Heads up. Ornette Coleman’s group is playing at the Town Hall in New York City on March 28. If you have any interest in modern jazz (or modern music, period), you should buy a ticket now before they sell out.

Coleman is not merely among the last survivors of the post-Parker revolution in musical affairs (along with Sonny Rollins, Lee Konitz, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Roy Haynes, and Charlie Haden, himself the last surviving cohort of Ornette’s breakthrough quartet of 1958-60). He was also, along with John Coltrane, the progenitor of that revolution. And yet his music sounds as fresh as tomorrow, and he remains, to put it plainly, the greatest living alto saxophonist. There are more technically accomplished horn players, but few—perhaps none—match his unvarnished intensity, his mesmeric levitation of melodic lines, his instinctive immersion in the blues. He is known as the father of “free jazz”—a style of music that broke through the constraints of chord-changes—but the term is misleading. As many who have tried to emulate him learn, freedom doesn’t mean chaos; Ornette Coleman’s free jazz demands tremendous discipline, because it demands all of the alluring traits of great jazz—beauty, grace, wit, and verve—without the rules that help most musicians get there. It’s tightrope- walking not only without the net but, seemingly, without the rope.

Ornette Coleman is 77. He walks slowly and talks meekly; he is not as strong as he once was. Yet, judging from the last two times I’ve seen him play in New York (both times at Carnegie Hall), his tone is more gorgeous than ever, his mastery of the elements every bit as assured. His band—Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga on bass (Cohen plucking, Falanga strumming) and his son Denardo Coleman on drums—is as tight and hair-raising as any he’s led since his classic quartet of (can it be?) 50 years ago. Who can say how much longer he can keep this up? Go see him now.

(In an Oct. 2006 issue of Slate, I wrote a deeper analysis of Coleman’s music, especially of his latest CD, Sound Grammar, replete with 30-second sound clips illustrating my points. You can read it by clicking on the “external link” below.)

John Atkinson's picture

Nice piece, Fred. But how is that an angry young man like Ornette, playing unapproachable music, becomes transformed into an elder statesman? Is it because it take that long for the rest of us to learn and become comfortable with his new vocabulary?

Steve Graines's picture

My brother and I saw his group at UCLA last fall and I have long been a fan of his music. Coleman's saxophone skills are as you described them (even if he has weakened in age). But what your piece omits is that the music is a function of the entire group, not just an expert soloist. In this respect, and perhaps only this respect, his music seems to be like that of Mingus or Ellington or even of some of the Dave Holland records. It is free jazz, but it's not a "revolutionary" saxophonist just honking away. Coleman's group successfully, even miraculously incorporated Bach's cello suites into his overall sound. Stevehttp://www.infinitefress.blogspot.com

Dennis Davis's picture

Regarding John's comment, Ornette has always been a pretty gentle soul. He was only an "angry your man" from an ill informed perspective. And to the extent his music was ever unapproachable (which it really wasn't) it didn't last into Ornette's elder statesman years. Go back and listen to the Atlantic sides, and let me know what is so unapproachable (accept the Free Jazz experiment). And the earlier Contemporary sessions are even easier to approach. I for one have certainly savored Ornette's stepped up performing schedule over the last decade.

CrocodileChuck's picture

After listening to his music for 36 yr., I finally figured out how he does it. His show here at the Sydney Opera House in Feb. was enthralling, magnificent, unique. He may be 77 and slight-but he can still do the business! His band was great (with a 3rd bassist-Charnett Moffett), but, like Miles, when begins to play he takes the music to a whole 'nother level. Do yourself a favour-GO, GO, GO!!CrocodileChuck

Josh Jackson's picture

Ornette turned 78 on March 9th, and he's still a master of both music and mental acuity. I interviewed him last week at his midtown loft.www.wbgo.org/blogKeep up the great work, Fred.Josh

nyctc7's picture

The reason I went is that I am a deadhead and know that he joined the Dead onstage a couple of times in the early 90's, and that Jerry Garcia played on an album of his. I also am aware that he is a living legend. The audience gave him a standing ovation before a note was uttered! He played about 75 minutes. The set up was unusual. Ornette plays alto sax, a little trumpet, and a little violin. There was a drummer and two bassists--an electric bass and an acoustic double bass. The band was never introduced, I'd love to know the name of the acoustic bassist, because he was fantastic, the best acoustic bass I've ever heard! And the drummer was oustanding! I don't know the setlist, but it was a pretty perfect combination of hard charging stuff and slower stuff. There was a moment or two when I thought it was uniteresting noodling, but maybe that's just me. Ornette shuffled on and off the stage pretty slowly, hey, he just turned 78. But the energy was there! I'm glad I went. BTW Town