Ann Arbor, MI
March 19, 2004
Ornette Coleman’s acoustic jazz presentation was functional simplicity two basses and drum set creating a tapestry of sound that he’d play endless melodies upon.
The ensemble which performed an uninterrupted (no intermission) 10 piece and single encore set Friday evening had the poise and sonic balance of a string quartet imbued with the deeply creative, highly sophisticated shape shifting instrumental relationships to harmony, melody and rhythm Coleman’s music is known for.
Though bassist Tony Falanga was assigned an arco role in the ensemble, and bassist Greg Cohen a pizzicato role which became the nexus of the band’s swing by aligning with drummer Denardo Coleman’s ever shifting rhythmic and textural flow, their places in the tempo continually altered in relation to the alto saxophonist’s songful improvisations.
What might begin as “a ballad” in slow tempo could morph by the second chorus into something all together different, sometimes with the drums and pizzicato bass flying off ahead, the arco bass floating harmonic ideas around them and the alto sax playing in the “original” or “home” meter. The congruity of the incongruous tempos created an ensemble effect that was, as Coleman might say, like the cosmos: all the planets spinning simultaneously at their own speeds, sending off their own energy, but maintaining a simultaneous direction as a solar system. The beauty of Coleman’s simplicity was spell binding.
The evening’s second number began with a driving unison figure played by the ensemble before settling into a long alto saxophone solo full of what are now patented Ornettisms the plaintive cry, his cellular motives and their elaboration's, the riffs as familiar and identifiable as anything Charlie Parker ever used for his own identity. And, following an elaborate bowed solo by Falanga, a bit of atmospheric trumpet, mostly an augmented scale in the instrument’s high range, before the alto returned to repeat the opening melody.
A “Caravan” type feel to the rhythm of the third number, and Eastern modality to the minor-tinged melody, began a performance which was the best example of the evening of the simultaneity of different, though interrelated time feels from the instruments. Even within the drum set their were different rhythms occurring as Denardo Coleman kept an insistent hi-hat going on every beat of a fast tempo, while grooving the tom-tom oriented “Caravan” type pocket in almost a funk tempo. Enter bowed bass at a funeral pace while the walking pizzicato bass swung the band in the conventional sense. When Ornette joined he played a familiar though unidentified theme which may have come out of the 1980’s, though others suggested something from either the Town Hall concert or his Croyden concert in England. In fact, though most of the music at Hill Auditorium was new (and unidentified), the tendency to allude to his 50 year songbook throughout the night kept Coleman in melodic bliss.
If you’re familiar with “Kathelin Gray” from the “Song X” album you might be able to imagine the fourth number played, a beautifully sad melody in rubato tempo with coloristic drums effects.
For those who detract from Denardo Coleman’s drum playing, his performance Friday was a refutation. His ability was to provide the music everything it needed speed, texture, dynamics, groove, idiosyncratic prog-rock syncopation meshing with Rashied Ali-type cymbal rides. The guy is brilliant and has huge ears for responding to the morphology of his father’s music. Denardo Coleman has a leg up on most drummers of his generation for not only absorbing the messages of Ed Blackwell and Elvin Jones, but comprehending with a personal response the subsequent developments in jazz drumming, i.e. he can take it out.
Following an audience request, “Lonely Woman” was played, as Coleman said smiling under his breath, “For everybody else.” In the section one might call the bridge he diverged from the familiar song with a sequence of harmonic steps that took him far afield before rejoining the main theme. The legendary “cry” in Coleman’s sound is no longer the rough wail of the Texas blues refugee, but something smaller yet more ubiquitous in his music. It’s hard to describe, as by “smaller” I don’t mean less full, but usually a gliss into the upper register, the blues cry distilled into an essential overarching mood.
“Lonely Woman” featured Coleman’s own unique means of phrasing: 4 notes, 6 notes, a sequence of rising Ornettisms, thematic touchstone to orient the solo, developing tension, rising to a singing, celebratory conclusion. (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific: the music students at U of M are no doubt working those types of details into their class papers at this point).
After two ballads, the part of Coleman’s musical personality most closely associated with Charlie Parker arrived and the band burned one out to the hearty satisfaction of the crowd.
Which was outdone in the seventh number of the night. By now Greg Cohen’s first two fingers on his right hand were red and swollen his pizzicato playing had been by turns fast walking, furious strumming verging on slap bass or pin pricks of high notes down on the fret board. He was working hard, and as the anchor of the band’s swing he was central to the music’s success.
Denardo laid down another split time tempo: agitated, constant high hat, accelerating ride and back beats on the snare or snare rim. A caffeinated Philly Joe Jones with Ornette and the basses pulling against him like a wind anchor, a parachute behind the dragster, until they relented and caught up, only to have the drums sprint on ahead even faster.
Then Ornette Coleman for the first and only time of the evening picked up his violin, and everything, basically, stopped. Both bassists pulled out their bows and in an instant Denardo was playing his freest drums of the night while everyone bowed like mad. The amazing thing was Ornette’s violin chops are greatly improved, and his dialogue with Falanga, a classically trained and celebrated classical bassist, was in tune and tuned in their dialogue was purposeful, sympathetic and ran smack into some of the loudest applause so far in the evening. Coleman’s tone production was shockingly improved.
The next number took it up another notch as both players put down their bows, the only time of the night for Falanga, and the band cooked with multi-linear abandon, again to loud applause.
The bass players were given the spotlight at a dirge-like tempo, with Denardo Coleman playing first brushes then mallets on resonant tom-toms, before the alto “intruded” and the tempo jumped in the drums while staying fixed and somber in the basses. Ornette Coleman just sang away over the top of it.
Denardo Coleman’s drum feature in the final number of the concert was short and to the point, and his father again returned to the trumpet, playing, as with the violin, with improved chops using the same augmented scale revolving around B and the upper reaches of the F scale (on trumpet) to color the music.
For the first and only time of the night, Coleman addressed the crowd, thanking them for their energy (which was very high: it was an excellent audience) and then saying something to the effect of: It’s not just about being paid one way and if we can thank the one responsible we’d know it’s not about a moment or a minute or an hour or a day, but Forever is inside us all.
The concert began with a standing ovation and now, at the end, after a round of sustained applause, the quartet returned to the stage to the audience spontaneously singing happy birthday (Coleman turned 74 on March 9th). After some debate, they played “Turnaround,” one of Coleman’s most familiar blues, as an encore, which included a lengthy alto solo capped by a quote from “Beautiful Dreamer” and a simultaneous two bass solo, one bowed one plucked, where Cohen inserted some very deliberate and convincing Charlie Haden sounds into the work.
After 18 years to have Ornette Coleman return to Ann Arbor was great news, but that he did it in such a simple, beautiful, effective acoustical instrumental setting made it even more profound.
Thanks to record producer Chuck Nessa, Brett Saunders of the Denver Post, and Michael Jewett of WEMU radio in Ypsilanti for sharing ideas over some much too caffeinated herbal tea following this concert. Their observations are part of this story.
Postscript: Two folks claimed the encore was “When The Saints Go Marching In,” because it had that ascending 4th in the melody line it probably was not “Turnaround” but something that perhaps combined the two. Now I read it was “Broadway Blues,” but I’m not sure of anything at this point. I’ve written Denardo requesting a set list. Don’t know if he’ll be able to recreate that, but here’s hoping.