Jamaaladeen Tacuma is the rare bass guitarist to have found a unique voice as a jazz musician. His style has been referred to as “free funk”, and that’s true as far as it goes: he plays with the hard groove of a funk player but is rarely confined to a single chord or a simple tonality. But, since his first major gig was with Ornette Coleman in the Prime Time band starting at 19, it is equally true that Tacuma is a searching creator of interesting melodies. He can play with ruminative daring or a nervous hunt for home. A pure funkateer he is not.
For the Love of Ornette has the great advantage of featuring the great innovator himself, Mr. Coleman, now 81 years old and still a beguiling and active musician. Coleman’s alto sax is joined by two other woodwinds in tenor saxophonist Tony Kofi and Wolfgang Puschnig’s flute. With Tacuma in the rhythm section are pianist Yoichi Uzeki, Justin Faulkner on drums and David Haynes on “finger drums”. It’s not an all-star band, but hooooo does it play together well. It has been rare in Coleman’s career to hear him with either a pianist or with a horn section featuring more than two members, but this is a fluid and natural band at every turn. The tunes are mostly by Tacuma, and they support some of the most inviting “free jazz” of the year.
After a brief spoken word introduction, the band dives in with the title track, built around a precise and snappy melody for electric bass, piano and flute that winds like a string around most of the performance. Coleman’s playing, however, provides delicious contrast, as he swirls impressionistically around the crisp drum pattern. Eventually Kofi enters as well, playing more robustly than Coleman but without overpowering.
This track begins one of the recording’s two suites. Each part of “For the Love of Ornette” uses a different bass line to set up the groove and around which to build structure. “East Wind” flavors its lick with an eastern modality, while “Drum and Space” propels a bouncing bass lick (and, ultimately, thrilling horn improvisations) with tight funk drumming. “Footworth Stomp” uses a short loop of a groove bass line as an anchor for the free association of the horns in flowing improvisation. All of these songs combine precision with a floating and flexible approach to ensemble playing. Coleman’s “harmelodic” approach meets a more modern, more rigid kind of groove. And it feel alright.
The second suite starts with a Coleman original, “Tacuma Song”, on which the bassist plays a unison melody with Kofi while the alto and flute play in pastel flurries across the top. Eventually the whole band moves into a lovely woven collective improvisation. The band listens to each other so well, however, that the whole mad stew feels much more like a confection. Lovely. The rest of this “Tacuma Song” suite follows suit. “Celestial Conversations” begins with a Coleman-Tacuma duet that is gentle and charming, and when the drums and piano enter we’re treated to a truly beautiful set of horn harmonies that rise on a cloud of sweet melodic suggestion. “Vibe on This OC” and “Celebration on Prince Street” are more conventional funk tunes built around simple pentatonic melodies and a high degree of butt-moving syncopation. The latter, particularly, makes it easy to love For the Love of Ornette. Since when has a forbidding style of free jazz seemed like so much fun?
Because Puschnig’s flute sounds distinctive on this kind of record, it’s worth noting that this particular tonal pleasure is reminiscent of the great Lenox Avenue Breakdown record by Arthur Blythe from 1979, where James Newton rode over a similarly funky ensemble. For the Love of Ornette, however, is a more probing set of performances, with a richer set of competing soloists. Breakdown was one of the very best jazz recordings of the late ‘70s, which means For the Love of Ornette must be one of my favorite recordings of 2011 so far.
Which it is.