While Ornette Coleman was one of the first musicians I became interested in upon starting down the road of jazz and creative music fandom, I’d never actually seen him perform until last night. Admittedly, my soft spot was always for the Atlantic recordings of old, with the Blue Notes and other one-off 1960s dates coming in at a generalist second. While it still sounds incredibly fresh and timeless today, this is music that is forty to fifty years old and then some. His 1990s recordings for Gramavision really didn’t do anything for me at the time, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy the Sound Grammar date when it came out a few years ago (it’s been more recently that his Prime Time records of the 70s and 80s have really hit home). This was somewhat a return to previous ensemble form, the group consisting of Ornette, two bassists and his son Denardo on drums. It’s a tremendously lyrical, emotional and beautiful album – a friend of mine was very critical of it when it came out, saying that it “just sounds like an old Ornette record.” He was expecting a reinvention of the wheel, I guess, rather than a polishing and tweaking of an already well-established design. Albeit a design that runs perfectly on new roads and in new surroundings, which is exactly how it should be characterized. This recording set up the context for what would transpire in concert.
Firstly, the quartet (featuring Denardo and bassists Tony Falanga and Al McDowell) played at the huge, recently renovated Bass Concert Hall on the UT-Austin campus; I was on the floor about ten rows back, and the lower strata of seats were completely packed. It really is a good venue to see a concert, somehow preserving intimacy even in its cavernous size. The arena was set pretty early on; as the quartet was introduced from the stage (and the announcer rightly presented his lineage within a Fort Worth musicians’ coterie including Prince Lasha, Charles Moffett, Dewey Redman, James Jordan [Coleman’s cousin, also in attendance] and Julius Hemphill), the audience gave a long standing ovation. Without a word, they launched into “Jordan,” the first track off of the Sound Grammar disc. This was the only piece, other than the “Lonely Woman” encore, for which Ornette stood. Nevertheless, he was utterly in command of his instruments (alto saxophone, trumpet and violin) for the entire hour-and-a-half set. There were no breaks, song introductions, or anything on that level – it was all music and all action.
The Ornette of now is certainly not the Ornette of thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. His improvisations retain that R&B honk and the earthy cry as well as the loquacious self-dialogue and running commentary that they’ve always had. However, the storytelling is much more gradual, focusing on fewer words and phrases and a narrowing down of ideas. His lines used to be long and filled with detours and branches, giddy asides to a cutting focus. There is certainly less of that now; it’s more like listening to the same story over again that your grandfather has told, but each time you catch different nuances in his voice that help you understand more deeply the wealth, pain and joy of his experiences. That being said, the group of younger players that surrounded him was incredibly tight, which made one appreciate what might otherwise invite cognitive dissonance. Tony Falanga is a classical contrabassist, playing the David Izenzon role of high arco counterpoint to the leader’s front-porch musings. Al McDowell plays a six-string electric bass, and his pedigree in Prime Time, Jayne Cortez’ Firespitters and with James Chance certainly speak to his flitting funk. Denardo Coleman has a heavy-handed gallop, bombastic and country-ish at the same time, and often seemingly out of tempo with the whole thing. It’s a band of differences, a collision of blues, jazz, classical music and funky rock all being played at the same time by different individuals. What Coleman has assembled is a band that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t “work,” and yet the complete honesty and naturalness of the proceedings ensure that it works perfectly.
While drawing a program mostly from Sound Grammar (also including “Peace” and “Dancing in Your Head”), it was perhaps more dissonant than that date, if only because the record had the strong pizzicato of upright bassist Greg Cohen playing rock solid anchor to Falanga’s devilish bowing. McDowell, on the other hand, positively ricochets and the two bassists occupy a space previously reserved for oil and water – and yet they sound beautiful together. One composition introduced Japanese vocalist Mari Okubo, whose wailing made more than a few audience members head for the exits; however, her inclusion was not altogether that different from Ornette’s work with Yoko Ono in the early 1970s. Though she’s as yet not very well known, Coleman apparently has been working with Okubo since 2007 and produced her CD Cosmic Life. If nothing else, it certainly proved that his music can still defy expectations and create upset (though I found this particular piece riveting and wonderful, and I hope that they continue to work together). My thinking at the time was that Ornette has really opened up his canvas for other artists to step in and add something to it and in almost no other art form does this happen. It is as though he is inviting other painters to use what he’s given and put their stamp on it – akin to Franz Kline asking Jackson Pollock to “put a little something of your own on this part of the painting.” Yet it’s done with so much love and joy that failure and mistakes are either not an option, or just totally irrelevant as a concept.
The music is an utterly palpable and constant expression of love and joy. I’m sure my smile was absolutely beaming the whole time, and my legs rarely stopped moving in concert with Denardo’s triple-time swing. While at times the music was jovially raucous, there was a soothing, restive quality present throughout, which alternately had me in a meditative sleep-like state where, with my eyes closed, colors and shapes and phantom figures flashed before me. I felt like on stage with the quartet were ghosts of the music’s past and future spiraling in the rafters, apparitions of King Curtis, Prince Lasha, Ed Blackwell, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane somewhere in the hall. Ornette may not have ascended himself (someday it will happen), but he is clearly a conjurer of all things good in the universe, and he and his cohorts were channeling a place of wordless beauty and eternal happiness into a rather literal environment. I don’t know whether other people in attendance felt the pure transcendent quality of the music, but suffice it to say that everyone I spoke with had an incredible experience. Beyond performance, the Ornette Coleman quartet created a complete communion.