Ornette at Town Hall
At 78, Coleman has scarcely changed in the 50 years that he’s been on the jazz scene—except, perhaps, that his tone has mellowed; there’s a burnished lyricism to his ballads and a burrowed depth to his blues. He played tunes old and new, frenzied and meditative. All were models of economy, grace, and Cubist swing. Classical influences were on keener display: not only “Sleep Talking” (from his Pulitzer Prize-winning album, Sound Grammar), which is built on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but also an improvisation on a Bach cello suite. Both sent chills; neither had a trace of “jazzing the classics” gimmickry.
The ensemble was a bit different from the last time I saw Coleman play, in 2006 at Carnegie Hall. His son, Denardo, is still on drums, Tony Falanga on upright bass, and Al McDowell on electric bass guitar. But Greg Cohen, who was a second acoustic bassist (he’d pluck while Falanga bowed), is gone; and McDowell, who before seemed a third pedal, has now found his place. He mainly strummed his instrument, the way most guitarists play a six-stringer, combining notes into chords—not as a harmonic foundation (which Coleman’s music doesn’t require) but rather as chromatic enrichment. It adds a steely edge to the fast tunes and a bright glow to the slow ones.
Falanga, it turns out, didn’t need Cohen; he can do the bowing and the plucking by himself. (Cohen is a terrific musician, but, in retrospect, two may have been a crowd; the basslines at Town Hall sounded clearer, more urgent.) Denardo, meanwhile, keeps growing as a drummer: he pounds out alternate rhythms with daring wit, rides his cymbal with an intense rush, and spans the dynamic range with a fine control. (Not long ago, he was too loud; now he can toss bombs yet stay in the background.)
But Ornette remains the leader and guide of this musical adventure. No one this side of Charlie Parker has eked such drenching yet unsentimental passion from an alto saxophone. He blows notes and intervals that constantly surprise (they often break all the rules) yet seem absolutely natural, even inevitable, as they cascade and roll in like waves.