Saturday, July 21, 2012
Ornette Coleman - Buddha Blues
This appears to be Coleman's only recorded use of the suona, a kind of wooden oboe with a distinctive loud and high-pitched sound. An important folk instrument in northern China, it is occasionally still used to accompany weddings and funerals, as part of wind-and-percussion ensembles known as chuida or guchui. In Taiwan, it forms an essential element of the ritual music that accompanies Daoist performances of both auspicious and inauspicious rites, i.e., those for both the living and the dead. The suona has a conical wooden body, similar to that of the European oboe, but uses a tubular brass or copper bocal to which a small double reed is affixed, and possesses a detachable metal bell at its end. The instrument is made in several sizes. Since the mid-20th century, "modernized" versions of the suona have been developed in China; such instruments have keys similar to those of the European oboe, to allow for the playing of chromatic notes and equal tempered tuning (both of which are difficult to execute on the traditional suona).
The suona doesn't appear on any of Coleman's official releases, and thus we have to turn to a single track from a bootleg collection of live performances, recorded in Italy in 1968, initially released on LP as 'The Unprecedented Music of Ornette Coleman' (with sleeve design by Japanese free saxophonist Kaoru Abe), and subsequently on CD as 'The Love Revolution'. Given that Coleman had started to employ trumpet and violin alongside his more familiar alto sax during the mid-60s , it seems that his use of the suona came from a similar spirit: the desire to achieve a freshness in his playing, to utilise an instrument on which his fingers would not automatically go to familiar patterns and licks, and on which he could create new sounds and textures. It's interesting to note too that, around this time, Don Cherry was beginning his 'world music' explorations, and perhaps Ornette's use of a Chinese instrument was part of the same spirit . (There is a photograph of Albert Ayler playing a similar double-reed instrument during the late 60s, though he seems not to have recorded on it.)
On the bootleg, the instrument is credited as a 'shanai' (the latter due to its similarity to the Indian shehnai, another double-(in fact, quadruple-)reed instrument which had been played by Yusef Lateef, and had also made an appearance on the Rolling Stones' 'Street Fighting Man'); Coleman apparently bought it in a shop in Chinatown. He also, reportedly, gave one to Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), and its distinctive nasal twang can be heard on Vliet's 'Mirror Man' sessions, as well as on a number of records by Coleman collaborator Dewey Redman, where it is described as a 'musette' (e.g.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZce4IgXcRw).
Coleman is accompanied on the 13-minute-long performance of 'Buddha Blues' by the bassists Charlie Haden (who provides a more up-front, supporting role) and David Izenzon (who takes on a more free-floating, unpredictable, colouristic function); on drums is Ed Blackwell, digging into his New Orleans heritage to provide a funky backdrop for the leader's slurring stream-of-consciousness. It's a fine performance, and an provides an intriguing glimpse of another facet to Coleman's artistry.
[Information about the suona taken from Wikipedia; Colour Photo of Ornette & Deonardo Coleman by Elliott Landy, Taken in Central Park, NYC, 1969; B&W Photos of Ornette Coleman by Roberto Polillo]