the deep grooves Haden and Blackwell get into on, say, 'Una Muy Bonita' – it’s not too much of a stretch to see this lineage continuing with the funky guitars, bass and drums of Prime Time. While I agree with Brian Olewnick, who finds Deonardo and Weston's playing on ‘Virign Beauty’ rather too staid and stodgy, without Ronald Shannon Jackson’s spark, it’s clearly not the case that Ornette has simply dumbed-down the backdrop – this is tricksy and complex, carefully composed and stitched together. The lines, or repeating cells that each instrument is playing could be the principal melody – it just so happens that they’ve been arranged so that some seem to be in the ‘lead’ and some in ‘supporting roles.’ It’s not just Ornette playing over lazy funk. If you can’t appreciate this, you’re probably doomed never to fully ‘get’ what Prime Time is about.

Again, it’s about approaching things from the wrong angle. One might easily overlook the complex nature of the music - might even see it as rather stiff, and overly arranged, rather than embracing the 'natural technique' that Ornette is seen as embodying (and does, to some extent). To answer this, the comparison I'd make here is actually Don Van Vliet, who's often cited as having been influenced by Coleman (mostly by ignorant rock critics who think that Vliet's untrained saxophone sound-paintings are somehow similar to Coleman's intricately melodic variations). Yet they share a similar approach to ensemble writing - Vliet's more deliberately 'sloppy' and not holding together, Ornette's always slightly 'not right' (most obviously in his treatment of pitch), yet locked-in more tightly. Each instrument plays lines that may go off in very different directions, individually, yet mesh together to create a coherent diversity. From a musician’s viewpoint, it requires great discipline and attentiveness to what's going on around you, and the fact that it's so easy to overlook indicates just how well this particular group of players pull it off.

The relationship between soloist and rhythm section is best illustrated when things almost fall apart, four minutes into 'Borgeois Boogie' - it seems like the track's going to end up with rather a botched conclusion, Ornette rushing to finish the melody so that it fits with the rhythm section, but you realize that this was all part of the plan when the drums carry on, rock-steady, the basses re-enter with that strange shuddering, repeating riff, and Ornette blasts in on trumpet. Well, maybe it’s wasn’t part of the plan – maybe someone did cock up, maybe Ornette did have to play the melody faster than he’d have liked, but that makes things seem that much closer to the edge, that much more exhilarating. And it’s therefore very apt that it’s a trumpet solo that takes things out – there's something incredibly strange about his trumpet playing - it evades being pinned down technically, and while it's less a 'pure sound' tool in his hands than the violin, becoming increasingly melodic as he grew more familiar with it (it's almost 'straight' on 'Chanting'), it still retains its ‘otherness’ to this day.

There’s so much to admire texturally. The double electric bass texture is delicious; I’m a particular admirer of Jamaaladeen Tacuma's sound (check out 'Honeymooners', where he gets a little space to himself). Those sounds are very 80s, but, in Tacuma's hands, they become something to be savoured rather than deplored (I must remember to check out Weston and Tacuma's work with Derek Bailey on 'Mirakle' again). And that thick guitar backdrop is so clear and yet so dense. My only caveat would be the electronic drums and the synths, which thankfully aren't pushed too far up in the mix (on ‘Chanting’, keyboardist Deonardo is playing some rather nice counterpoint to the lovely trumpet melody, but on a tinny sounding instrument that foregrounds the tendency towards sentimentality already latent in the tune).

