Friday, July 10, 2020

The Further Adventures of Ornette: The Biography of Ornette Coleman by Maria Golia

Ornette Coleman performing at The Hague in 1994 in 1994. (Photo: Geert Vandepoele)
“Music, faces worn by time, want to tell us something, or are about to tell us something: that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.” – Jorges Luis Borges, 1959.
When I first heard the music of Charlie Parker, especially his Savoy recordings while I was still a teenager, my concept of what music was or could be changed forever. A sudden joy escaped from its cage and flew around the room in dizzying circles. Shortly afterward, when I first heard John Coltrane, especially with the magical Miles Davis Quartet and then flying solo on his own, my life changed again, those emotions leaving the room altogether and reaching out for the sky. The same kind of radical transformation occurred when I first encountered the raw music of Ornette Coleman, when the bird was let out forever from its cage and soared off into space.

His album The Shape of Jazz to Come, from the same year when Borges was writing about a revelation as yet unproduced, caused a rupture in musical expectation, not just for me but also for all the most advanced post-bop players then on the scene. They found him, at first, primitive, untutored and almost insanely formless in his quest for a freedom too beautiful to be contained by any customary notation. Now, of course, everyone recognizes that he was indeed foretelling the shape of a music that was, as yet, unproduced, even as he was simultaneously, and spontaneously, producing it before our eyes and ears. He was seriously cooking up music, but also still leaving it mostly raw. It felt, weirdly enough, like the sushi form of jazz.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Time and Place: Tonight with Belafonte, The Mikado, And So We Come Forth

Harry Belafonte in Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

A friend who was trolling through YouTube this week came across something truly extraordinary: Tonight with Belafonte, an hour-long “special” (as they used to be called) from 1959 directed by Norman Jewison – who went on to make Fiddler on the Roof, among many other movies – and starring Harry Belafonte and Odetta. The Jamaican-American Belafonte was at the peak of his popularity: when I was a Montreal kid in the fifties, every family I knew stocked his albums, his rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” was a big hit, and he even made a pass at a movie career, though it didn’t pan out for him as it did for his buddy Sidney Poitier. (Belafonte made only a handful of movies, including Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanized version of the Bizet opera.) Staggeringly handsome and sexy – he had caramel skin and a taut, high-waisted frame – with a warm, dynamic presence and a magnificent vocal instrument, he was most famous for popularizing calypso in North America. But as charming as those sides were, I think he was at his best with ballads (like my childhood favorite “Scarlet Ribbons”), which he rendered with a focused emotional intensity that lit them up. Odetta was a folksinger with a deep contralto whose fame was eclipsed by the movement of folk to rock ‘n’ roll, but she had one of the great soulful voices of the twentieth century, phrasing of diamond-like purity and precision and a powerhouse delivery. (Think Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone.)