Joachim Kühn Plays Ornette Coleman

ACT9763-cover

MELODIC ORNETTE COLEMAN / COLEMAN: Lonely Woman (2 vers.); Lost Thoughts; Immoriscible Most Capable of Being; Songworld; Physical Chemistry; Tears That Cry; Aggregate and Bound Together; Hidden Knowledge; Love is Not Generous, Sex Belongs to Woman. She and He is Who Fenn Love. Somewhere. Food Stamps on the Moon. KÜHN: Dedication to Ornette: The End of the World / Joachim Kühn, pno / ACT 9763-2

This is a very tricky album to review, because here pianist Joachim Kühn harmonizes music that was conceived with a fluid, moving harmonic base. As anyone familiar with Ornette Coleman’s music knows, his entire concept was based on throwing the standard tonal progressions of most Western music out the window. Each note in his compositions and solos had its own harmony, which was supposed to move and change constantly. It was the very basis of what he referred to as “harmolodics,” a system of music uniquely his own and one that the majority of musicians never quite grasped. (Even as late as the 1970s, when Ornette was on line with other jazz greats to meet President Richard Nixon, a keen fan of jazz, one of the other musicians said to his fellow behind him, “God, I hope he doesn’t think we all play as bad as Ornette!”)

But of course, this isn’t the first time Coleman’s music has been harmonized. The late, great “trad jazz” clarinetist Pee Wee Russell, who really enjoyed the music of both Coleman and Thelonious Monk, included a couple of their pieces on his late album, Ask Me Now!, and others have likewise approached the music with added harmonization.

Granted, this gives the music an entirely different feel, one that some Ornette lovers will not particularly care for. It’s almost a late-Romantic approach, albeit one with a genuine jazz beat, but if there is one thing it proves it is that Coleman knew what he was doing even if no one else did. The fact that this approach works, although in a way its composer never imagined, is a tribute to Coleman’s compositional skills. Lonely Woman, for instance, sounds almost like a blues mixed in with Baroque elements—much of this clearly Kühn’s own personal take on the piece, but fascinating nonetheless.

Moreover, because of his jazz bias and deep understanding of this music, Kühn keeps these performances from sounding too much like lounge music, although Lost Thoughts seemed to be a fairly conventional piece until the 1:06 mark, when Kühn suddenly took it into outer space. Interestingly, there’s a certain casual intimacy about this entire session, as if we were eavesdropping on Kühn as he played these pieces in his living room for his own edification, not as if we were attending a concert or a recital in which they were being presented as a formal program. Much of this is due to the microphone placement, which is up close and very dry, as if the pianist recorded them himself at home. In the strangely-titled Immoriscible Most Capable of Being and Songworld, for instance, Kühn almost seems to be feeling his way through the music, moving from bar to bar as if he were composing in his own head before playing them on the keyboard.

In Physical Chemistry, Kühn almost gives the music a Middle Eastern feel in his choice of harmonies, but by the time he reaches Tears That Cry I felt that he was starting to concentrate too much on structure and too little on a true jazz feel. He does inject some of this into Aggregate and Bound Together, however, which is also a fascinating performance.

There is, however, a price that Kühn pays for approaching these works as mental exercises to be expanded and made “melodic,” and that is that too often the pieces sound truncated even when they aren’t. Several of them appear to end in the middle of nowhere, something that would surely have not pleased Coleman. Granted, he occasionally recaptures a jazz feel, particularly in She and He is Who Fenn Love and Food Stamps on the Moon, but the oddly halting feel of the performances becomes a bit wearing after a while, since these are NOT his own compositions.

The CD does end, however, with a composition by Kühn, dedicated to Coleman and titled The End of the World, and here everything falls into place brilliantly.

A mixed review, then. The initial conception wasn’t a bad one, and some of the pieces work very well in this context, but overall I felt it was a soufflé that just didn’t rise properly.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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