Graded on a Curve: The Ornette Coleman Trio,
At the Golden Circle Stockholm Volume One

Remembering Ornette Coleman, born on this date in 1930.Ed.

Ornette Coleman is most often associated with his numerous quartets, but his Blue Note debut found him exploring the possibilities of the trio configuration. At the Golden Circle Stockholm Volume One is the first half of that journey into addition by subtraction; it not only inaugurates the highpoint of Coleman’s Blue Note run, it also stands amongst the very greatest work the trailblazing saxophonist has recorded.

The end of the 1980s was swiftly approaching, and the jury was still out on the music of Ornette Coleman. The temporary reign of compact discs was well underway, and it gradually became easier to actually hear (instead of just read about) the sounds that so divided jazz at the dawn of its most tumultuous decade. However, for my first two Coleman purchases I had to settle for cassettes. Until the CD reissues of Ornette’s Atlantic efforts began showing up in the racks (or more appropriately put, started getting listed in catalogs as being available for purchase), hearing the man’s groundbreaking early material was a struggle. Even the ‘70s fusion work with Prime Time and his ‘80s albums were difficult to locate.

What’s more, none of the meager number of older jazz heads I’d become acquainted with at that point appreciated him; when the subject arose a few were downright dismissive. And dialing the handful of jazz radio programs that my stereo tuner managed to pick up in the wee hours of the AM proved just as futile.

I’ll never forget the short but pleasant conversation I had with one of those DJs, the voice of the gent on the other end of the line informing me that he loved Coleman but had sworn off playing him due to the swarm of angry calls he’d receive in response. So deep was the animosity over a divergence from and perceived threat to the post-bop standard that nearly 30 years later merely offering it on the radio brought an influx of opprobrium via the telephone.

Prior to the ’93 release of Beauty is a Rare Thing, which collected all of Coleman’s recordings for Atlantic into one of the few truly unimpeachable box sets (in this case six CDs) of the entire compact disc boom, most of the Ornette fans I’d bump into were disaffected rockers in search of deeper thrills. This trend continued as the ‘90s lurched forth, but a couple of years after the issue of Beauty a seeming increase in acceptance was tangible.

Coleman was suddenly both iconoclast and still-active elder statesman; surely a nice development, though the growth in admiration mostly revolved around the Atlantic stuff corralled in that box. On one hand this is fitting, since it’s the work that established him on the scene; while essential to fans, his two initial LPs for the Contemporary label are undeniably formative. The first, Something Else!!!, even includes Walter Norris on an instrument the saxophonist would subsequently avoid for decades, the piano.

But if the Atlantic recordings are the focal point of Ornette’s enduring rep as an innovating improvisational heavyweight, a strong case can be made for his Blue Note period being almost as important. Across five albums as leader and one sideman date (Jackie McLean’s very swank New and Old Gospel with Coleman on trumpet) it’s certainly just as diverse.

The treats include Coleman again courting controversy by recording the pleasingly rugged The Empty Foxhole with longtime partner Charlie Haden on bass and his ten-year old son Denardo on drums, plus two LPs, New York is Now! and Love Call, with Coltrane’s former rhythm team of bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones that featured Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone.

But the best of the bunch are the two volumes that document his smoking mid-‘60s trio in live performance on December 3rd and 4th at The Golden Circle jazz club in Stockholm Sweden, arguably the second greatest band Coleman assembled. The earliest evidence of this group, which held David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett in the drum seat, is provided by the saxophonist’s solitary release for ESP Disk, the also live Town Hall, 1962, but while another necessary listen for fans, the first taste is far from the sweetest.

By the beginning of their two-week Swedish stand these three were totally clicking, though more impressive is that post-Town Hall gig they apparently didn’t pick back up until ’65, after Coleman completed a temporary hiatus from recording and performing (that’s when Town Hall, 1962 was belatedly issued). But the quality of the performances really isn’t surprising, since if too seldom celebrated for their talents, Izenzon and Moffett rank among the strongest players from the ‘60s avant-garde.

Both are mainly spoken of in the context of their tandem with Coleman, but each achieved notable artistic success in other situations, with the pair appearing separately on classics cut for the Impulse label by saxophonist Archie Shepp: Izenzon on Fire Music and On This Night and Moffett on Four for Trane.

Furthermore, the bassist contributes to a vital early entry in the New Thing, the ’62 Savoy split-LP Archie Shepp & The New Contemporary 5/The Bill Dixon 7-Tette, though in this scenario Izenzon played in the band of the late trumpeter/composer Dixon. And speaking of Savoy, it was that imprint which coordinated Moffett’s debut as leader, ‘69’s The Gift.

