Requiem for Ornette!
Workshop Notes by Marc Epstein, Concert Notes by Michael Shore
Monday, June 8th orientation
At the evening orientation for this exciting four-day event, Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso introduced themselves and gave a brief history of CMS workshops, which date back to 1973. The 23 participants then introduced themselves. They are a mix of “veterans” and “newbies” to CMS workshops, and several returning participants commented that the experience is the most important and influential thing they do each year. Day one concluded with a concert in the Roadhouse by the Guiding Artists:
This was one of those concerts where the line is blurred between the warmup and the "actual music" -- where you become aware the warming up never stopped and instead transmuted into rolling waves of sound, and you realize from the casual mastery displayed by such musicians as CMS Spring 2015 Workshop Guiding Artists Karl Berger (piano, vibraphone), Omar Tamez (guitar, percussion), Ken Filiano (bass) and Warren Smith (drums) that loosening up and tuning up IS in fact music...a way of approaching and striking up a conversation with their instrument, not "as if" it's a living partner -- it IS a living partner, no less than their fellow musicians are partners. Later, CMS Executive Director Rob Saffer will sidle over to me and whisper that just as I'd been noting how the warmup bled into those waves of sound, he'd asked the videographer if he was rolling -- and the reply? "Oh, have they actually started playing?"
The extended warmup/overture finally dissolves as Karl hits on an Afro-Latin piano vamp -- a handful of notes, repeated just-so with that particular rhythmic feel and emphasis Jelly Roll Morton called "the Latin Tinge," so central to jazz syncopation -- and they're off, sailing along on Warren's classic bop ride cymbal...Karl, rakish in a fedora, hustles across the stage to his vibes for an emphatic and exultant solo, crouching in time to the decay of sustained notes, then tapping out rapid repeated runs...a scrabbling Omar Tamez solo leads to a free interlude dominated by Omar's assortment of sirens, whistles and bells...Karl's stately piano ruminations morph into a vaguely Spanish vamp over which Omar peals out gorgeous sweet-sustained licks and reverbed trills...for an ecstatic and too-brief moment the whole band catches hold of a beautiful cycling groove one wishes would last all night. Then -- a brief free interlude, some reflective piano...and Piece One is over.
Piece Two starts of with Karl's repeating piano runs, leading the foursome into a prolonged free meditation, dark and stormy like the weather outside on this rainy night. It finally subsides for a superb bowed solo by Ken Filiano, making the bass sing in that solemn, cantorial way that the late great Ronnie Boykins had with the Sun Ra Arkestra...Warren Smith clacks out quiet patterns on the rims and shells of his drums before all subsides for Omar's kalimba solo, Filiano rubbing the body of his bass to produce scrapes and moans -- like rubbing a balloon on a flannel shirt...or like a whale sighing in its sleep. Karl ruminates on piano, Warren taps out a steady bass drum pulse -- and it's over.
Seemingly with hardly any effort at all, these four have taken The Roadhouse on quite the sonic journey. This, folks, is how it's done. Now let's see what Guiding Artists Amir elSaffar and Steven Bernstein, and this spring's class of participants, can bring these next few nights!
Tuesday, June 9th
The first part of every morning CMS workshop is a body movement session led by Savia Berger, which helps participants stretch and energize themselves for the day. Ingrid Sertso then leads vocal exercises which “loosen the ears” and Karl then leads a rhythm exercise based on the Gamalataki rhythm. Some of Karl’s advice to the group is:
“You need to play from the heart, not from the head, the head is too slow. Music needs to be spontaneous, not thought out. Spontaneity cannot be practiced; you need to reconnect with it because you already have it. We need to constantly retrain our minds to be spontaneous.”
Steven Bernstein – Guiding Artist for Tuesday, June 9th
The trumpeter Steven Bernstein, a returning Guiding Artist, led the morning and afternoon sessions on the first full day of the workshop. He gave the participants philosophical and practical advice and then led them through a number of lively group musical exercises.
Bernstein has been involved with CMS since 1977 when he was fifteen years old. He shared a wealth of musical philosophy that had a number of major points, starting with the idea that there are four elements or building blocks of music. Sound is what people hear, and it’s important to “develop your sound, your tune. Next is rhythm, which is the next thing people feel and is what makes styles different, as defined by the drummer. Then comes melody, the overarching song. Finally, there is the magic of individual sound, which involves understanding sound, rhythm and melody.”
