I saw Ornette Coleman the last time he played the JVC Jazz Festival, in 2004. I hear he played Newark in 2005, with the Bad Plus opening, but I missed that one and I’m sorry I did, because it was a Thanksgiving Day show, Newark is five minutes away by train, and I wasn’t doing anything else that day. I wasn’t planning to go to this show, because the tickets were just too pricey for my present economic status, but then a publicist e-mailed to offer me a free one. How could I turn that down? I jumped at the chance. So I got there at the appointed hour, and found that not only was I getting in free, but I was in row K (that’s 11 rows back from the stage if you know your alphabet), three seats in from the aisle. I soon discovered that I was also seated directly beside Steve Smith, which was a bonus. (Actually, there was originally a guy sitting between us, but I asked him to trade, and he quite affably did so.)
If the 2004 show was like Ornette paying tribute to John Zorn’s version of him as heard on Spy Vs. Spy, headlong and wild but stopping and starting on a dime, this was the Ornette of In All Languages. At least, that’s how it sounded at the beginning. He was accompanied by son Denardo on drums, and three bassists – Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, who’ve been with him for a few years now (they were in the 2004 band, too), and new or rather returned-to-the-fold addition Al McDowell, playing a headless electric that looked kinda like the guitar Dr. Know, from the Bad Brains, used to play. McDowell was also the only one not dressed for the occasion, wearing what looked like a prison jumpsuit rather than the dress shirts and trousers the other bandmembers had on, or a shiny suit like Ornette’s. But never mind that.
The music was different right from the start. Coleman plays in a narrow and piercing range on the alto these days; he started his first two tunes’ solos on the exact same note, as though they (a bebop sprint and a bluesy ballad, respectively) were two halves of a whole. Between his reverberating lines, Denardo destroying his kit behind a Plexiglas barrier, and McDowell’s liquidy bass, the band’s stage positioning seemed to mirror its sound. Falanga and Cohen were being pushed to the sides of the action, both onstage and in the mix. By the third or fourth piece, though, the engineer had figured out the proper balances, and everyone could be heard quite clearly – Falanga, in fact, began to become a second lead voice.
The seeming solipsism of the band was somewhat astonishing, given how cleanly they could bring even the most frantic piece to a dead stop. McDowell occasionally watched the boss’s back, but none of the others, Ornette included, ever gave any outward impression, while playing, of monitoring their coworkers’ activities. (There were brief discussions between pieces, late in the set.) And yet it all fit together, seamless and gorgeous. After 40 years Ornette still can’t play a real trumpet solo, but his violin break on the third piece – accompanied by bow-work from Falanga and Cohen – was searing.
Denardo Coleman is never going to magically become a subtle and nuanced drummer, but his John Bonham overhand smashes and apocalyptic bass-pedal booms became real assets on the sixth piece. Cohen and Falanga laid down harmonium-like bowed drones over which Ornette soloed first moodily and then more loudly, as Denardo detonated bomb after bomb behind them. It was like an alternate soundtrack to that Werner Herzog movie filmed in Kuwait post-Gulf War I, the one with all the burning oil fire footage. The violin solo had too much gypsy squealing to sustain the ominous mood, though, and McDowell’s fusiony runs seemed like he was trying too hard to be included. It was unclear what he thought he was adding to the piece.
Ornette took his longest trumpet solo of the evening (that is, more than just three or four quick, rippling outbursts – as Steve pointed out, it seemed like he was using the trumpet to cue the band that things were about to change, something like what Miles Davis did in his mid-1970s funk-rock group) on the seventh piece, a relatively short and fast one driven by Denardo’s trainlike hi-hat. It felt almost like a thought-out statement on the horn, but he was distracted or disturbed by a high-pitched keening from Falanga’s bowed bass, and cut himself off again.
He all but sat out the next number, a ballad with a melody not unlike “Amazing Grace” – Falanga dominated, and it was quite beautiful. The next two numbers were upbeat, the first a calypso groove with McDowell sounding like a steel drummer and the other two bassists creating a throbbing but generally static foundation. Ornette’s soloing was bright and lively. That was followed by a bluesy strut similar to “When The Saints Go Marching In.” The final piece of the main set was explosive – more Spy Vs. Spy than anything else that evening. McDowell was oddly inaudible as the other four erupted all over each other like a mosh pit. Denardo’s solo would have fit well on the first Obituary album.
Then, there was the encore – “Lonely Woman.” Falanga introduced the piece with an almost violin-like moaning, and Ornette’s work on the melody was still heartbreakingly beautiful. It was a nice gift to the audience, after eleven pieces of unrecorded (so far – there’s a rumor of an album later this year, though) music on which Ornette offered no commentary.
Overall, it was a great counterpoint to the set I saw two years ago, the pieces longer and more meditative (even the fast ones) than the hyper blurts of 2004, and if there is a studio album coming, I hope it’s a multi-disc set to encompass all the phenomenal music he’s been putting out there in the last few years. Ornette Coleman may not have gone away, but fuck, is he ever back.