Concert review: Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall

Published June 20, 2006 7:30PM (EDT)

The most surprising thing about Ornette Coleman's concert last Friday at New York's Carnegie Hall wasn't the music, which was typically brilliant, it was Coleman's stature. Coleman, a pioneer of free improvisation, is one of the inarguable giants of jazz, and as such I was expecting someone larger than the small, slight man wearing a fedora and a gunmetal blue suit who walked out onstage, greeted by a standing ovation. But Coleman and his quintet -- Coleman on alto sax, trumpet and violin, his son Denardo on drums, Al McDowell on electric bass, with both Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen playing acoustic basses -- worked together to make music that more than lived up to his outsize reputation.

It was a night of deep and rich, though not necessarily easy, music (my seat neighbors glanced at their watches and leafed through the program throughout the concert). The music had ideas, it had emotion, it was confusing, it was rewarding, and to engage with it required ridding yourself of any prior expectations.

Even though he's now 76, Coleman's music is as abstractly fiery and awkwardly beautiful as ever. He isn't, and never was, a virtuoso on the level of Coltrane or Charlie Parker, but his ability to play between pitches and his quicksilver tone lends his sax and trumpet work a wobbly, questing quality all its own. His work on the violin was even more exploratory than his brass playing. A shred of notes here, a bluesy melody there, Coleman used the violin to suggest directions to his bandmates who then decided how to act on those suggestions.

Coleman's particular genius lies in his ability to imbue his music with an undiluted democratic impulse. Everyone plays at once, a musician will stand out briefly, then recede. Dissonance is just as prevalent as consonance, and the sounds of funk, blues, bop and modern classical ebb and flow within the polyrhythmic framework. Each player is doing something interesting on his own or in the context of the others, unexpected harmonies arise out of nowhere, and the result, as was so often evident during the Carnegie Hall show, is something beautiful.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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