His practical advice included “never have your instrument in your case -- play it when you wake up, develop a relationship with it every day, even only a few notes. You practice to get beyond your instrument. You have to love practice.” Quoting fellow trumpeter Nicholas Payton, he added, “you practice to earn the right to make mistakes.“
He also urged the participants to “listen to all music, even music you don’t like. Learn all parts of the song. Every piece of music is a learning opportunity. That’s how you get a style, by grabbing a little bit of what the masters are doing. It’s all there ready for your taking. “
As he ran the group through classic songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” Bernstein’s basic message was “learn the scales of every chord, and learn arpeggios. Think about your options -- don’t go to the obvious. Learn to sing the drum and bass parts when you learn a tune.“ As the group ran through several songs and every participant took a solo, Bernstein explained that “these simple songs are the key to everything -- complicated songs have the same chords. It’s a science where there are only so many relationships. You can use these simple songs to play almost everything. The more you hear, the more you can play. “
Most in line with CMS’ overall philosophy was his comment that “if you know where the chords are, you can bring your own internal mind to the song.”
As the group played, Bernstein had each musician play chords and he offered hints and suggestions to participants, with assistance from two other Guiding Artists, drummer Emilio Tamez and reedman Don Davis.
Bernstein’s workshop got the week off to an excellent start and you could feel the energy that he brought to the participants. His main goal was for them to find their individual style of “magic.” He said, “the things you learned that weren’t quite right, that’s important and could become your style. We all want to play like our heroes and then we play something that is not quite right, that could be our own style.” His most trenchant piece of advice was that “music is about love, that love is magic and there is science to that magic.”
Improviser’s Orchestra Workshop:
Following up on Steven Bernstein’s session, Karl Berger then brought the participants into his concept of the Improviser’s Orchestra, telling them “Our goal is to blend and harmonize, with no theatrical gestures. Keep your ears way open. Think of the whole sound, you are the whole sound. Play short, memorable phrases.” Guiding Artists Ken Filiano, Warren Smith and Steven Bernstein provided musical support as Berger, using hand signals, directed the musicians as they created a vibrant and propulsive group work, right on the spot.
Berger then led the participants in a ten-minute meditation exercise titled “Listen to the Sounds Disappearing” based on Tibetan Buddhist practice, ending a busy musical day on a peaceful note.
TUESDAY CONCERT: SOUND, MELODY, RHYTHM AND MAGIC
Tuesday, the first full day of the CMS Spring 2015 Workshop, featured two sessions in The Barn led by guiding artist Steven Bernstein -- who was onstage at The Roadhouse, slide trumpet in hand and trumpet at the ready, to end the day with a concert also featuring CMS founders Karl Berger (piano, vibraphone) and Ingrid Sertso (voice) plus Guiding Artist Warren Smith (drums), CMS stalwarts Ken Filiano (bass, eyebrows) and Donny Davis (reeds), and the brothers Tamez, Omar (guitar, ocarina, digeridoo, percussion) and Emilio (drums, percussion). Bernstein the Guiding Artist broke down music not as art but as science, with four key areas of focus: sound (not just the sound a musician makes but their personal sound on their instrument), melody, rhythm and magic. A good grounding for sizing up the presence of all those elements, including the latter, in the music this evening.
