Thursday, July 11th CONCERT: WHEN WILL THE BLUES LEAVE?
By Michael Shore
Wednesday night’s concert, a marathon featuring high art, low comedy and highlight after highlight in between, left us wondering how Thursday night’s finale could possibly top it. But any such thoughts vanished Thursday morning, as word spread through the early workshop session that Ornette Coleman — giant of American music and driving force in the creation of CMS – had left us at age 85. The eerie irony of the CMS All-Stars playing Ornette’s “When Will The Blues Leave” Wednesday night, some 12 hours before the news came of his passing, was inescapable. As Marc Epstein recounts on the CMS Facebook page, much of the morning was given over to Karl Berger and a visibly shaken Ingrid Sertso remembering their friend Ornette with warm, witty and wonderful stories of his singular, sweet yet uncompromising character.
Thursday night picked up where the afternoon workshop had left off, with the best form of CMS tribute to Ornette: his music. Guiding Artist Warren Smith painstakingly assembled a breathtaking orchestral version of what many, this writer included, consider Ornette’s greatest, most hauntingly beautiful composition, “Lonely Woman” – fresh, felt, and faithful to the original’s unforgettably stark contrast of mournful melody unfurling in long, slow notes over a bebop rhythm so supersonically fast it almost seems to stand still. Incredibly, Smith told the participants he’d planned this before the news of Ornette’s passing had broken. Even more incredibly, he pointed out something I’d never noticed in more than three decades of loving “Lonely Woman,” of being mesmerized by it as Smith said he’d been: the last five notes of its majestic melody are basically “a long way from home,” the last line of the great spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Could there be a more fitting requiem for Ornette than some 20-plus musicians, young to middle-aged, professional and amateur, playing this tune on this day – in the place Ornette was key to creating?
It was in that spirit that Thursday’s concert began, with no fanfare whatsoever, as Karl Berger’s meditative piano solo set up Coleman’s classic “Blues Connotation,” with Berger, Sertso, Smith, reedman Donny Davis, trumpeter and Guiding Artist Amir ElSaffar (who was driving to visit his uncle upstate but had to pull over as he passed The Roadhouse, explaining he realized he needed to be there playing one more tune before going on his way), bassist Ken Filiano, and Omar (guitar) and Emilio (drums) Tamez doing justice to its quirkily twisting yet oh-so-songful post-bop melody. As Berger had begun the piece so he ended it, with a heated vibraphone solo, but only after a double-drum feature and an extended opportunity for Omar Tamez to show what a refreshingly distinctive and original guitarist he is – left-field and unexpected in tone, attack and conception, in a completely natural and unforced way. He also stood out on the next tune – a reprise of Ornette’s “When Will The Blues Leave,” which Berger had the workshop band play to end Thursday’s session (and the week’s). And what a joy to hear Warren Smith’s playing behind Tamez: a model of taste, efficiency, logic, and dynamic control. Emilio Tamez eventually joined in on drums, turning the heat way up, leading to an intense finale where Omar and Donny Davis wove a tintinnabulating tapestry of ringing, shrieking high notes – so different from Berger’s spontaneous workshop arrangement, which had emphasized the tune’s child-like sing-songy charm.
A free improv followed, led by Davis’s wood flute and Sertso’s scatting, with Smith on mallets and Omar Tamez on bells and whistles (no, really – literally, bells and whistles). Ingrid brought intense emotion to what one witness, CMS supporter Lloyd Trufelman, later called “a séance” — chanting “Ornette is here with us, Ornette is here with us…” and “Say it isn’t so, say it isn’t so…” as Davis’s gorgeous, prayerful alto solo evoked “Lonely Woman” without outright quoting it, just as “Lonely Woman” treats that line from “Motherless Child.”
Ingrid said “You know, it’s hard to make a musical celebration of the passing of a beloved friend…” before reading a brief Ornette poem. Karl played a wonderful fast and intricate vibes line which had the distinct feel of a typical twisting, long-lined Ornette post-bop melody, Smith tapping delicate cymbal patterns as Davis’s kalimba entwined with Berger’s vibes to form a sort of mini-gamelan…and suddenly Karl was playing “Theme From A Symphony,” familiar from Coleman’s Skies of America and his landmark 1977 electric recording Dancing In Your Head, over Smith’s fast shuffle on brushed snare. I wished it had kept going longer than it had, but too soon, it and the set were over. It had lasted more than an hour and felt much, much faster than that.
After a break, however, Warren Smith assembled the participants to bid a public farewell to Ornette, and the week’s workshop activities and festivities, with his lovely arrangement of “Lonely Woman.” And he asked, or actually told your correspondent — a rank amateur so out of practice he’s a virtual non-musician, who’d tried to stay out of everyone’s way at the workshops on small percussion devices (slit drum, tambourine, shakers) — to “sit at my kit while I conduct, and play some real drums for once!” Thank you, Warren Smith, for the privilege. Thank you Emilio Tamez for so graciously helping this rusty Tin Man through it. Thank you all the other participants, and Guiding Artists Steven Bernstein and Amir ElSaffar. Thank you Karl and Ingrid and CMS, and thank you Ornette Coleman for the music that leaves us feeling not such a long way from home after all.