Tribute to Ornette Coleman

505, August 4


Undy res
Cameron Undy. Photo: Laki Sideris

Wisely it came last, because it couldn’t be trumped. The late Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman is one of the 20th century’s masterpieces; a sonic equivalent of the shattering sadness of Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Here it was played with almost frightening intensity, spawning a dialogue between Peter Farrar (alto saxophone) and Sandy Evans (tenor) as desolate as two refugees speaking through razor wire.

This concert of Coleman’s music was not just a celebration of the revolutionary who freed up jazz form, harmony, intonation and metre in the late 1950s, but a celebration of life, itself. This was partly thanks to one of the feistiest bands ever assembled here, and partly, or course, to the bursting vitality of Coleman’s music. While this sometimes was shadowed with the despondency of one who spent so much of his career merely hoping to be accepted, more often the arcing cries that speared from his alto saxophone spoke of jubilation and an indomitable spirit.

Gloriously, the band that bassist Cameron Undy assembled did not pay tribute in the form of undue reverence or, worse, imitation, rather delighting in improvising around some of the most effervescent melodies ever written. Coleman avoided pianists as if they were salt that night harden the music’s harmonic arteries, so with commendable audacity Undy included pianist Stu Hunter, one of several masterstrokes. Adroitly Hunter mostly played one-handed, single-note lines that fizzed with dissonances and rhythmic invention.

Farrar was the ideal alto player: daring, impassioned and speechlike; jaunty one moment, jolting the next. Evans was at her best, emphasising the tenor’s weight of sound, and phrasing in ways that left room for Undy and drummer Simon Barker to pirouette around the grooves, to dismantle them amid incendiary punctuations (as on an exhilarating Turnaround), or to create sudden squalls of doubled time.

James Greening fed growly trombone or quicksilver streams of pocket trumpet into the mix, and Carl Dewhurst created jester-in-the-pack guitar textures, and underpinned Coleman’s funkier material, including an irrepressible Dancing in Your Head. Unforgettable.