As Bernstein had done earlier in the day as a Guiding Artist, Sertso onstage offers bracingly direct perspective on music-making with a spoken opening about words and music being her job, with the players immediately falling in line with soft yet strong prayerful accompaniment. It builds in very controlled, deliberate fashion until Berger lays down a piano figure which, on an unseen and unspoken signal, cues a fleet freebop groove, Bernstein stepping forward to deliver an authoritative, declamatory trumpet solo, at one point holding a high note an impossibly long time (he does practice circular breathing but later says "not on that note -- too high -- that was just one really big breath"), Davis eventually joining in, equally fiery on alto. Berger moves to vibes -- its motor turned off to provide a bright, crisp, xylophone-like sound instead of the usual, watery vibrato. As always, his mallet-work invigorates the music, as Sertso intones "In Africa, all the women are sisters, In Africa the sun is on fire..." The music swells as Bernstein and Davis join in a noble, improvised fanfare, while Ingrid scats rhythmically repeated hard-consonant syllables -- "dugga-dugga-dugga-dugga-DAT" -- highly reminiscent of the Indian singer Sheila Chandra's Konakkol percussive vocalizing (though both Karl and Ingrid say she's been doing it, unaware of any similar Indian style, since before Chandra began recording it in the early 1990s). Karl taps out a repeating 6 or 7-note line on vibes -- it's his composition "Dakar Dance," and Ingrid instantly sings wordlessly along. It is sound, it is melody, it is rhythm, and yes, it is magic. Sertso's harmonizing cues the horns to join in, and the rhythm goes positively airborne, lifting the bandstand and the entire room into that particular heavenly orbit that only on-the-spot communal creativity of a very high order can achieve. Bernstein takes wing, soaring and darting as the drummers roll and surge around Filiano's bounding vamp, Berger's vibes sprinkling shiny harmonic stardust over the ecstatic communion they'd just launched. Davis steps forward with an exuberant, spiraling soprano sax solo, finally hitting on a 6-note phrase that echoes Berger's launchpad motif again -- and Karl and Bernstein pick it up immediately. THIS is higher musical education, before our eyes and ears! Bernstein delivers a brief, fluttering trumpet solo as the music quiets, both drummers gently clicking sticks on the rims of their toms...and as it fades to silence, Ingrid waits a perfect beat and says -- "The End," to laughter and well-deserved applause.
Piece Two begins with Omar Tamez on kalimba -- giving the African thumb-piano uncommon expressiveness with exaggerated plucking motions that turn into arm-sweeps, his wide-eyed glee and forward-leaning posture engaging the other players and the audience. Davis pipes up on a small wooden flute, the drummers conjure a forest of clicks and clacks with sticks on rims again, and the ghost of CMS stalwart Don Cherry can be felt smiling down on The Roadhouse. Warren Smith gives an object lesson in dynamics, s-l-o-w-l-y building a rumble into a maelstrom behind Davis before switching to mallets as Berger hits the vibes for a freebop turn. Bernstein delivers a burning slide-trumpet solo as the full band roars, the clamor finally subsiding as Sertso says "My time, is your time..." And as it fades to quiet, Sertso this time asks, rather than declares -- "that's it? We're done?"
Only for a moment. Berger, Bernstein and Smith leave the stand, as Omar Tamez picks up a digeridoo to engage Filiano, brandishing a bow -- and we know from last night just how skilled an arco player he is. Davis makes this a full-on subterranean convocation, busting out a long tall contralto clarinet on which he not only hits tummy-tingling foghorn lows, but some rather astounding high-harmonics that sound frankly more like something from a brass instrument. Omar Tamez resourcefully slices through the deep thickness with an ocarina, on which he emits eerie, sustained wails that sound far richer and more musical than one might expect from this child's toy, while his brother Emilio rustles round his kit, Sertso telling us "Once there was a bird most beautiful, who could fly and soar -- until it was seen by a man most rich..." The piece ends as she discloses the poor bird's untimely fate.
After a brief break, Karl announces he has a new composition to debut. He's joined by CMS participants Leigh Daniels and bass and Yasuno Katsuki on euphonium. It's a lovely, unhurried unfolding of gentleness and insistence, Katsuki pecking out some agile staccatos and Berger's vibes dominant, featuring extra-bright notes hit with the butt ends of his mallets. A quietly thoughtful way to end a thought-provoking day.
Wednesday, June 10th
At the morning Body Work, Vocal Workshop and Rhythm Workshop, CMS participants were energized, stretched and put into tune for another day of musical exploration.
Guiding Artist Amir ElSaffar
Trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar introduced Arabic music at a CMS workshop for the first time. He explained that “maqam is a general term for a modal tradition used throughout the Arab World and Central Asia to western China. It’s a tradition of melody. One of the modes was used in Ellington’s ‘Caravan.’ It goes back to the Crusades and Moorish culture in Spain.”
