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My Summer in Italy

Ornette Coleman’s first Chicago concert in at least 15 years opened with a chorus of bowed bass to introduce a sorrowing alto sax song that was much like his 1968 tune “New York.” As a fast tempo appeared and Coleman began pouring out endless cascades of melody, quite the opposite of sorrow began to emerge: not just happiness but utter joy. And while the rest of the evening’s music touched on many kinds and degrees of feeling, including melancholy and hardness, the joy of music and of creation proved to be his message.

Coleman’s previous live appearance in Chicago was with Prime Time, a free-fusion collective-improvisation show that, apart from his own playing, led to mixed emotions. Certainly his soloing tonight was different from his more broken lines with Prime Time and from the severity of his brilliant Naked Lunch (1992). Most of the nine songs were new; one with a sad, long-toned melody, ending in an abrupt, hard-boiled tag, was especially notable. The most appealing element was the consistent beauty of his alto sax tone: full, pure, rounded, singing. It was an ideal tone for projecting the kinds of expressive nuances that lent subtlety of feeling to his lines-tones bent fractionally flat or sharp, for shading, or rare passages in which his sound acquired hard or harsh edges. Interestingly, early in the concert he played a white-lacquered alto-metal, not plastic-but it sounded just like the gold alto that he used for most of the concert.

There was Coleman’s tremendous swing, evident even in the fastest piece, a stop-start song, when he surfed gracefully over the skyrocket tempo. There were familiar elements like his leaping blues cries and down-bent blues moans and, in almost every solo, a merry old figure that bounced half an octave down the steps. His many-colored lines moved in various directions. In general he constructed solos in his original thematic improvisation manner, with motives appearing, evolving, blossoming into lovely passages that yielded new motives to develop; the fertility of his melodic creativity was stunning. The freedom of this quartet setting encouraged a variety of phrase lengths and harmonic characters. Some long phrases concluded in remarkable contrasts, including harmonic leaps that suddenly altered the mood; other long phrases led to afterthoughts or lower-register commentary. Coleman only played two brief trumpet solos, one of them notable for downward-slurred phrases, and one little violin solo that made tantalizing interplay with the two basses; there’s an aspect that I hope this group goes on to develop. The concert concluded perfectly with “Turnaround,” his soul-drenched 1959 blues, as if to remind us where his music came from. Altogether Coleman’s improvising was passionate music-not an extra-musical passion, but passion for beautiful melody, rich and fulfilling in itself.

Last spring at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Coleman offered a similarly brilliant performance accompanied by superb drummer Denardo Coleman and bassist Tony Falanga, whose walking lines had a welcome Charlie Haden-like charge (incidentally, pianist Ellis Marsalis and inspired clarinetist Alvin Batiste sat in that day). For the Chicago concert the three were joined by Greg Cohen, himself an excellent, driving bassist, and Falanga bowed long-toned lines like a cellist for most of the evening-it sounded fine, and I want to hear how this pair develops together as Ornette’s quartet continues. Denardo has refined a remarkable sensitivity to creating sounds and rhythms that make each song distinctive; rather than the kind of interplay that Higgins, Blackwell, Elvin Jones once offered with Ornette, Denardo made swinging settings and lively accompaniments. He’s become one of the most rewarding drummers in jazz. What would he sound like with other jazz bands?

The quartet sound, then, was mostly Ornette’s top lines, Falanga’s bowed countermelodies or distant harmonies, Cohen’s forceful time, and Denardo’s colorful swing. These musicians were notable for their empathy together. Often the accompaniment thrusts drew quick responses-drum fills, for instance, might inspire rhythmically complex alto phrases, while in the happy Mexican dance “P.P.,” Falanga’s bowing on one note induced a startling (but temporary) somber alto mood. The unity of quartet vision here hinted at something rare in jazz, a true ensemble music, as in the first Ornette Coleman Quartet Atlantic LPs, over 40 years ago. This group is ripe with possibilities-hey, Harmolodic, how about a recording of this quartet playing these songs?

A couple hours after this concert, at an A.A.C.M. band set in a near-downtown loft, state senator Donne E. Trotter presented Coleman with an award from the Illinois General Assembly. Accepting it, the great artist told the large crowd, “I would like for everyone here to express their creativity and express what sound is.” It was a heart-warming conclusion to an extraordinary evening of music.

Originally Published