Jerry Garcia's contributions amount to the textural rather than, as one might expect, the flashily soloistic, and that’s probably a good thing – we avoid the syndrome of the rock-star guest performer doing their thing regardless of what’s going on around them. Coleman is the only soloist here, even playing some unaccompanied alto on the first half of ‘Unknown Artist’ – and Garcia stands out no more and no less than the other guitarists, Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee. He doesn’t even appear on some of the album’s best tracks, such as the brief but strong 'Spelling the Alphabet', which sees the band divided up into three groups who throw bits of the melody at each other before uttering it in thrillingly fast unison, Ornette launching off into between speedy and those long, keening notes over a clattering clangour of the electronic drums, bass-dominated repeat of the melody. He’s also absent on the title track, which is one of the most sublime ballads Coleman's ever laid down. One thing that might not be talked about that much is the use of overdubbing - it's very discreet, but very effective. For instance, during the opener, a single trumpet stab recurs at regular intervals, on the beat, or in the aforementioned ‘Virgin Beauty’, what sounds like a slight-slowed down version of the opening melody, low down in the mix, comes in behind Coleman's solo, about two minutes into the piece (and, a minute later, violin underlies the last rhapsodic breath as the melody sounds out one last time).

What stands out most about this music, though, is its sheer sense of fun. Sometimes this means that there’s a tendency towards short, almost throw-away tracks (‘Desert Place’ is almost pop music, or would be if it didn’t feature Ornette’s overdubbed, eastern-flavoured alto/trumpet duet). Yet, most of the time, things come off beautifully. While a title like 'Bourgeois Boogie' might suggest sardonic social comment, even satire, the effect of this track is as intensely joyous as anything Coleman's done. And so, even if, as critic Robert Christgau points out, 'Virgin Beauty' is "the quietest of the Prime Time records--lyrical, sublimely reflective, autumnal at times"; and despite Don Van Vliet's pun on the saxophonist's name as 'Ornate Coldman', such joie-de-vivre shouldn't go unacknowledged. That virgin beauty is still as fresh today as it was twenty years ago.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Peter de Bolla, 'Art Matters' (2003)

Just finished reading Peter de Bolla’s ‘Art Matters’, having been meaning to look at it for several months after it was recommended to me by a tutor at university (who nevertheless had rather disparaging things to say about it). It’s an attempt to analyse the way we experience art (what he calls ‘the aesthetic experience’), through the author’s personal experience of three works (visual, aural, and verbal), out of which he attempts to draw some more general points. So, book-ended by an introductory and a concluding chapter, we are presented with writing on Barnett Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of J.S. Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’, and William Wordsworth’s poem ‘We Are Seven’ (not forgetting an important discussion of British artist Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ in the first and final chapters).

The subject is a tricky, but fascinating and important one. De Bolla knows a lot more about it than me, but he doesn’t flash this knowledge about – there are few footnotes, and the references to critics and thinkers, such as Kant and Hegel, are sparsely spread out and very much to the point when they do appear. That said, one could criticise his style for being overly wordy, even needlessly impenetrable, setting a maze for itself through contorted syntax, nested clauses, and ‘clever’ wordplay. Here is one of the knottiest passages in the book, and the most glaring example of de Bolla’s facetious punning play on language, which I can’t help feeling rather gets in the way of his argument:
Consequently, in attending to something I am in effect making present presence, and in so doing I experience myself as being present to the object of attention…we may inattend to the unattended to, thereby attending to the unintended. In attending to the unintended through inattention, we make what we have previously kept out of attention sit up and attend to us, to our attentive gaze; we ask it to pay attention….An inquiry into inattention must be a call to attention of attention itself.
(Art Matters, pp.62-3)

I realise I may be being a little unfair in the example I’ve chosen, ripped out of context (it comes in the Bach chapter, from the preliminary section where de Bolla is talking about the way we listen to and concentrate on music). But – and this is precisely the main criticism by university tutor made about the book – de Bolla has the chance to articulate and make clear (as far as that is possible) some very complex and perplexing issues, to really grab the subject of aesthetics by the throat and force it to give up some of its secrets. He does this, but at times so obscures what he is doing through the self-consciously flashy manner of doing it. Yes, these are complex issues, I said that it in the previous sentence. But talking about them needn’t necessarily involve such fussy writing – it would still be possible to make them a little clearer, without compromising the meaning.

