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New Century, Same Genius: Ornette Coleman at JVC

Ornette Coleman walked onstage carrying his white plastic alto and wearing a cobalt blue suit, with a silvery white tie and black short-brim hat. With him were the members of his quartet-bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, drummer Denardo Coleman and an unexpected addition-electric bassist and Prime Time member Al MacDowell.

The sound was not good for the first number-the three basses seemed to resonate in the hall, bleeding together into a deep stew that only the cymbals and soaring alto cut through. After the initial disappointment of the first number, however, the sound seemed to improve.

Most pieces began with Falanga bowing high on the neck, Cohen plucking lower and MacDowell-who stood between the two on stage-playing high and light on the electric bass, sometimes even playing chords or arpeggios that approached the sound of a guitar. Cohen’s busy pizzicato, along with Denardo Coleman’s chiming hi-hat and ride cymbal, provided the muscle and movement while Falanga’s arco work created a lush, romantic atmosphere. MacDowell’s bass existed somewhere in-between and on top of the acoustic basses, allowing him more freedom to interact with the leader, picking up phrases and notes from him and doubling melodies.

Coleman’s soloing was full of beauty. Sunny phrases and notes tinged with melancholy and humor were picked up and discarded just as they seemed to be building. His playing has grown spare over the years and he rarely approached the kind of dancing, Charlie Parker-influenced lines of his early recordings. Instead, he seemed to sift quietly through phrases and invest his energy in individual notes that he bit into. Occasionally he played a few phrases on the trumpet or violin, creating some real intensity on the latter with his quick bowing echoed up by the two upright bassists.

There were times when Coleman sat quietly for long stretches, during which Falanga took over, creating rich passages in the upper register of his instrument that Cohen answered by moving up the neck. Coleman’s reentry elicited a restating of the melody and a quick ending.

The overall mood of the evening seemed to be in the slower numbers, which were quite beautiful and dramatic. Toward the end of the program, the group played what is certainly the most hum-able melody of Coleman’s career, “Turnaround.” It sounded like a slow blues blown long ago in an after-hours nightclub.

The band played one encore, “Lonely Woman,” before which Coleman gave an introduction that proved to be his only announcement of the night.

While Coleman didn’t look frail, he had a calm, monklike physical presence. Watching him draw the deeper emotional elements out of his once iconoclastic music made for a moving and exciting evening.

Originally Published