Ornette at Lincoln Center

Ornette Coleman shuffled onto the stage of Jazz At Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater Saturday night, and that was remarkable enough. JALC, Wynton Marsalis’ house of jazz, is typed as a conservative institution—to some, the antithesis of the music’s inherently progressive nature—yet here was the quintessential avant-gardist, making his debut appearance in the lavish concert hall on the opening night of its 2009-10 season.

Ornette is in his 80th year, JALC is in its 23rd. Has Ornette become a part of the establishment, or has the establishment loosened its admission policies?

A bit of both. Coleman did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize for music a few years back. Around the same time, JALC sponsored a double bill of Cecil Taylor’s trio and John Zorn’s Masada; Dave Douglas, long typecast as the anti-Marsalis, opened for Wynton’s sextet at the Rose Theater that season, too.

The jazz chapter of the ‘90s culture wars—Uptown vs. Downtown (a.k.a. Lincoln Center vs. the Knitting Factory, or the high-cover clubs vs. the lofts)—has pretty much ground to a halt over the course of this decade, as aesthetic boundaries and hierarchies have melted away generally in the postmodern haze.

Certainly the crowning of Ornette Coleman has come about through no compromise on his part. The singular, self-made alto saxophonist, composer and musical pioneer who flipped the jazz world 50 years ago, with The Shape of Jazz to Come, is the same man who blew his horn at the Rose Theater Saturday night. We’re the ones who have come around. As a friend said after the last Ornette concert in New York, in the spring of last year, “Why was his music ever controversial?”

Saturday night’s concert was a wonder, as his concerts usually are. His tone has taken on a burnished glow with age—it’s simply gorgeous—yet his sense of risk and adventure remains. His quartet, meanwhile, continues to evolve.

Denardo Coleman, his son, has long been a drummer of dazzling technique, agile at moving in and out of many rhythms, but last night he also revealed a mastery of dynamic control; he could play with mounting fury, yet quietly.

Tony Falanga on upright bass just gets more head-shakingly remarkable, not just keeping time and walking the bassline but carving out new paths, crafting new clocks, yet always hitting the beat.

Al McDowell, who plays electric bass guitar, has finally found a role for himself: sometimes strumming like a guitar, sometimes doubling on the melody line, sometimes echoing it, or tracing a countermelody. In short, he’s playing a role similar to what Don Cherry played on trumpet in the original Coleman band. The effect is to splash some new colors on the canvas. For instance, “Lonely Woman,” Coleman’s anthem, which the band played as an encore, took on a noir feel, a racy mystery, missing from previous versions.

That’s another thing about Ornette Coleman. He appears so infrequently that he could play the same solos at each gig and few would complain. But he’s still improvising, still trying untapped combinations, exploring unpaved routes—and finding his way, without fail, every time.

This band swings. I’ve heard Coleman play these songs many times, but I’ve never heard them swing this much. “Turnaround” is another song he plays at every concert; it dates back to 1958, and he started reprising it with his Sound Grammar album a few years ago. It’s a very bluesy song, but the blues had a groove that’s never shimmied quite so deeply.

One final word: the Rose Theater may be the best concert hall in New York City--visually elegant and sonically pristine. I've seen various kinds of music there--classical, chamber, jazz of all sorts--and it always sounds clean and clear. At Ornettte's show, the two basses were far more distinct than I've heard them sound when the band's played at Carnegie and Town Hall (neither of which is really cut out for this kind of music), and the balance between both and the drums is remarkably even. The only shortcoming, and it's minor, is that for some of the songs Ornette sat on a stool, putting him a bit below the mikes than the sound engineers had planned, and, while he didn't sound at all "buried" in the mix, his horn wasn't quite as prominent as it should have been. Again, a slight deficiency. Otherwise, in terms of sound as well as music, a joy.

J.P. Smith's picture

Fred, do you know if this was recorded?

Clay Bleckley's picture

Your points are well taken, but for the record I heard Ornette at Philharmonic Hall in 1973 or 74 playing Skies of America and some other things. I thought then that the quartet pieces were better, but maybe that's just because I had by then become mostly a classical listener and, well, maybe a little snobbish about modern classical composition. . . . Good to hear he's playing well these days.

Fred Kaplan's picture

To J.P. - I don't know if it was recorded; I'll check... To Clay: Yes, and he also played at Lincoln Center (the old Philh. Hall) in the mid-90s - as before, in part, with a classical piece (a revival of "Skies"). But Jazz At Lincoln Center is something else; his penetration of that establishment, especially on the season's opening night, marks a breakthrough...Fred

J.P. Smith's picture

I'm ashamed to say the one and only time I saw and heard Ornette live was with his trio (with Moffat and Izenson, as on the Blue Note Golden Circle sets) at the Vanguard many, many years ago. I remember Ornette wore a striped prison uniform. And--oh yes--it was a phenomenal set.

Smittyman's picture

Sadly Ornette played to a half empty Massey Hall here in Toronto last week. We'll only have a few years left to see and hear the older jazz masters who are still with us and it is a shame that more people didn't take this opportunity.

Derwyn Goodall's picture

I was in attendance at the Massey Hall show and it was anything but sad. Truth be told, is revelatory. Ornette' music that night was as fresh and as vital as it was 50 years ago. And his band really stepped up to the plate. Denardo Coleman was incredible, keeping time, filling in spaces, adding texture. Tony Falanga was a marvel, not only rhythmically, but also in his ability to bow his instrument. Al McDowell added colour and life — playing the electric bass like a lead instrument. The other treat of the evening was actually meeting the man, albeit briefly. I encountered him outside the hall, about to go in, and I simply blurted out — "I love your music and am here to see you". To which, he humbly and quietly said "thank you". For me, a night to remember.

Smittyman's picture

Hey Derwyn;I didn't mean the show was sad - I meant it was unfortunate that more people didn't take advantage of a chance to see one of the greats. Awesome that you actually got to meet him, however briefly.