Another problem might be that de Bolla, while covering a fairly wide spectrum in the aural and verbal works he analyses – a twentieth-century Canadian pianist’s interpretation of an eighteenth-century German keyboard work (with references to twentieth-century American jazz musicians thrown in as well), and a (very late) eighteenth-century English poem – restricts his consideration of visual art to twentieth-century examples. While the canon of western music that is still listened to today is primarily a more recent phenomenon, covering the past three centuries or so, the visual canon as it remains a subject for discussion stretches further back. To talk about Newman, Quinn and the Chapmans is fine – and, indeed, is probably a far more difficult task than talking about more traditional art-works (abstraction is a tricky thing, and de Bolla manages to discuss it in an extremely perceptive manner) – but I did hanker after at least a mention of one of the Great Masters. How would de Bolla’s arguments pan out if he was talking about a work of art that represented something tangible, rather than simply existing in abstraction? I suppose he does this with the Marc Quinn – which is a life-size cast of a human head – but the modernity of that work (the materials used, the acknowledgment of its ephemerality and changing, decaying nature as the blood turns black and decays) still distances it somewhat from the canon.

Criticisms aside, what are the issues that arise during the book’s 150-odd pages. Briefly, I’ll touch on some of them: the more specific ones that arise from de Bolla’s consideration of the three individual works. The Barnett Newman chapter is concerned with serenity, and with scale: to an extant, de Bolla argues, the massive painting scales us, gives us an altered sense of scale and space, alters our sense of existing in its presence and thereby effects our sense of our own presence in relation to this.
Newman’s pictures overtly pose the question of distance; they ask the viewer to scale him- or herself as an act of witnessing the work. This requires the viewer to accept what I have called the necessity of reconciling two competing statements of presence: that made by the image and that announced by the viewer. In the reconciliation of these two positions the distance between viewer and canvas is all but erased, for the optimum point of sight is identical to the space occupied by the image, suggesting that the canvas itself is a part of the picture-seeing mechanism….What I see is seen under the auspices of what the image presents to sight, what it lets me see. Indeed, to put it one way, the pictures itself ‘sees’ me as much as I see it, and this is certainly a function of distance.
(Art Matters, p.51)

After this, Gould/Bach. Music is perhaps the hardest of the arts to talk about, in that there’s nothing really to grasp onto that will provide a method of entry into describing one’s experience of it (unless we’re talking about music with lyrics, I suppose). Works of literature are written in language, which signifies definite meanings (or, at least, which we expect to do so in everyday discourse – though of course poetry plays on and with the ambiguities inherent within words and syntax), and works of visual art more often than not deal with objects that correspond to something we might see in the world around us (as in the case of a still life, a landscape, or a portrait). But music is fundamentally abstract in comparison. Perhaps because of this, de Bolla’s chapter on Glenn Gould’s 1981 performance of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ (which, of course, I’ve written about myself, in a post previously published on this blog), is the weakest of the three considerations of individual works of art. It certainly sees him bring in the most contextual information, relating to Gould’s various idiosyncrasies, and, though I agree with his evaluation of the performance, I feel, far more so than in the other chapters, some rather sharp subjective jolts – ‘that’s just your opinion’; why do you define the state this provokes in you as ‘wonder’?

But moving, on we finally reach what is perhaps the pick of the three essays (saving the best for last): an analysis of Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’ that both is and is not a model exercise in ‘close reading’. De Bolla doesn’t really talk that much about specific linguistic features – his analysis tends to focus instead on the philosophical implications of a particular phrase. Rather than discussing rhyme, or rhythm, or syntax, he’ll worry away at a single line for several pages, talking about naming and numbering and the relation between words and reality, language and experience, a child’s and an adult’s perception of the world, of life and of death. It’s masterful, though not exhaustive (and not intended to be so), and leads on to some of the most important ideas/ conclusions in the book.

