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Ornette Coleman: The Empty Foxhole

Robert Spencer By

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Denardo Coleman, son of the free jazz master, is now forty years old and has been playing drums for thirty-four years. The virtuosity that he has developed over these years can be heard to best advantage on his father's two new albums of 1996, Sound Museum: Three Women and Sound Museum: Hidden Man. His playing has been fine through the years, as on James Blood Ulmer's 1978 Tales of Captain Black. The Empty Foxhole, however, dates from 1966, when the drummer was ten years old.

Proud papa explains in the liner notes that he gave an enthusiastic Denardo a drum set for Christmas when he was six. That would mean that at the time the album was recorded Denardo probably had more experience playing drums than Ornette had on trumpet and violin, his two new instruments which are lovingly featured on this album. Of the six cuts, only "Good Old Days," "Faithful," and "Zig Zag" contain Ornette's inimitable alto saxophone. The title track and "Freeway Express" present the master on trumpet, and "Sound Gravitation" is the first and only piece Ornette has ever recorded exclusively on violin. Father and son are joined by Charlie Haden on bass, who thus becomes, on three of these tracks, the only player who has extensive experience with the instrument he's playing. As such he is the stabilizing force of the trio.

Freddie Hubbard famously commented in a Blindfold Test that Denardo the drummer sounded "like a little kid fooling around." Miles Davis, in a Blindfold Test of his own, mistook Don Cherry for Ornette on trumpet, which may be insulting to Don Cherry, Ornette, or neither one. In any case, the trumpeter, the violinist, and the drummer in this group are anything but conventional, and that's just what the leader wanted.

When Ornette picks up his alto here, he plays more simply than usual. "Good Old Days" is as straightforward a blues as Ornette plays; "Faithful" is another in the series of mournful ballads Ornette was playing at the time (the wrenching "Sadness" never made it to the studio, but is worth checking out on live discs); "Zig Zag" is playful. Ornette's adventurousness here is confined to the intense trumpet piece "Freeway Express," where he pulls Miles' chain a little with a harmon mute, and the intense violin workout "Sound Gravitation." I had a chance to pick up a violin the other day. I've never played it in my life, but in a few seconds I was approximating "Sound Gravitation."

Does that mean it's worthless as music? No. Ornette Coleman is not a conventional musician, but he has too much musical talent to make a bad album. Haden's bowed bass interacts skillfully with his furious violin. For that matter, Haden is masterful all the way through. Listening to him listen to Ornette (and Denardo) and react is a musical experience of value. Nor is the little kid just fooling around. The music here is unlike most everything else that ever came out of Blue Note, or anywhere, but those who won't notice or care that these guys are not the smoothest of instrumentalists might enjoy this album. I do.

Title: The Empty Foxhole | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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