The crowd which packed the Royal Festival Hall for the Bad Plus and for Charlie Haden's (above) Liberation Music Orchestra last night - and for all sorts of very lively free events going on around the gig- must have known that they had to expect the unexpected from Meltdown curator Ornette Coleman. And Coleman definitely kept everyone guessing. For the whole evening.
Coleman's "guest appearance" had been printed in the programme. It had evidently been scheduled into the set- with a number which then had to be replaced when he didn't turn up.
But the build-up still continued: ("I'm told he's on his way now"). The "guest appearance" then finally happened .....but after the music was over. Haden: "I'm going to get Ornette Coleman and give him a hug." Which he did, publicly, and for which he received the two men received a standing ovation.
The audience got its soft-as-marshmallow emotion moment, the visible reconnection between the two close colleagues from a very long time ago , but I couldn't help wondering if there wasn't a prosaic, maybe even a venal reason why what we got last night was Music Minus Ornette.
Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra last night was a very high-quality Anglo-American twelve-piece. Arranger/MD/pianist was Carla Bley, impeccable throughout. Her ballad "Blue Anthem" was a highlight for me.
An indispensible presence in the texture, and working, dovetailing, aligning, conspiring with her was John Parricelli on electric and acoustic guitar. Parricelli seems capable of endless feats of subtlety and control. Having Parricelli in the band is like having several world musicians, all in the one chair. He can switch on a dime from Rodrigo-ish Spanish to wail to reggae backbeat. No visas, no air tickets, no hotel bills, just sheer class.
The eight-piece horn section played full ensemble texture with clarity, but in curious sonic balance with the rhythm section. Ringing out on top were two fine, contrasting trumpeters, both with strong presence and big sound - Tom Rees-Roberts from over here, and Mike Rodriguez from over there. Jason Yarde on alto, Shabaka Hutchings on tenor sax, and the distinctive gutsy french horn of Jim Rattigan also shone through.
Haden himself played with clarity and strong lines. For my particularly sharp-eared companion at the gig, the musical centrepiece of the evening was a clear homage by Haden to Ornette, buried deep in the music: a note-for-note rendition of the melody of "Tears Inside" in one chorus of Haden's long bass solo.
Robert Wyatt had a legion of devoted fans in the audience. He sang, mostly in Spanish on two Cuban numbers. He played trumpet. A much loved elder statesman.
All in all , it was very satisfying richly-coloured set full of variety and interest.
I found myself smiling during the performance earlier by support band, piano/bass/drums trio-with-a-difference The Bad Plus. First with pleasure. The Festival Hall had captured their sound extremely well. Once the latecomers in the audience had got themselves seated, The Bad Plus were a sheer pleasure to hear.
But I also had another thought, whch made me chuckle. The Bad Plus have shifted territory a lot since they first burst on the scene. From a band which used to give you angry rock grooves, you now get through-composed Stravinsky, thoughtful Ligeti. They're definitely playing chamber jazz of the European variety now. I find that heartening: musicians will always be one step ahead of the sterile genre arguments in jazz , like whether the US or Europe is the wellspring of creativity. This music travels. Fast. Weightlessly. Through the air. That's its appeal.