ElSaffar then described his musical journey. His father is Iraqi and his mother is American. He grew up in Chicago listening to jazz and blues, with Arabic music only in the background. After playing jazz and classical music, he ended up studying with a grand master of the maqam style. He said that “my teacher was very patient and I listened to maqam for several years. I immersed myself in it. I studied in Iraq until a few months before the invasion. There was something special about maqam for me -- my cells were resonating and you had to surrender to it.” To explain its appeal, he said, “this sound transcends cultures. It reaches what in Arabic is called tarad -- the state of no boundary, where the singer, instruments and audience transcend and move upward into a sort of ecstasy. It creates a group response, like you would see at an Umm Kulthum concert.”
For the first hour, ElSaffar led the group in vocal exercises as they got comfortable with the mode he was teaching. He told the group “don’t think in terms of notes. There is no such thing as a note -- think in terms of something much bigger outside of us that you’re creating.” He then gave them the lyrics in Arabic for the Iraqi song “Sleep is Unattainable” and introduced the song’s rhythm, commenting that “the most important beat is S for silence, which is given a value in this music.”
In the afternoon, ElSaffar led the group through vocal exercises and then an instrumental session, set to the hypnotic dum-tek rhythm where the pauses are positively felt, bearing out his “S for silence” instruction. He demonstrated on trumpet the overtones he uses. “Intonation, rhythm, timbre, orchestration are all combined in this music,” he said. As the participants repeated the piece that Amir had taught them, their sound grew in accuracy, intensity and beauty.
The day’s session ended with Karl’s Improviser’s Orchestra workshop and the “Listen to the Sounds Disappearing” exercise that concludes each day.
WEDNESDAY CONCERT: COMEDY NIGHT AT THE ROADHOUSE!
Can there be too much of a good thing? Day Two of the CMS Spring Workshop ended with a bang – a whole LOT of bangs, as if it were fireworks on the Fourth of July – in the form of a marathon concert where the music just. Would. Not. Stop. All three of this week’s Guiding Artists – Steven Bernstein, Amir ElSaffar and Warren Smith – took unforgettable star turns, while many workshop participants also made their marks.
The night began with trumpeters Bernstein and ElSaffar and drummer Smith joining CMS founders Karl Berger (vibes) and Ingrid Sertso (voice), Ken Filiano (bass), Donny Davis (reeds), Omar Tamez (guitar) and his brother Emilio (drums). Berger invited two-time workshop participant and Official Coolest Guy In History Robert Bresnan (hey – he hired the Sun Ra Arkestra to play his wedding 20-plus years ago, okay?) to sit in on piano. A collective rustle built as the horns and vibes entered as one, holding long clarion tones over Filiano’s driving vamp, the two trumpets spitting rapid unison lines before ElSaffar delivered a fiery, fluttering turn. After the full band percolated behind some Sertso scat, Smith played a fractured march over which Bernstein blared a rowdy slide trumpet solo before both drummers built from a busy low boil for Berger’s vibes, to volcanic fury as the horns reunited in ferocious free harmony. The group settled into a modal groove as Davis chanted on alto, before ending quietly. Any jazz outfit would have been happy to call this a meaty chunk of its set. It turned out to be mere prelude.
Next up: Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave” with Berger and Bernstein stating the fleet, darting boppish melody before all three horns traded several furious 12-bar choruses, then united to baptize The Roadhouse in righteous fire. Filiano soloed, plucking high up on the neck of his bass as Smith played soft, fast, intricate hi-hat/ride bell patterns, then all three horns faced Berger as his vibes cued their fanfare – which gave way to a thunderous double-drum feature, before the horns stepped back to the fore to reprise the theme. The next morning, participants learned the terribly sad news that some 12 hours after we’d thrilled to “When Will The Blues Leave,” Ornette – the jazz giant who co-founded CMS, whom Karl and Ingrid say convinced them to stay in the U.S. – had left us.
