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Ornette Coleman's Meltdown is the Best Ever

John Eyles By

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Ornette Coleman's Meltdown
June 12-21, 2009

Ever since it was announced in late March that Ornette Coleman was to curate the 2009 Meltdown festival at the South Bank, Coleman seemed to dominate the capital. The festival's trademark image of a young Coleman soulfully eyeballing the camera was everywhere, on larger-than-life posters in the London underground, in adverts in papers and magazines, on flyers and handbills, and online. It was mesmerising and inescapable. But no-one wanted to escape it.

Instead, music fans were abuzz with speculation about the acts that would feature at Ornette's Meltdown. As its first jazz curator, Coleman's stewardship of Meltdown raised expectations high. In recent years, the overwhelming emotion generated by Meltdown had become one of disappointment as a procession of high profile curators failed to deliver. Those with longer memories fondly recalled the festival's halcyon days when it was curated by Elvis Costello (1995, when visitors included Allen Toussaint,Bill Frisell, Jeff Buckley and Moondog) or Robert Wyatt (2001: Massacre, Terry Riley, The Residents, Max Roach). Since then—with one positive blip in 2005 when Patti Smith curated (John Cale, Joanna Newsom, Television)—the festival had become surprisingly underwhelming, despite such seemingly promising curators as David Bowie, Morrisey, Jarvis Cocker and Massive Attack. But, we all believed that 2009 would be special. This was Ornette. The legend!

And yes, we were right to have faith. Now that it is all over, it is clear and generally agreed: This was the best Meltdown ever. It even topped Costello's and Wyatt's. It was so good that it is worth cataloguing the ingredients that made it special, in the hope that future curators can learn from it and emulate its success.

Firstly, in his choice of performers and the way they were scheduled together, Coleman totally embraced the ethos of Meltdown, which is to cross barriers and to achieve unpredictable creative syntheses. Coleman himself led that process. Over the course of the festival's nine days, he played with a range of performers. On opening night he joined Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots onstage, alongside fellow saxophonists David Murray and Andy Hamilton, aged 91. Amusingly, The Roots front man, Black Thought, at one point referred to the three saxophonists as "250 years of musical genius," which seemed rather hard on 54-year-old Murray. To his credit, Black Thought also told the young audience, "This is once in a lifetime stuff. You're never going to experience anything like this again." Coleman also played with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, joined Bobby McFerrin for a stunning improvised duet, while Patti Smith, Bill Frisell, Flea, Baaba Maal, Charlie Haden, and Bachir Attar & the Master Musicians of Jajouka all joined Coleman's band's performances.

After Coleman, Bachir Attar & the Master Musicians of Jajouka (pictured above) were the festival's most regular performers and its best received. They played on all nine days of the festival, the majority of their appearances being in the open air. Every appearance drew a sizeable crowd and attendances increased day on day. As audiences warmed to their mesmeric blend of reeds and drums, so the musicians became increasingly outgoing and expansive, dancing and showing themselves to be real showmen. As well as their free appearances and those with the Coleman band, the musicians also joined Patti Smith onstage at her concert.

Predictably, for showmanship nobody outdid drummer Han Bennink all week. He was the focus of a stunning trio performance alongside Evan Parker and Marc Ribot. In amongst great playing from all three, Bennink was his usual hyperactive, attention-seeking self; as one audience member observed, "He is never knowingly upstaged." In typical fashion Bennink played his drum kit with his feet, then played the floor, the side rails of the stage, mic stands and anything else within reach that he could get a sound out of. Every great festival needs its wild card, its unpredictable element. Bennink fitted the bill perfectly.


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