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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

Dave Brubeck

On Thursday, May 15 it was standing room only at the most august of Canadian concert venues, Massey Hall. Outside, scalpers were asking upwards of $100 for an upper balcony seat and getting it. Inside the mood was cautiously celebratory. There was a palpable sense of muted anticipation as the crowd of 3,500 wondered if history might be about to repeat itself. That’s about 2,000 more than filled this space precisely 50 years earlier for what has since been trumpeted as the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever.” So thin was the audience on that hallowed night in 1953–when Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach assembled for the first and only time–that the promoters couldn’t come up with the paltry fees (ranging from $150 for Mingus and Roach to $500 for Powell) due these giants.

Five decades later, it was time for five musicians–again, assembled for the first time–to pay tribute to their legendary forbears. Gathered on stage, looking nattily subdued in the twilight cool of blue spotlights, were Roy Hargrove, Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes (perhaps not as chronologically young as his confreres but equally energetic), Dave Holland and Kenny Garrett. It was a brief, 85-minute set, dotted with polished salutes–“Hot House,” “A Night in Tunisia,” “Salt Peanuts”–to the ’53 playlist. Their collective mood seemed pensive to the point of beatific (not a word was spoken by any of the five throughout the entire set). But their individual and collective playing proved sensational to the point of shamanistic. Here were five world-class cats each at the top of his game and obviously hugely respectful of the others’ immense talents. From the Astaire-ish polish of the Zen-like Hargrove to the sly self-assurance of the ever-mellow (and more seasoned) Haynes, they were the epitome of laid-back precision. (Surprisingly, the set’s highlight was Roy-less, as Hargrove and Haynes set aside for a piano-bass-sax “April In Paris” that, chilled with loneliness yet charged with gentle hope, proved an exquisite exercise in spare, haunted beauty.)

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