Ornette at Town Hall

Ornette Coleman’s concert last Friday at Town Hall in New York City was everything that anyone could have expected—a triumph of individual expression, group improvisation, and sheer, unconventional beauty.

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.

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, but I was not familiar with his music. The audience gave him a standing ovation before a note was uttered! They played about 75 minutes. It was a great audience--very appreciative with loud applause. Ornette shuffled on and off the stage pretty slowly, hey, he just turned 78. But the energy was there, and Ornette was emotional at the great reception he got. Tony Falanga is the best acoustic bassist I've ever heard live. His fingers dance on those strings. The drummer was great as well. Town Hall is a great venue, quite intimate, at 1,500 about half the size of the Beacon Theater. The sound was great. It was my first time there. My only criticism is that to my untrained ears there were a couple of moments that seemed like noodling, and not terribly interesting. But overall, it was a great expe

Robert Oxley's picture

Anyone who admires Ornett Coleman becomes, almost automaticly, a champion. Fred Kaplan's graceful description of the Town Hall concert takes me there but more importantly serves to confirm, once again, Coleman's status. It is almost impossible to take the measure of his musical gifts. How lucky we are to have his recordings to enjoy, study, learn from and enjoy again.

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