Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

The Gig: Dancing in Ornette’s Headspace

One of the central tenets in the mythology of jazz’s avant-garde is inaccessibility—and the consequence that experimentation comes at the cost of acceptance. There’s a grain of truth to that generalization, which has served variously as a point of pride, a source of frustration or justification for dismissal. So it was with more than a passing interest that I noted the behavior of one sold-out house at the Village Vanguard a couple of years ago. The Bad Plus had just rampaged through “Street Woman,” from Ornette Coleman’s 1971 album Science Fiction (Columbia). At the song’s last thunderous downbeat, the crowd had sprung, wildly cheering, to its feet. Blame demographics if you must, but it was the only time I’ve seen a standing ovation in the middle of a Vanguard set. The fact that it was occasioned by a Coleman composition, and not one of several rock covers, seemed significant, although it was hard to say exactly why or how.

I already knew enough to link the Bad Plus—two-thirds of it, anyway—to the music of Ornette. In June of 2003, Coleman played a dazzling JVC Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall, premiering a group that featured his alto saxophone, trumpet and violin alongside two new bassists (Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen) and his longtime drummer (son Denardo Coleman). After the encore, as the audience spilled out onto 57th Street, I ran into Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson and pianist Ethan Iverson, who both seemed astonished and somehow sobered. “I feel like someone in the early ’60s must have felt,” Iverson said. “The music he was making then, I totally understand; I grew up on that stuff. But what he’s doing now is beyond me. I’d need to live with it to figure it out.”

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).