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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Jazz enthusiasts were treated to performances by two very different ensembles featuring Greg Osby in an eight day period in this German city located not far from both France and Switzerland. Osby first appeared at the Waldsee, a local Gasthaus that occasionally receives internationally known musicians, with a group consisting entirely of European musicians: Swiss brothers Michael (piano) and Florian Arbenz (drums), with whom Osby has performed previously, French bassist Bruno Rousellet and a string quartet. The performance began with a tune played without the string quartet in a style similar to the Circle records of the early ’70s. The string quartet was included in every tune thereafter. The strings were generally utilized in a manner that a horn section might function in a jazz group with more typical instrumentation, generally playing during the entire melodic theme of the piece, and then playing written figures during improvised solos by the other musicians. The improvising soloist typically soloed without string accompaniment for a while, and then with string accompaniment after the strings entered as a result of a cue from either Osby or Michael Arbenz. The string players improvised only sparingly and all of the musicians except for Florian Arbenz referred extensively to notated music throughout the performance. The volume balance and dynamics among all eight musicians were consistently very good, although the strings could have been louder at times. Michael Arbenz provided announcements between tunes, and the group played exclusively original material.

The Arbenz brothers and Rousellet are not lacking in jazz feel, understanding and technique and were an excellent team for Osby to play with. The ensemble also did a good job of varying the amount of musicians playing; there were lengthy solo introductions by Osby and Michael Arbenz, a drum and bass solo punctuated by strings, piano trio sections and a section where Rousellet effectively created a string quintet by joining the other strings in arco playing. This created a desirable variation in the music’s density. The musical results of this approach were generally excellent, consistently interesting and often exciting. The music was serious in tone, which is not surprising given much of Osby’s recorded work and the group’s name, which may be a play on the use of strings, the English word stringency, and the German phrase for strenuous, an strengend, but was not grave. A recording of this performance would unquestionably warrant repeat listening and this music deserves more listeners; the performance contained some of the most interesting and effective use of jazz material with strings I have heard.

Osby returned to Freiburg’s Jazzhaus as a member of New Sound Collective, which also includes guitarist Steve Khan, electric bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Terri Lynn Carrington. As with AMP Stringency, all of the musicians but the drummer referred to written music throughout the performance. The group differed from AMP Stringency not only due to the absence of a string quartet, but also from the replacement of piano with electric guitar and the much louder, more rock leaning rhythm section of Haslip and Carrington. Certain tendencies of such musicians were present during the performance. Due to whatever combination of the properties of her trap set, her touch and the sound mix, Carrington was consistently far and away the musician at the loudest volume, and at times was about as loud as the other three musicians combined. Haslip utilized the wide range of his six string electric bass by staying at the bottom end while playing rhythm parts, but operated almost exclusively in guitar register during his solos. Khan’s solos often started out with chord motifs with a bassy tone, and, with a click of his foot controls migrated to predominately single note legato and sustained lines with a tone similar to that which he and Larry Carlton employed on Steely Dan records. The group’s dynamics did not vary as much as AMP Stringency’s, and the overall volume kept creeping up throughout the performance.

These tendencies did not prevent the group from playing a varied, interesting, successfully executed program that included a ballad, free bop, rock and funk material, use of nonstandard meters, and music that certainly swung. Carrington and Haslip’s performance was also a pleasant reminder that there are plenty of fine musicians who rock that can and do really swing, and Khan’s solos were consistently interesting. The group played their own compositions with the exception of Joni Mitchell’s “Ethiopia,” and the members took turns announcing the tunes to the audience, seemingly to indicate the group’s collective nature. There was no reason for any of the audience to have left the performance dissatisfied.

Osby’s playing was first rate during both performances. His playing with AMP Stringency tended to be busier and more chromatic, and his playing with New Sound Collective utilized more blues ideas and was slightly more rhythmically varied. Osby deserves credit for being able to function so well in very different contexts in such a short time. Few musicians are able to do this so well, and fewer yet seek to do so and accomplish it.

Originally Published