CHANGE OF ANOTHER CENTURYI didn’t know what time it was when I came out of the Royal Festival Hall for a second consecutive, reeling night. All I know is that it was light when I came in and dark when I crept out. My body clock still hasn’t adjusted (the automatic pilot takes over in emergencies to look after daily routines). But then Ornette has done nothing if not stretched time these last fifty years, not to mention notions of melody (and his are some of the prettiest melodies in all of jazz), harmony (“harmolodics” – is it really that simple a combination?) and tonality. When listening to portions of 1967’s minimalist The Empty Foxhole or 1995’s maximalist Tone Dialing it is easy to imagine that one is listening to the first music ever made, invented from scratches of instinct and interaction, and the feeling, as ever, is how anyone else could possibly get confused or disorientated by this most natural and logical of musics (if logic emanates initially from the make-up of one’s own mind, if one’s mind can be made up, and Ornette asks why not). But then Ornette’s music was among the first music I ever heard, and everything I have thought and felt about music since has radiated as a by-product from him.The confusion still happens. I recall Prime Time at the Bracknell Jazz Festival in the summer of 1980, post-punks sporting their Slits and Go4 Better Badges and pogoing at the front, much to Coleman’s manifest delight, while the sweatered real ale beards further back in the audience looked disturbed. Or the Tone Dialing group which appeared at the South Bank a dozen years ago, a seminal whirlwind of apparently random keyboard stabs, Bach quotations, dancers and rappers appearing and vanishing for no good reason (and reason is no good if you want to appreciate Ornette fully). Those who had gingerly become used to the early Atlantic sides looked as though a bomb had just hit them.I didn’t notice too many walkouts yesterday evening, nor did I when Ornette’s current quartet played at the Barbican a couple of years ago, though I did notice that it was more or less the same audience (Morley included). There was the same befuddlement on the Today programme as there had been thirty years previously (for John Humphreys, read Jack de Manio). And experiencing the two or nine or thirty-eight hours that the quartet played, it was the same rush to both head and body, the delighted enmeshment in a self-contained and utterly confident world; if you can’t find it in yourself to enter it, is that our fault? Tunes came and went, more referred to than played specifically (“Good Old Days” and “Song X” both sped by), but the momentum was utterly of its own making; any feeling that this music is “wrong” leads us to examine ourselves to think whether we might be “wrong” – and in any case Ornette’s influence has spread so thoroughly and effusively through more or less all worthwhile music since Something Else (the business, of course, not wanting to admit his importance since that would dent their non-working model of “showbiz” and “stars” and “demographics”) that we breathe his music in, but never out, with little conscious effort.Does Denardo at fifty know any more about playing the drums than the Denardo at ten who played on The Empty Foxhole? And what is “playing the drums” anyway when Denardo is so clearly the ideal drummer for his father’s music (the only other plausible candidate still living would be Maureen Tucker)? And what is “rhythm” when there are two bassists, one electric, one acoustic, the latter of which (Tony Falugia) effectively functioned as a second horn, or a second and third string when combined with Ornette’s free-form serialist country and western violin and it just sounds like stars turning into strawberry milk over Big Ben? The feeling is in the life, the life dwells securely within the music. By early exposure to Ornette I learned that everything is allowed, nothing is forbidden, justly or unjustly, that his world is open to all, and moreover that he swings like no other alto player left standing. He is now seventy-seven; the records will stand, but his living breath must be shared as much as possible while he continues to do everything with time save marking it.
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