Back to Wednesday’s concert, and one of the night’s highlights – everyone left the stage but Bernstein and ElSaffar, who dropped the room’s collective jaw with a dazzling display of witty, pithy telepathic togetherness, running march-derived spitfire riffs in unison, in parallel, around and against each other – before Bernstein began rudely blowing Lester Bowie-style blats, snorts and whinnies at ElSaffar’s urgent soloing. Bernstein meandered to the back of the stage to blow into the drums, finally hitting a floor tom with a resounding thud – at which point ElSaffar began squawking and squealing back, and they began going at it that way, with as much focus and intensity as they’d given to the supersonic figures with which they’d started. Finally, ElSaffar blew a mocking version of the familiar horse-racing posthorn call – and Bernstein could only bow in “I know when I’m licked” fashion. Displays of genius are hardly out of the ordinary at CMS concerts – but slapstick genius? The radiant smiles on the faces of these two friends, hugging as the crowd erupted in hoots, hollers and cheers, said it all. Except for the part about how, aside from a big band gig a dozen or so years ago, they’d never played together. Memo to CMS Executive Director Rob Saffer: do NOT wait for some distant future Archive Series release – put this out on record ASAP!
“Let’s have some more conversations” Karl Berger announced, introducing a trio he called “KIK -- Ken” (Filiano) “Ingrid and Karl.” Filiano was especially striking in this context, hitting his strings with his bow to produce a percussive popping effect as Ingrid intoned “Music is an energy – like the sun…” Their second piece was a bouncy, spritely version of Karl and Ingrid’s “Africa/DakarDance,” which they’d also played last night – and again one was struck by just how terrific a bassist Filiano is, everything he plays so propulsive and responsive.
Warren Smith returned to the stage and Karl joked “now it’s KWIK!” – but he and Ingrid took a break, leaving Smith and Filiano to back Donny Davis on reeds and Omar Tamez on guitar. Davis led the way with an Oriental meditation on wood flute, as Smith softly rustled his cymbals and Tamez emitted eerie tones from his prepared guitar, a drumstick stuck under the strings midway up the neck. Suddenly he was on digeridoo and Davis on kalimba, as Filiano provided yet another irresistible rhythmelodic vamp. Smith built the rhythm back up on mallets as Davis soloed sinuously on soprano sax – and before we knew it the music had built and built to such intensity that Warren Smith, 81 years young, was standing up AND GOING NUTS NOT JUST ON HIS KIT BUT ALSO ON EMILIO TAMEZ’S KIT NEXT TO HIS. In 40-plus years of concert-going I can safely say, I’ve seen Han Bennink go to the men’s room mid-set and play the plumbing, and I’ve seen Paul Burwell play drums with rolled-up newspapers -- but I have NEVER seen a drummer play TWO kits at once. And of course, this being Warren Smith, it was completely musical. I’m just doing the “I’m not worthy” bow in his general direction, and thanking the lord I was able to witness such a thing.
While I was finding my lower jaw on the floor, the piece was continuing – with Filiano locking into a beautiful Middle Eastern dum-tek groove (possibly inspired by the maqam piece ElSaffar had taught the participants during his workshop earlier this day) behind a tart, cliché-free Omar Tamez guitar solo. Donny Davis joined in on alto and things got heated again darned quick, staying at a high-energy pitch for several minutes before subsiding into another Davis wood-flute interlude. But the puckish comedy theme Bernstein and ElSaffar had introduced earlier reared its head again as Tamez suddenly appeared right over Davis’s shoulder blowing crazy birdcalls on a small whistle – Davis shrank back in mock horror before removing his alto mouthpiece to respond with duck calls, a la John Zorn. And still the delights kept coming, in the form of a brilliant Warren Smith drum solo – vocalizing with whoops and grunts and moans in time AND IN TUNE with his hands, then sticks, round his kit before proving his mastery of dynamics yet again, taking it down to a whisper, ending by shooing the sound off his ride cymbal as if flicking away a mosquito. You know the drill: I’m not worthy, thanking the lord…
And still the musical conversations did not stop. Berger, Davis (on the sepulchural contralto clarinet, as tall as he is if not taller), the brothers Tamez and CMS participant Michael Gassmann on guitar…a bass quartet with Filiano and participants Jeff Schwartz, John Dreschler and Leigh Daniels, eventually joined by participant Anne-Marie Weisner on violin as Warren Smith tapped out patterns on his plastic drinking cup in the third row…a big participant band with Weisner, vocalists Hillary Carr, Yasuno Katsuki and Chuck ver Stratten, Daniels, and guitarists Lucas Marti, Esteban Fredin, Stuart Leigh and Rick Warren – ver Stratten speaking in tongues against a chorus of sustained sighs from the women, all of it over a tinkling, twinkly tapestry of overtones from all those guitarists…
Um, Thursday? Final night of this CMS Spring Workshop? You’ve got your work cut out for you.
