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Ornette Coleman at the SF Jazz Festival

When last we saw Ornette Coleman at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, he stirred up the stuff of infamy. It was 1994, and Coleman’s “Tone Dialing” program presented a full menu of sets from both Coleman’s acoustic quartet music and his poly-everything electric band Prime Time. In-between those performances came a ritualistic body-piercing act. Some felt compelled to flee to the lobby when the impaling began. Musically, though, a fine, potent memory still lingers.

On November 7, as the pinnacle of the 20th anniversary SF Jazz Fest, Coleman returned to town, this time in the more uptown, elegant setting of Davies Symphony Hall. No flesh was pierced, and little electricity used (apart from bassist Charnett Moffett’s electro-acoustic ventures). Emerging in a sky blue suit on the stage normally occupied by the San Francisco Symphony, Coleman launched into a healthy two-hour set of acoustic trio music, 10 songs written especially for this concert. That the concert was one of only two Coleman played this year added to an air of expectancy from one of the last great iconoclastic jazz heroes of our time.

Over a rangy course of varied new tunes, from jubilant but twisted melodies to plaintive ballads to quirky soulful numbers, the 72-year-old Coleman unleashed his usual calmly challenging demeanor as an improviser. A flexible rhythm section force was organically summoned up by drummer Denardo Coleman and Moffett, charged ahead while Ornette floated on top, sometimes addressing the pulse, sometimes ignoring it altogether, all in his special cant. As always, the shifting relationship to pulse and pitch are important aspects of his vocabulary.

A drum solo by Denardo reminded us that precision and pyrotechnics are not his thing. Energy flow is, and he turned up the heat, joined by his father on one of the evening’s more abstractly atonal solos. Much of his improvisational voice this night relied on a lithe mixture of bop, blues, folk and Ornette-ism.

On the other hand, appreciating the playing of Moffett, son of former Coleman colleague Charles, may be an acquired taste. In this setting, he seems like an incurable showboater, a stowaway in the wrong band. He relied on cheap tricks, including an octave divider, tapping strings with the back of the bow and quoting such kitsch as “Mona Lisa” and, bizarrely, “Star Spangled Banner,” jerking the unique Harmolodic language into a crass detours. Sometimes, Coleman would seem to interrupt Moffett’s digressions, with his charming roughness on trumpet and violin, as if to bring things back away from earth.

Especially in the pared-down setting of a trio, Coleman’s voice rings out loud and clear. He plays like a sage, a revolutionary only by comparison to the conservative sounds around him–particularly in the confused, ravaged post-Ken Burns jazz landscape. His music is actually perfectly logical and true to the sound in his head. This concert managed to be joyous, aloof, and focused, all at once, a balance that precious few artists could achieve.

Originally Published