Tony Falanga bows as Ornette Coleman blows
AS THE TWO-BASS TANDEM IN Ornette Coleman’s avant-garde quartet, Tony Falanga and Al MacDowell have forged a unique and potent chemistry that pushes the group to lofty heights. The two players occupy extremely different places sonically—MacDowell’s Music Man piccolo bass cuts through with a midrange punch, while Falanga’s darkly resonant, 100-plusyear- old Tyrolean upright hovers in the low register when he’s walking, and sings when he’s bowing in the high register. The two bassists co-exist with clarity of ideas and distinct separation of tones.
MacDowell, a one-time member of Coleman’s electric Prime Time Band from the ’80s, asserts that Coleman’s freespirited music presents challenges that he doesn’t encounter on any other bandstand. “Playing without a key or time guideline, you have to listen intently to what’s going on at all times. And if you get stuck on your own idea, you’ll miss what’s happening around you. You have to be really attentive, because at any moment you could hit the wrong note and mess everything up.”
Coleman’s current bass team has been operating since 2008. Before that, Falanga played alongside upright bassist Greg Cohen; their chemistry was documented on the Grammy-nominated 2006 live album Sound Grammar. Coleman briefly experimented with a third bassist, but the resulting sound—dense, occasionally cluttered— was not exactly what Ornette was searching for.
When Cohen left the band in 2007 to devote more time to John Zorn’s Masada, Falanga and MacDowell had to find their place in the music together. With MacDowell comping pianistically on piccolo bass and Falanga soaring majestically with the bow, the two players developed a rapport that had them creating complex counterpoint beneath Coleman’s sonorous alto sax lines. McDowell equates the bandstand give-and-take to holding an intimate conversation. “There’s a certain social etiquette that you must follow in the course of a conversation,” he says. “You have to listen to what’s going on so you can contribute intelligently to the group conversation. And once you understand Ornette’s harmolodic concept [in which harmony, movement of sound, and melody all share the same value, so that the resulting music is not constrained by tonal limitations, rhythmic pre-determination, or harmonic rules], then you have no problem.”
“We’re not looking to out-do each other, we’re looking to complement each other to make the music stronger,” adds Falanga. “Ornette wants you to come up with new stuff all the time, and he wants it to happen on the bandstand, not in the practice room. That’s where the ideas have to emerge—from the tune, from the audience, from us. And he wants each of your spontaneous ideas to trigger another new idea.”
This spontaneous chain-reaction of ideas might cause train wrecks in other situations, but not in Coleman’s quartet, where the members are uniquely disciplined and keenly attuned to creating in the moment. “The second you play something atonal in other bands, they don’t want to hear it,” says MacDowell. “I’ve done sessions where I played what I felt was needed, and the reaction was, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ In that kind of setting you have no choice but to play what you’re told to play. But to me, Ornette’s music works better on so many levels, because not only are you playing at the top of your ability technically, but you’re also playing in a manner that defies categorization. You’re just playing pure ideas in Ornette’s band.”
According to Falanga, the thrill of executing a great idea is a fleeting one. “If you play something that really works and you take that same idea to a concert the next day, Ornette will do everything he can to destroy it. It may have happened so well the night before—the audience is going nuts and everything—but he won’t want to repeat that idea. He’ll say, ‘I was hoping that you guys would find something better … because it exists.’ That’s what’s so special about him. He wants to keep it fresh, happening, and in-the-moment all of the time. In Ornette’s band, you have to keep making it better—no ifs, ands, or buts.”
Falanga auditioned for a spot in Coleman’s band in early 2002. As he recalls, “Ornette started auditioning classical bassists. As he said at the time, ‘I don’t want anyone with a jazz influence—I want a new set of ideas.’ He happened to audition my friend John Feeney, the Principal Bassist for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. John played a solo bass piece at his audition, and Ornette was very impressed. Then Ornette asked him to play free on the spot—any tempo, any key, whatever he wanted. But Feeney wasn’t comfortable doing that; he didn’t have a jazz background, and he didn’t really know who Ornette was. John just couldn’t hang with the free thing, but he told Ornette, ‘I know somebody who would be perfect for this.’” Falanga came in the next day and nailed the audition. “Ornette said, ‘Just play,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go!’ And he dug that. He asked me to join the band, and from there it was an ongoing process of studying his concept and working it out on the bandstand.”
MacDowell’s audition came at age 17, when he was still a student at Music and Art High in Manhattan. “Ornette came to school and asked the head of the music department who he recommended on bass. They pulled me out of class and gave me an audition on the spot. Ornette told me to come back the next day to work with him, and that wound up being a regular rehearsal four times a week for almost a year.”
MacDowell’s first gig with Coleman’s group came in 1976 at prestigious Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. “He never gave me a set list, and the day of the concert, as we were waiting to go on, I asked him what we were going to play. He said, ‘First we’re going to play Number One, and then we’re going to play Number Two. And I want you to go out there and kick it off. But don’t play any F’s, Bb’s, or C’s.’ It was my first time playing in front of that many people—I was scared to death to walk on stage with such a blank slate!”
Having played on and off with Coleman for the past 34 years, MacDowell is now a seasoned veteran of the harmolodic style. Meanwhile, he and Falanga have formed the Just Ornette Quartet with pianist Pete Drungel and drummer Tony Lewis to further perpetuate Coleman’s music. “You don’t hear too many bass players playing freely and soloing together in a harmolodic concept like we do in this band,” he says. “Usually, when the bass player gets a solo, everybody tries to stop playing or they bring the dynamic way down, so there’s no true interaction. But in Ornette’s band and our Just Ornette Quartet, Tony and I are both going for it at the same time all the time. And because we’re in entirely different ranges, we never get in each other’s way.”