In Ludvig Rasmusson’s simultaneously terse and emotionally fervent liner notes on Volume One’s back cover (originally from a Swedish newspaper article published shortly in advance of the shows) the writer reinforces Coleman’s dedication to the goal of beauty, but adds that earlier in his career “nobody thought so, and everybody considered his music grotesque, filled with anguish and chaos.” Overstatement for effect, plainly, but then Rasmusson follows with “now it is almost incomprehensible that one could have held such an opinion…”

I appreciate Ludvig’s dig at the philistines, but as mentioned above, in the ‘80s lingered scores who evaluated Ornette’s concept (dubbed as Harmolodics) as fundamentally faulty and even fraudulent, many of these opinions gathered from hit and run listens to Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation By the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, easily one of jazz’s core texts (it named a movement, after all) but also not really representative of what Coleman frequently sounded like on record or on stages in his first fifteen years.

If he ushered in a fresh and very malleable improvisational method, the saxophonist was just as invested in songs and in an individualist examination of the blues. Both are present on At the Golden Circle and they combine with Ornette’s improv strategy and its essentially faultless execution to deliver a benevolent haymaker of form and content.

“Faces and Places” opens the proceedings with the artist’s signature melodic angularity, a sound significantly unique that it can still register as somewhat hyperactive. But Coleman’s commitment to blues feeling is also rapidly discernible, and with increased familiarity this aspect of presentation, from achy lament to joyous release, seems impossible to miss.

For over eight solid minutes the horn blows and without a shortage of ideas. Along the way his fellows prod Coleman and engage in dialogue but never fall into accompaniment, or perhaps better said, no point in this triangle is serving only one purpose. For instance, where in post-bop the bass often provides (hopefully) expressive anchorage, here Izenzon helps to establish basic yet vigorous and fluid pulse to then intensely dart around the horn’s explorations.

Recording quality in these settings is crucial, and At the Golden Circle doesn’t disappoint. On headphones, it can sound like one is sitting directly beside the drummer’s magnificently resonating cymbals, and at 7:40 of the opener, the manner in which Moffett starts kicking the shit out of his bass drum is just glorious.

“Faces and Places” basically expands upon the songic bedrock Coleman was examining on the majority of his Atlantic albums, but “European Echoes” adjusts the template considerably. Ornette opens with a theme so simple that to this day it seems inevitable the heaviest of hard-bop partisans will grit their teeth in derision, but the lack of complexity brings to mind Coleman’s New Thing sax counterpart Albert Ayler.

The difference is that while Ayler left the realms of Modern Jazz entirely to abstract and advance the notions of early New Orleans, Ornette wasn’t a bit averse to utilizing elements of Bebop for his own ends. The simplicity of the opening melody effectively functions in “European Echoes” as a Bop-like head, and after improvising through the track’s first half, Coleman lays-out until it’s time to restate the theme.

This is no startling revelation. The jazz sub-genre often described as Free-bop owes much to ‘60s Coleman and it can be heard all over this record, in particular during “Dee Dee;” check out the swaggering seesaw of its melody and the entirety of Coleman’s loose, bluesy, but always methodical (chaotic, my ass) soloing. Meanwhile Moffett’s dropping bombs like young Roy Haynes (his solo is of Max Roach caliber), and Izenzon could be a particularly hyped-up Oscar Pettiford.

As Ornette rolls back in it becomes easy to understand not only the weight of his influence on Jackie McLean but additionally the passionate sponsorship from the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And the way “Dee Dee” wraps up makes me expect someone in the audience to yell out “Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!” But that would’ve simply been uncouth.

The mood undergoes a major change with “Dawn,” a slower piece initially even more in keeping with the blues, largely through Izenson’s bass, though in short measure he begins an exquisite arco run that brings a suitable Euro touch to the fore (notably, it was during this time that Coleman began writing in earnest for string ensemble, first heard on “Dedication to Poets and Writers” from Town Hall, 1962 and peaking with the underrated Skies of America in ’72 for Columbia).

The sax dishes lines with characteristic aplomb, Moffett accents splendidly while introducing facets and the blues is briefly reasserted. Then everything except Izenzon’s gliding bow drops out, and the bassist renders a solo of rare vibrancy. All that’s left is for Ornette and Moffett to return and the trio to lead us to the close.

Of course, the deliberations on any artist are never really over. Respect for Coleman has surged in the new century, but dissenters remain, as they should. What’s gone is the harm of the naysayer’s words and the bins devoid of Coleman’s records. With many other achievements, Ornette was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007 for Sound Grammar, one of the great late works in jazz’s long history, and also something of a comeback.

Sound Grammar was the product of a quartet, though one with two bassists, so its conception isn’t that far from what’s here. And what’s here may not be as brilliant as what’s found on Volume Two, but it’s still indispensable, for mavens of ‘60s jazz in general and especially in terms of Coleman’s discography. Spend some time with this one, and when Ornette pulls out the violin (and the trumpet) at the start of Volume Two, rest assured you’ll be prepared.


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