Sunday, July 06, 2008

Music of the Week: The Ornette Coleman Trio - Live at the Golden Circle, Vol. 2

Considered objectively, I’m sure this is not the best Ornette Coleman album, but it’s a sort of sentimental favorite for me, partly for non-musical reasons. I listened to it a good bit at a particularly dark time of my life, and, as we used to say back then, it took me to a good place; it somehow seemed an opening to a world I would have much preferred to inhabit.

Partly this was a matter of ambience. The album was recorded in Stockholm and at the time I had a romantic longing to be somewhere in northern Europe (still do, actually), which at least in my mind was a more beautiful and peaceful place than the U.S.A. of 1970 or so. There was the cover photo, which I assumed was taken in Stockholm: the black-and-white image of the three musicians in a snowy landscape, three very American-looking men in a European setting, a very appealing combination. They were dressed unostentatiously, conventionally and tastefully, unlike me and my hippie friends. And yet they were undeniably way more hip than any of us. They were hip but not stupid; they didn’t live in the world of Grand Funk Railroad. There was still a certain intellectual cachet about the world of jazz, or at least there recently had been, and Coleman and his friends were playing for an audience which I supposed to be much more sophisticated than an American one; after all, this was the country that gave us Bergman.

And then there was the music. This album begins with a track, “Snowflakes and Sunshine,” that’s usually treated lightly or even disdainfully by critics, because Coleman plays violin and trumpet on it, neither of which he was especially good at. The first reaction of most listeners to it is to wonder why anyone would ever want to listen to what seems like frenetic and aimless scratching on the violin. That was my reaction at first, but then somehow I began to enjoy it; the swirling fall of notes began to seem like snowflakes falling in sunshine, patternless but bright and enchanting.

And the next track, “Morning Song,” which is more typical Coleman, is the sort of slow loose lyricism that one could imagine feeling, if not being able to produce, on a quiet and hopeful but slightly melancholy morning. Those two were the first side of the LP, which I listened to far more than the second. Listening to it now as I write this, I see that its two tracks, “The Riddle” and “Antiques,” are at least as good, although more…well, “conventional” is not the right word for any of Coleman’s music, but they are certainly less strange than “Snowflakes and Sunshine.”

Free jazz is not my favorite sort of music, and it’s hard for me to explain why Coleman’s engages me while most does not. It seems to me that though his phrases don’t necessarily have a logical relationship to each other, they are striking in themselves. I have to resort to a literary analogy: it’s like poetry that’s a series of unrelated images and statements that are so striking in themselves that you don’t really mind the fact that they’re disconnected. And in the end they do make a sort of intuitive picture.

Best, though, is the fittingly offhand phrase used by Jesse Canterbury in trying to explain to me what captivates him about Coleman’s music: “the sheer beauty and humanity of it.” It’s that second word that’s most important; you feel like you’re hearing something that comes from the deepest places in the heart, the inchoate emotions themselves expressed by someone who happens to have a gift for giving them just enough shape and order to make them felt by others.

If you don’t know Ornette Coleman’s work, this is not necessarily the best place to start. That would probably be The Shape of Jazz to Come, which begins with the lovely-by-any-standard “Lonely Woman.” But then, who knows, you might hear in this one the same things I hear.

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