The appearance of the Ornette Coleman Quartet at Verizon Hall in Philly's state-of-the-art Kimmel Center
was his first performance in the City Of Brotherly Love since 1988.
It was both a significant event and an artistic achievement of towering magnitude. The Coleman band, playing before a crowded and enthusiastic but not-quite-full house, let loose with a set of powerful, even visionary, jazz.
Regrettably, Ornette made no announcements of the names of the compositions, but the second song sounded a lot like his ballad "New York", from his 1968 Impulse album Ornette At 12 , and the exciting final tune was probably "Silence". Ornette played alto saxophone with his characteristically strong, vocalized sound, and he played a few brief, surprisingly good trumpet and violin solos. Greg Cohen played bass, mostly providing vigorous walking. Tony Falanga also played bass, always with the bow, and always deeply empathic. Denardo Coleman played drums, with a percolating cymbal sound, explosive rhythms on the kit, and sizzling swing.
The first tune revealed some of the strategies of Ornette's latest music. The melody was a terse, typical Coleman line, both lyrical and bluesy. Denardo and Cohen locked into a fierce, fast 4/4 swing over which Coleman soloed, and Falanga responded, transmitting ideas back to Ornette as well as to the rest of the band. Ornette often unfurled sequential motives, the short, song-like phrases so characteristic of his work since he started Prime Time. These might be his personal cliches but for the astonishing variety of attacks he brought to each note, and the fervor he brought to every solo. Ornette would shape and sculpt every note, varying pitch, attack, and dynamics so that his phrases became substantially different every time. But he also brought a large variety of phrases to his improvising. He often jumped on the beat with long, hard-swinging lines, and just as often with stinging blues phrases or saxophone screams and howls. And very few saxophonists in jazz history have demonstrated the control of embouchure and nuance shown by Ornette that night.
By the third tune, the nature this band's music had fully emerged. Ornette has often used the word "unison" to describe his musical goals. To Coleman, a unison isn't a merging of pitch and execution. Instead, I think he means a coming together of musical intention, in which the intent to create a greater group music leads to a band sound that far transcends the talents of each player working alone. If I'm right, then with this quartet, Ornette has created his unison. Traditional elements of jazz were there, such as deep swing, solos, and a potent blues connotation. But this band's sense of group empathy and purpose may be unprecedented. Often, Ornette would play a phrase, and the others would jump on it, and the music would surge forward playing the phrase and variations on it, and thinking as one. It's an approach to group music that is rooted in tradition and quite radical at the same time. The music hit several climaxes in each song. And the concert kept getting better and better, climaxing with that long, transcendant final number. To complete the picture, Ornette's brief trumpet and violin solos demonstrated better control and swing than ever. His trumpet summoned the welcome shade of Don Cherry.
Tony Falanga, playing bowed bass, may very well be the linchpin of the band. He has lightning reflexes and radar ears, echoing Ornette's phrases and transmitting them to the band and the audience. At times his phrases were very rhythmic, functioning like big band riffs. Following Falanga will lead the uninitiated listener into this music.
At 74 years old, Ornette Coleman shows no sign of slowing down. He's as beautifully innovative as ever. His new band must be heard, and may they record soon.
Personnel: Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone, trumpet, violin; Tony Falanga, bass; Greg Cohen, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums.
For more information about Ornette Coleman, visit www.harmolodic.com .