Thursday, July 11th
Thursday had a somber start with the announcement of Ornette Coleman’s death that morning. His music has been played just a few hours earlier at Wednesday night’s Roadhouse concert and what followed was a sort of “jazz wake” for Ornette. Karl described him as a “crusader for the rights of musicians who suggested that musicians go on strike for a year to raise prices. He was tough about getting paid before playing or when he was being televised.”
Karl and Ingrid also attributed the birth of CMS to Ornette, who insisted that he and Ingrid stay in America because “you have something to say in our music.” When the Creative Music Foundation was incorporated in 1971, Ornette advised that it “should have a broad artistic spectrum” with an advisory board that included John Cage, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller and Gunther Schuller. Commenting on Coleman’s humility and humor, Karl described asking him why he never came to CMS to teach, and Ornette’s response was “people would think I know something.”
Ingrid recalled how Ornette had suffered at the start of his career. He was beaten up by other musicians but, according to Ingrid, “he never said negative things about those musicians. “ Ornette’s cousin James Jordan was head of the New York Council of the Arts and secured funding for CMS in the 1970s and 1980s. While Ornette was happy with CMS’s success, he told Karl “you do the nonprofit, I’ll do the profit.”
Guiding Artist Warren Smith
Warren Smith’s morning and afternoon sessions were in the spirit of the Improviser’s Orchestra, with his main message being, “listen outside of yourself. There is a lot of possibility if you listen outside of yourself.” He introduced the idea of “outward concentration” where the musicians “observe everything, including the audience. Be aware of the peripheral aura.”
Smith led the group through exercises like clapping the rhythm to Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story (he played in the pit band for that legendary Broadway show in 1958) while giving broader philosophical advice like “there are sounds out there to inspire us -- birds and other sounds – let’s open up our ears” and “everybody has to be precise rhythmically.” He taught the group vintage riff and head-arrangement techniques used by swing-era big bands, and by the afternoon, the group was swinging nicely.
Warren explained how he came upon Ornette’s composition “Lonely Woman,” which the group worked on for most of the afternoon session. “I was a bebop maniac. I first heard ‘Lonely Woman’ in a listening booth in a record store near my home in Chicago. I said ‘I can’t buy this’ and I bought a Bill Evans record instead. Next week, I give it another chance and still couldn’t buy it. But it grabbed me a third time -- something was drawing me in. I bought it, listened to it every day and it mesmerized me. I could feel the sorrow in Ornette’s melody.“ Warren’s workshop ended with a stirring and energetic version of “Lonely Woman.”
Thursday’s schedule wrapped up with Karl convening the group as the Improviser’s Orchestra and blowing a melodica to teach them the tune they’d heard at last night’s concert, Ornette’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” followed by the Tibetan meditation CMS uses to close each day. Thursday was an emotional day at the CMS Workshop that turned into a fitting tribute to a jazz giant.
CONCERT: WHEN WILL THE BLUES LEAVE?
Wednesday night’s concert, a marathon featuring high art, low comedy and highlight after highlight in between, left us wondering how Thursday night’s finale could possibly top it. But any such thoughts vanished Thursday morning, as word spread through the early workshop session that Ornette Coleman -- giant of American music and driving force in the creation of CMS – had left us at age 85. The eerie irony of the CMS All-Stars playing Ornette’s “When Will The Blues Leave” Wednesday night, some 12 hours before the news came of his passing, was inescapable. As Marc Epstein recounts on the CMS Facebook page, much of the morning was given over to Karl Berger and a visibly shaken Ingrid Sertso remembering their friend Ornette with warm, witty and wonderful stories of his singular, sweet yet uncompromising character.
