Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle, Volume One/Two

Ornette Coleman
At the Golden Circle, Volume OneAt the Golden Circle, Volume Two
Blue Note

To press play in a small apartment in Brooklyn in 2002 and be privy to a well-preserved 1965 concert is like activating voodoo in your house. Unseen instruments move the air in secret ways, and I can almost feel the temperature and humidity of a room that first filled with these sounds 37 years ago. The concerts were Ornette Coleman’s, and they took place at Stockholm’s Golden Circle, on a couple of undoubtedly cold and snowy December nights. These powerful Blue Note recordings have been recently re-issued with new alternate takes and excellent sound as part of the label’s RVG Series. (Rudy Van Gelder, the celebrated audio engineer who recorded many classic jazz dates in the 1950s and ’60s has undertaken, in the past couple of years, the remastering of many Blue Note sessions.) Although the Golden Circle was not a Van Gelder recording, it has a strange presence, and, especially on this reissue, its sound is haunting. And so, before any discussion of the abundant merits of the music itself, I’d like to call to attention some of the sounds waiting to be stirred from the disc.

First, there’s the storytelling voice. In his hands, Coleman’s saxophone is the most primal of expressive tools: a chisel — a shard for cutting things open. That is not to say that it is not beautiful. His sound is nothing less than a window into empathy. Coleman’s famous plastic horn, blown hard, has a cry, and when it’s played with less force it takes you into its confidence with a warm and wooden tone.

And there’s color: Golden Circle features an extraordinary cymbal sound. It has unusual depth: the stick’s bead on the metal is like rain on a plastic awning, or hail on a pond, with deeply hued overtones spreading below. It’s the most remarkable recorded cymbal sound I’ve ever heard. The dense thud of the bass drum and rap of the snare drum pop like fireworks; they’re the left and right against which the sax trails careen.

No less notable is the dark spring of the bass. David Izenzon was a bass purist, and performed without amplification. On Golden Circle the bass occupies its natural level: in the particulars of its notes it is sometimes obscured by the drums and horn, but never in its presence or thrust. But when the percussion and horn wane, as they often do, we’re left supported by the hyper-intelligent web of Izenzon’s mahogany bass tone deep below.

These rich sounds are the dressings of a very fine music. The Golden Circle engagement occurred roughly at the midpoint in time between Coleman’s famous Atlantic recordings, and the electric music of his group, Prime Time. The music is “free”: in order to find expression, Ornette created his own idiom, based on the somewhat arcane umbrella of concepts that he calls Harmolodics. Roughly simplified, Harmolodics dictates that the soloist’s range of invention is limited only within the scope of his muse. There are no preconceived frameworks or laws to adhere to; he or she has total freedom (hence the term) to play whatever he or she wishes. And the accompanists can do the same. Rhythm, harmony, and melody are all put on equal footing, individually, and in the group dynamic. And so the sound of the music varies from group to group because it relies on the collective chemistry of each member’s approach.

On Golden Circle, Ornette, as usual, spins out a seemingly infinite stream of melody, from the simple and childlike to the angular and cerebral. And his melody is marinated through and through in the peppery tang of Texas blues and R&B. Moffett and Izenzon engage and expand the traditional roles of bass and drums. While both seem to relish forward motion, they’re each unpredictable in their own way: Moffett may change tempo and meter, or stop playing completely at any moment, and Izenzon picks up the bow in mid-swing and joins the front line with Ornette at will. Together, they’re unflaggingly creative in support of the leader.

As to the material, there’s a wonderful abundance of different moods and settings for the trio to explore. For example, there’s the off-to-the-races scamper of “Faces and Places” and the furious start to “The Riddle”. There are a couple of quiet and reflective odes to daybreak: the orchestral miniature of “Dawn”, and the slow blues lament of “Morning Song”, a highlight of which is Moffett’s xylophone reading of the melody during a bass solo. “Snowflakes and Sunshine” features Ornette’s much maligned (but brilliant) trumpet and violin playing. It’s got a hectic stop-start form in which alternate trumpet and violin solo passages are framed by bowed bass solos accompanied by sparse, shifting percussion. It’s a cubist hoedown. And then there’s the measured lope of “Antiques”, and the boppish “Doughnuts”.

It’s exhilarating to thumb one’s nose at space and time, and that’s what we do when we listen to Ornette Coleman: At the Golden Circle. To have access to music like this, with such vibrant sound, is a gift. Enjoy it.