Elite OGJB Quartet Of Acclaimed Improvisers Create Nod to Ornette Coleman in ‘Ode to O’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The names of renowned saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummer Barry Altschul have adorned progressive, improvised, free jazz recordings since the form’s beginning in the late ‘60s while cornetist Graham Haynes and bassist Joe Fonda have followed this path since the late ‘70s. Each is a bandleader, making the OGJB Quartet one of the strongest units in improvised music. Ode to O is the follow-up to their 2019 debut, Bamako, and, like that one, features compositions from all four members. The name, in fact, is an acronym drawn from each member’s first name. The album is named after Altschul’s composition, the opener, “Ode to O,” a melody that came to him in a dream after hearing of Ornette Coleman’s passing in 2015. The album also nods to the great violinist Billy Bang, another premiere improviser, with Altschul’s tune “Da Bang.” While their debut was totally acoustic, this one features Haynes incorporating electronics on one of his two compositions, “The Other Side” and in the collective improvisation “OGJB #4.”

As a quick aside both this release and wonderful trio release, Blues 2 Cecil, from Andrew Cyrille, William Parker, and Enrico Rava, also covered on these pages, are on the TUM label from Finland which specializes in both works from leading Finnish artists and highly improvised music, shunned by commercial labels. It’s a great home for projects like these.

The collective experience of these four artists forms undeniable chemistry. Following the title track, which is one of the more melodic ones as Lake and Haynes weave aggressive, riveting lines over steady rhythms, the group then takes on the Oliver Lake composed “Justice,” making passionate pleas in the spirit of Max Roach’s groundbreaking “We Insist” from 1960. It’s as if every member amps up with rhythms bubbling more, and Lake and Haynes often trade the melodic for angry fire in their exclamatory cries. The Fonda-penned “The Me Without Bella,” gets a more somber, reflective treatment in various passages that ruminate on the departure of a loved one. The bassist’s bow work shines here as does the group’s collective ability to build drama over twelve plus minutes, deftly using space to create both calm and highly charged passages. The music is a combination of music from Bela Bartok’s String Quartets and Fonda’s own music. Thus, its title. 

“Da Bang” is repurposed here, having first been featured by the FAB Trio in 2008 and included on Billy Bang’s final recording, 2011’s Da Bang! also on the TUM label. The piece is designed as a catalyst for improvising, begun by Altschul’s frenetic kit work, followed by an ensemble passage that makes way first for Haynes, then Fonda, and Lake, each delivering vigorous statements to continuing feverish percussion of Altschul before the ensemble grandly takes it out. 

There’s an interesting anecdote regarding Hayne’s composition, “The Other Side.” It’s named for the Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind, which had recently been completed and released posthumously around the time of the recording session, about 35 years after Welles’ death. The piece was composed specifically for this quartet and has electronic effects, with Haynes using backward delay effects on his horn to create some daunting and downright menacing tones as Altschul specifically conjures angry, stormy winds with his drum and cymbal attack. Naturally, this leads to slightly calmer moments in Altschul’s “Caring,” a truncated version of a piece that first appeared on the drummer’s 1977 You Can’t Name Your Own Tune as part of a longer tune “For Those Who Care.”  

“OGJB #3” and “OGJB #4” are collective improvisations where the members demonstrate their superb chemistry, moving in unanticipated directions, around curves, ascending peaks and descending into valleys as the music constantly shifts. We again hear Haynes’s electronics in the “#4.” Sandwiched between is the Lake composed “Bass Bottom,” a brief piece with colorful point-counterpoint statements from the two horns over Fonda’s plucking. The closer is Haynes’ “Apaixonado” which means “in love” in Portuguese, perhaps reflecting the cornetist’s relocation to Brazil upon marriage. His playing evokes passion, buttressed by the busy Altschul and Fonda rhythm tandem and punctuated by brief articulations from Lake. 

OGJB take in both a wide swath of sound and emotion as they journey into startling, ever-unpredictable territory. While only one song is directly dedicated to Ornette Coleman, the spirit of Coleman’s free expression prevails throughout, as if to form a more contemporary but less direct version of the acclaimed quartet Old and New Dreams from the late ‘70s and ‘80s, who directly channeled Coleman’s music.

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