Montreal Jazz Festival: Days 7-9, July 7-9, 2009
A humble progenitor, Ornette Coleman's place in jazz history would have been assured had he done nothing more than his groundbreaking work of the late-'50s/early '60s, like The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) or Change of the Century (Atlantic, 1960). But he went on to innovate his system of "harmolodics" or, as Coleman has described it, musical creation in which "harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas." Over the decades, Coleman has occasionally disappeared from the scenesometimes for years at a timebut has always come back as fresh and relevant as ever.
With a repeat presentation of the Miles Davis Award in front of a capacity audience at Théâtre Maisonneuve, the 79-year-old Coleman was clearly appreciative but again, in his acceptance speech, remained as cryptic as ever. Cryptic he may have been, and he may have moved slowly, but when he took the stage with his quartetdrummer/son Denardo Coleman, acoustic bassist Al McDowell and electric bassist Tony Falangahe demonstrated the all the power and creativity were still in full force.
Playing seated, Coleman relied largely on his alto saxophone, but he would often pick up a trumpet or violin for relatively brief moments, creating sonic diversity over an often stormy underpinning from Denardo and McDowell. Falanga was especially impressive, using his electric bass more like a guitar, with plenty of chordal accompaniment as well as a counter-voice of long, serpentine and sometimes elliptical lines that mirrored the saxophonist's equally sinuous phrases. McDowell proved to be an encyclopedia of jazz history, swinging hard when necessary but playing with fierce intensity throughout. Denardo played with equal freedom, moving from groove to turmoil in the blink of an eye, all the while managing to work in unison with the rest of the quartet during some of his father's more challenging charts.
Free jazz is not necessarily about working without structure: it's about taking what may be a very sketchy roadmap and using it to explore a broad spectrum of expression. While there was no shortage of hard surfaces and sharp edges in the performance, there was great beauty as well, with McDowell's arco especially singing, and Coleman's alto particularly plaintive on the group's second encore, a brief rendition of Coleman's classic "Lonely Woman." The blues was there too, with a curious and gradually intensifying "Turnaround," and there was even a reference to the late Michael Jackson in the first encore, when Falanga and Denardo went into the driving riff of "Beat It" within a freer context than the late King of Pop could ever have imagined.
l:r: Denardo Coleman (hidden), Al McDowell, Ornette Coleman, Tony Falanga (hidden)
Since winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Ornette Coleman's star has once again ascended, with the innovative multi-instrumentalist hitting the road and revisiting some of his extensive back catalog, but with a modern approach that incorporates all he's done over the past 50 years. As a final show to attend at the 30th anniversary of FIJM, it was a strong finish with a legend that is still at the top of his game.
With three days left at the 30th anniversary of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, there's still plenty of great music to come, including flamenco bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons' three-day By Invitation series, and individual shows by George Wein and the Newport All Stars, Helen Merrill, Robert Glasper, Bill Charlap and Houston Person, Greg Osby and Jean-Pierre Zanella. But over the first nine days of the festival, there's been a particularly strong line-up of musical diversity that's easily eclipsed the festivals' 25th anniversary in 2004.
With a wealth of shows covering a broad range of music, the past nine days have been yet another example of why FIJM is one of the world's largest and most successful jazz festivals. With media staff who make covering the festival both easy and a complete joy; volunteers around the site treating everyone with respect while they handle matters of security in an almost innocuous fashion; and others keeping the large festival grounds clean, the Festival creates a vibe like no other. And one thing the event has proven year-after-year: just when you think it can't grow and get any better, the Festival does something unpredictable and, indeed, does find ways to keep the celebratory occasion at the forefront.
It's always easy to wonder what the next year will bringhow can it improve on an already near-perfect model? History has proven that the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal will not only find a way to do so, but almost certainly already knows exactly how to manage it.