Thursday night picked up where the afternoon workshop had left off, with the best form of CMS tribute to Ornette: his music. Guiding Artist Warren Smith painstakingly assembled a breathtaking orchestral version of what many, this writer included, consider Ornette’s greatest, most hauntingly beautiful composition, “Lonely Woman” – fresh, felt, and faithful to the original’s unforgettably stark contrast of mournful melody unfurling in long, slow notes over a soft but swift and unrelenting bebop ride-cymbal rhythm, so fast it almost seems to stand still. Incredibly, Smith told the participants he’d planned this before the news of Ornette’s passing had broken. Even more incredibly, he pointed out something I’d never noticed in more than three decades of loving “Lonely Woman,” of being mesmerized by it as Smith said he’d been: the last five notes of its majestic melody are basically “a long way from home,” the last line of the great spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.” Could there be a more fitting requiem for Ornette than some 20-plus musicians, young to middle-aged, professional and amateur, playing this tune on this day – in the place Ornette was key to creating?
It was in that spirit that Thursday’s concert began, with no fanfare whatsoever, as Karl Berger’s meditative piano solo set up Coleman’s classic “Blues Connotation,” with Berger, Sertso, Smith, reedman Donny Davis, trumpeter and Guiding Artist Amir ElSaffar (who was driving to visit his uncle upstate but had to pull over as he passed The Roadhouse, explaining he realized he needed to be there playing one more tune before going on his way), bassist Ken Filiano, and Omar (guitar) and Emilio (drums) Tamez doing justice to its quirkily twisting yet oh-so-songful post-bop melody. As Berger had begun the piece so he ended it, with a heated vibraphone solo, but only after a double-drum feature and an extended opportunity for Omar Tamez to show what a refreshingly distinctive and original guitarist he is – left-field and unexpected in tone, attack and conception, in a completely natural and unforced way. He also stood out on the next tune – a reprise of Ornette’s “When Will The Blues Leave,” which Berger had the workshop band play to end Thursday’s session (and the week’s). And what a joy to hear Warren Smith’s playing behind Tamez: a model of taste, efficiency, logic, and dynamic control. Emilio Tamez eventually joined in on drums, turning the heat way up, leading to an intense finale where Omar and Donny Davis wove a tintinnabulating tapestry of ringing, shrieking high notes – so different from Berger’s spontaneous workshop arrangement, which had emphasized the tune’s child-like sing-songy charm.
A free improv followed, led by Davis’s wood flute and Sertso’s scatting, with Smith on mallets and Omar Tamez on bells and whistles (no, really – literally, bells and whistles). Ingrid brought intense emotion to what one witness, CMS supporter Lloyd Trufelman, later called “a séance” -- chanting “Ornette is here with us, Ornette is here with us…” and “Say it isn’t so, say it isn’t so…” as Davis’s gorgeous, prayerful alto solo evoked “Lonely Woman” without outright quoting it, just as “Lonely Woman” treats that line from “Motherless Child.”
Ingrid said “You know, it’s hard to make a musical celebration of the passing of a beloved friend…” before reading a brief Ornette poem. Karl played a wonderful fast and intricate vibes line which had the distinct feel of a typical twisting, long-lined Ornette post-bop melody, Smith tapping delicate cymbal patterns as Davis’s kalimba entwined with Berger’s vibes to form a sort of mini-gamelan…and suddenly Karl was playing “Theme From A Symphony,” familiar from Coleman’s Skies of America and his landmark 1977 electric recording Dancing In Your Head, over Smith’s fast shuffle on brushed snare. I wished it had kept going longer than it had, but too soon, it and the set were over. It had lasted more than an hour and felt much, much faster than that.
After a break, however, Warren Smith assembled the participants to bid a public farewell to Ornette, and the week’s workshop activities and festivities, with his lovely arrangement of “Lonely Woman.” And he asked, or actually told your correspondent -- a rank amateur so out of practice he’s a virtual non-musician, who’d tried to stay out of everyone’s way at the workshops on small percussion devices (slit drum, tambourine, shakers) -- to “sit at my kit while I conduct, and play some real drums for once!” Focused as I was, in a suddenly heightened state of excitement and terror, on keeping that supersonic bebop time while trying to keep in mind Warren’s lesson that afternoon about “listening outside yourself,” I can’t provide a review – but it seemed to go okay. Thank you, Warren Smith, for the privilege. Thank you Emilio Tamez for so graciously helping this rusty Tin Man through it. Thank you all the other participants, and Guiding Artists Steven Bernstein and Amir ElSaffar. Thank you Karl and Ingrid and CMS, and thank you Ornette Coleman for the music that leaves us feeling not such a long way from home after all.
