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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.

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