Schedule overload and a poorly timed bout of illness forced me to miss Carla Bley’s big band fun at Iridium, as well as tenorist Bill McHenry’s Village Vanguard debut, playing trio alongside Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (and on a different night, fronting his sextet with Motian, Ethan Iverson, Duane Eubanks, Reid Anderson, and Ben Monder). Big congratulations are in order.
Ornette Coleman — He emerged from the wings in his lavender suit, and Carnegie Hall went wild with cheers and an unhesitant, unanimous standing ovation. Not a note had been played. How could it have been otherwise? There aren’t many jazz figures of Ornette’s stature still among us, still performing at full strength. I don’t think I’d ever seen such an appropriately boisterous welcome from a crowd before. After the show it struck me that I’m not sure I ever will again.
At a late date Ornette decided to add a second bassist, Greg Cohen, to his advertised trio lineup of Tony Falanga and drummer/son Denardo Coleman, whose kit sat behind a plexiglass screen. The group’s music possessed a breathtaking purity. Falanga often played arco with virtuosic authority and pinpoint melodic focus, contrasting vibrantly with Cohen’s rumbling pizzicato. There was a moment when Denardo stopped playing as the bassists continued; at that moment you could hear, stripped away, the tightly coiled machinery that propelled this variegated, absolutely cutting-edge free jazz. Ornette was forceful yet unhurried, fully inhabiting every phrase and change of direction, picking up the trumpet for brief asides when the mood struck. Every piece ended with a kind of offhanded perfection, leaving the mind centered and pleasure-filled. The energy between the audience and the stage was electric. When the house lights came up after well over an hour, Ornette simply launched into another tune. He had no intention of stopping.
Charlie Haden’s American Dreams band opened for Ornette; the main attraction here was pianist Kenny Barron, who draped the material with pearls of harmonic wisdom. Rodney Green handled the drum chair with finesse, and guest star Michael Brecker reached a few dramatic peaks on Brad Mehldau’s “Ron’s Place” and Keith Jarrett’s “Prism.” But like the album, this set was weighed down with treacly accompaniment from the Berklee String Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Matt Glaser. Closing the set with a ponderous “America the Beautiful,” Haden and company could not have seemed farther away from the uncompromising originality represented by Ornette Coleman. (Might that partly explain the riotous ovation that greeted Ornette right after the break?)
Wayne Shorter — Three nights later, Carnegie Hall hosted a tantalizing but ultimately unsatisfying evening with the great Wayne Shorter. The first half opened with the quartet (Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade), a group that richly deserves all the praise showered on it over the past two years. After two or three pieces played en suite — during which airy, ingenious harmonic invention and thrilling dynamic shifts were well in evidence — the quartet called it a night. But then, with a silent gesture, Wayne presented Herbie Hancock, who walked on to play a celestial duet with Shorter on soprano sax. With that, the first half was over. Forty-five minutes had not yet elapsed.
The quartet retook the stage for the second half, joined this time by the Festival Chamber Orchestra conducted by Robert Sadin. These arrangements were expertly crafted and not without moments of exultation, but the quartet’s loose and fiery interaction took a backseat to the dictates and encumbrances of a large-ensemble production. (That said, this ensemble included brass and woodwinds and was a step up from Haden’s strings.) Sadin’s physical enthusiasm during quartet-only passages was quite distracting. Hancock returned to play electro-acoustic piano on two numbers, and tap wunderkind Savion Glover made two effective, if over-miked, guest appearances as well. But on the whole, the second half scratched too many surfaces without plumbing any meaningful depths. Ornette’s performance seemed to rest on that delightfully simple formulation from over 40 years ago: “This is our music.” Wayne allowed too many voices to obscure his equally powerful message.