Cool head in a maelstrom

Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden
Royal Festival Hall, London

This year’s Meltdown festival was dominated by the somewhat spectral presence of its curator, the self-effacing saxophonist Ornette Coleman. For a week he laid down tantalising markers for his own gigs by materialising for show-stealing turns with guests that included The Roots, Yoko Ono and Bobby McFerrin. His concerts confirmed that his quest for the fresh idea, collectively created, remains undimmed, and after the final encore a sizeable chunk of the audience flocked to shake his hand, almost as if he were their spiritual leader.

Coleman does not stand on ceremony, and a brief “we hope you are going to enjoy the music” launched his quartet into the first night’s opener, an angular and awkward unison theme played at a devilish tempo. Having set out their stall, the band concocted a hypnotic set of unfettered improvisation, held together by collective telepathy and an occasional nod of the head.

At the outset, band roles are clearly defined. Drummer Denardo Coleman maintains a thrashing variable pulse; Tony Falanga on double bass churns and walks in equal measure; and one-time Prime Time bass guitarist Al MacDowell adds upper-register chords and countermelodies. Coleman soars out of the maelstrom with a well-placed cry and tumbles back into this shape-shifting organism. And it is in this bear pit of creative energy that Coleman’s guests have to survive.

Patti Smith proved a bit of a distraction with her half-sung poetry; Bill Frisell, looking even more anxious than usual, arrived for “Focus on Sanity”, immediately finding space to add exactly the right line; and Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka seemed teleported from a wedding feast in their Moroccan homeland. Coleman, invigorated by this anarchic brew, ended on a high. ★★★★☆

The following night, bassist Charlie Haden presented his Liberation Orchestra with arranger Carla Bley on piano and Robert Wyatt singing two numbers in Spanish. Haden’s eight-piece brass section were largely drawn from the UK – saxophonists Jason Yarde and Shabaka Hutchings stood out – and impressively manoeuvred the quirky mix of Hispanic panorama, village band march and protest anthem.

Haden’s repertoire is firmly fixed on a radical, world changing agenda – “Not in My Name”, “Song for Chef” – but is delivered with warmth and humour. The highlight was his hover-round-the-beat bass solo, delivered as filler pending the arrival of his old friend, Coleman. By the time he arrived, in time for a hug, Haden’s fine band had delivered their arrangement of Coleman’s orchestral composition “Skies of America”, and the no-show gave a warm-hearted evening a somewhat fraught conclusion. ★★★☆☆

Amends were made the next day when Coleman played the second of his two concerts to close the festival. In both shows, Coleman drew liberally from his past repertoire and added new material. There were rollicking blues and bowed bass ballads, ornate bop and indie funk, Bach and even something resembling a chord sequence. Coleman, seated on a bar stool, switched from sax to spiky trumpet or violin, subtly orchestrating a return to the theme or an out-of-nowhere stop.

Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist Flea locked impressively into a three-bass rhythm section, and brought the best out of the Master Musicians with a well-spaced twiddle. But it was Charlie Haden, finally reunited with his old friend, who had the last word, on the encore, a beautifully poised trio reading of Coleman’s heart-rending ballad, “Lonely Woman”. ★★★★★

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