Notes from Rob Saffer, CMF Executive Director
CMS would like to thank all the participants for joining us with open minds, hearts and ears; our tireless sound scientist Matthew Cullen; our nearly invisible videographer Geoff Baer and Woodstock Films; guiding artists Steven Bernstein, Amir ElSaffar, Warren Smith, Ken Filiano, the Tamez brothers and of course CMS co-founders Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso and their daughter Savia.
On a more personal note, this was a deeply poignant workshop, marking Ingrid’s amazing return to health and Ornette’s passing. There was no better place to grieve and celebrate than at this workshop, surrounded by people who loved Ornette and his music, playing his compositions with heartfelt emotion on the day he died.
Ornette and I were friends and his influence on the shape of my life was huge; as I told him last year, he gave me a “strategy for living.” In my last visit with Ornette, I asked him what he was listening to, intending to inquire about what music he was listening to. He responded, “Everything is music.” Could there be a truer sentiment?
As someone who has spent much of his professional career – nearly 40 years – writing about music from the outside, as a listener, it was revelatory and insightful beyond words to get to experience music-making from the inside, musician to musician(s).
The most important things that I learned were not always in the workshops but during meal time, when we could hang out and ask questions of the guiding artists.
What is taught at a CMS workshop goes way beyond music, or at least what is generally considered music. At its core it is a system to become fully present, to be in tune and in time through music in order to receive the gift of being full present in the moment. This is an invaluable lesson when trying to keep up to today’s frenetic and neurotic pace. What CMS has to offer goes way beyond the musical, it’s therapeutic. Learning to explore the terse and infinite relation between silence and sound can be more healing than years of psychotherapy. It allows you to communicate through your entire being, vibrating in harmony at different frequencies, as opposed to just bricking yourself in linguistically and intellectually. This allows you to experience yourself in continuous flow with the world and the people around you; it’s organic. When the ensemble plays, the piece comes into being just ever more present than any of its individual makers/conjurers. I think that’s the magic Steve Bernstein was talking about. Healing and magic are rare gemstones in an increasingly cynical world. Experiencing this has been invaluable to me, that is why I give you my sincerest thanks.
CMS workshops always show what is most important to make music and I always rediscover why I am playing music.
The workshop was outstanding, inspiring, extremely fun, and creatively productive. It was an empowering, confidence-building experience for me as a musician and personally. It is truly extraordinary to find oneself in such a genuinely warm, supportive, artistic environment where individual expression and group collaboration are nurtured, invited, and constantly elicited.
I feel very privileged to have worked and played with the exceptional guiding artists there as well as with my fellow workshop participants. I love the way at CMS, players of all levels are mixed together...beginning and intermediate musicians all the way up to highly professional ones. I also appreciate the way participants and guiding artists frequently play together. The musical results are amazing when we are not separated by the usual divisions of students/staff that often exist at other other schools. It feels like everyone's creative input is valued equally, regardless of previous experience or skill level, and everyone benefits from each other's input.
The community formed at CMS is a precious gift that I wish all people had the chance to experience. One is shepherded by fellow participants and guiding artists who have known each other for more than 30 years, so one is welcomed into a family of creative friends. The newcomers also added SO MUCH to the our group with their varied backgrounds, talents, and colorful personalities. With many participants from last year's workshops returning this spring, connections were strengthened and the ensemble cooperation was excellent.
It's a very supportive environment to reflect on what it is you're trying to do in life, to receive assistance in that inquiry from others and then be able to go home with more clarity and a lot more inspiration.
CMS workshops are indescribable! It’s a gathering of people of widely varied experience in music learning together, working together to make music, to harmonize.
It's workshop in which you get to learn about music, not in a intellectual way but in a more primal/intuitive (way deeper) level. It changes your relationship with sound. All in a really really friendly atmosphere.
Even though I’ve attended a few CMS workshops, you get to experience new things the more times you attend. You pick up different things each time.