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Joachim Kühn: Melodic Ornette Coleman (ACT)

A review of the pianist's album featuring unrecorded Ornette Coleman songs

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Melodic Ornette Coleman by Joachim Kühn
The cover of Melodic Ornette Coleman by Joachim Kühn

Let’s be honest: A solo piano recording of what is described as Ornette Coleman’s “most beautiful melodies and ballads” will likely seem, to some jazz fans, like someone’s idea of a prank. And yet, what Joachim Kühn delivers with Melodic Ornette Coleman is a vivid reminder not only of Coleman’s compositional gifts but also of how much harmonic potential his often-chordless melodies carried.

Kühn’s stake in these pieces is deep. He and Coleman worked as a duo between 1995 and 2000, playing 16 concerts together but releasing only one album, the now-deleted Colors (1996). According to Kühn’s liner notes, Coleman wrote an entirely new set of pieces for each show, leaving the pianist a library of some 170 unrecorded tunes. He performs 11 of them here.

Those “lost” tunes are bookended with two versions of “Lonely Woman,” which between them give a sense of Kühn’s approach. On the first, his left hand thrums the pedal point, as the late Charlie Haden’s bass would have, while his right sketches the melody in plaintive harmony: classic Coleman. The second version, by contrast, takes an almost saturated approach to harmony, with chords so dense it’s as if each note in Coleman’s theme has spun off its own galaxy of chordal possibilities. Ligeti-style Coleman?

The rest of the album falls between those two poles. Some moments, like the opening statement to “Lost Thoughts,” are unabashedly sentimental; others, such as “Aggregate and Bound Together,” carry an astringent beauty that evokes the likes of Vincent Persichetti. It’s not “beautiful music” in the easy-listening sense, but what Kühn has created is as genuinely gorgeous as it is musically complex—an apt tribute to the late, great harmolodist.

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Originally Published