‘Thoughts that lie too deep for tears’ is a Wordsworthian phrase de Bolla picks up on, and he makes an important argument about what he thinks an aesthetic experience is not. It is not, as one might generally suppose, of feeling (though this is present, undeniably – de Bolla is, as he readily admits, talking about occasions when he was in a state of being ‘profoundly moved’ by works of art). But that is not the most important thing. The most trivial things can spark off torrents of emotion in different people – what de Bolla is primarily interested in is not the trigger to the individual, subjective emotional response that a work of art might provide, but in the knowledge that the artwork might have – knowledge about itself, about the world, even about the viewer. Seeking out art for solely emotional needs, then, leads to it becoming almost commodified (in de Bolla’s example: I’ll listen to Beethoven’s 3rd piano concert tonight in order to give myself (in order for it to give me) the feeling of elation familiar to me from that work – like an artistic happy pill).

In the final section, de Bolla talks about the aesthetic experience and the problems in defining it, for it is at once subjective yet rooted in the ‘art-ness’ of the work itself, which (as Michael Wood also argues in his ‘Literature and the Taste of Knowledge’), ‘knows’ something (though not in any propositional sense – it doesn’t ‘know’ easily-describable/utterable data). Yet to sense this sense/knowledge, we are still rooted (trapped) in the subjective – we can only perceive the quality inherent in the work of art from our own point of view. No two people can have the same aesthetic experience. It is not reproducible outside of oneself.

Perhaps it’s because of this that de Bolla resorts to using generalised words like ‘wonder’, ‘amazement’ and ‘spell-binding’. Perhaps it’s inevitable, something one just can’t get round once one reaches a certain point in the discussion of art. After all, even the resolutely taciturn Derek Bailey approaches the mystical when he talks about the ‘magical side’ to the sort of interaction encountered in free group improvisation (‘Improvisation, Its Nature and Practice in Music’, p.112). Still, I’m a little sceptical of de Bolla’s resort to the word ‘wonder’ to define the essential quality of the aesthetic experience – at first, it seems a little randomly chosen, though I think he just about justifies its use by the time we reach the book’s conclusion. It’s about acceptance of solitude, arising from the subjective nature of the necessarily individual aesthetic experience, as outlined above – although I can convince someone else of the validity of my own experience, I can never convince them to share exactly the same experience. It’s also about sensing a knowledge that one can never quite grasp – the (great) artwork never quite gives up its secrets, and neither does the human condition, the condition of living in the world, the transience and ignorance of being human. Art helps us to accept this, at the same time as forcing us into thinking about it, exacerbating this thought – it tries to cure the wound it creates (or, at least, the wound it dis(un)covers, brings to light). This fragility, this keen balance, this disturbing quality, is what de Bolla so admires about Marc Quinn’s head-constructed-out-of-frozen-blood sculpture, ‘Self’ – though he carefully distances his appreciation of this work from the simple and short-lived ‘shock’ factor purveyed by artists such as the Chapman brothers, which leaves little of lasting value after the initial startling impact. There is, then, a distance/difference between ‘wonder’ and ‘surprise’ or ‘shock’ – the latter being something which must necessarily end far sooner.
Confronted with something new and for which we are unprepared […] we find it very easy to accommodate the new and to render the force of the shock unremarkable. Wordsworth had a good phrase for that which takes a little longer; he called it the ‘shock of mild surprise’, and the milder the surprise, generally speaking, the more enduring the shock…Much contemporary visual art has the capacity to shock in spades: many of the works in the Saatchi Collection displayed at the 1998 Royal Academy ‘Sensation’ show would provide good examples – the sculptures produced by the Chapman brothers that distort the human body and displace the sexual organs come to mind –of how surprise quickly runs out of steam, loses it appeal, fades into the familiarity of being shocked.
(Art Matters, p.142)

It is on the state of wondering fragility, rather than shock, that de Bolla concludes. His is not a perfect book (more criticisms over at, but it is a valuable one, and timely too, in that it is becoming so common to read and hear misunderstanding definitions of the role and nature of art in modern society. Of course, our appreciation of art is to some extent ideologically driven – de Bolla doesn’t deny this, but he allows art its autonomy, its independence – he goes some way towards defining it what makes it art, its reason, mode, and method of existence. In the process he suggests the ways in which it can teach us some valuable lessons – and the most valuable lesson of all is perhaps that these lessons will be lessons in not knowing as much as in knowing.