|Jazz At Lincoln Center Faces The Music Of Ornette Coleman
It finally happened: Congenitally conservative trumpeter Wynton Marsalis
and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra presented its version of Ornette
Coleman's radical music. For two nights, the big band which for the
past 10 years has established its purpose as codifying and institutionalizing
jazz tried to assimilate the convention-defying repertoire of a composer
and multi-instrumentalist who believes the world and everything in
it are in a constant, complicated yet harmonious flux.
Coleman himself has performed at Lincoln Center, though never under
Jazz at Lincoln Center sponsorship. Lincoln Center is a conglomerate
of presenting organizations, each with its own artistic director;
Marsalis is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of greater
Lincoln Center's constituent organizations. The annual summertime
Lincoln Center Festival, which is not a program of Jazz at Lincoln
Center but can make use of the same concert halls that J@LC uses,
celebrated Coleman's works in 1997 by twice presenting his symphony
Skies of America, performed by his octet Prime Time and the
New York Philharmonic conducted by Kurt Masur. In the same week, Coleman
concertized on alto saxophone, trumpet and violin with his longtime
associates, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden, and led
his electric octet Prime Time in two shows, one featuring art-rockers
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed sitting in as guests.
Some of that music was sublime, and some of it was puzzling. Coleman
is a tuneful, penetrating and always bluesy saxophonist, whose sound
is full of human speech patterns, laughs and cries. He has written
many songs with memorable themes. But he typically uses those themes
to launch himself and his fellow players into personal expressions
that leave the basic rules applied to melodic variation over chord
progressions and steady beats within bar structures far behind. In
Prime Time, which consists of two electric guitarists, two electric
bassists, electric drums, amplified Indian hand-drums (tabla), a keyboards
player, and Coleman on alto sax, violin and trumpet, everyone solos
on his own part simultaneously, for a clangorous update on the collective
improvisation of early New Orleans jazz. Skies of America,
first performed in 1971, asks the symphony players to take enormous
liberties with the score. They are seldom willing to do so.
Virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was a classical prodigy as
well as the son of a straightahead jazz pianist, has the same reluctance
to embrace the essence of Coleman's concept—that all musicians
are creative and spontaneous, capable of collaborating without reference
to Western rules of musical conduct to raise their own consciousnesses
and that of their audiences to exalted states. But he cannot dismiss
Coleman's classic melodies from the 1960s the way he can reject the
electric, rock and funk-related jazz adventures of Miles Davis from
the 1970s. So he chose several well-accepted Coleman songs, and had
them artfully arranged for his large repertory ensemble.
The arrangements gave all the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members
something to do, but free improvisation was not part of the plan.
The best of the charts were by saxophonist Ted Nash, for the Latin
inflected "Una Muy Bonita" and the roaring finale, "Kaleidoscope".
The first of these emphasized the bouncy melodies played on the original
version by Coleman and trumpeter Don Cherry; the second gave strong
voice to Coleman's aggressive side. Lesser efforts such as trombonist
Ron Westray's fussy writing for "Lonely Woman" locked in
the literal qualities of the song rather than liberating its anguish.
Of the soloists, only Wynton blew outside of typical harmonies on
"Free", as Coleman does, though Walter Blandings on soprano
sax had a nice duet with bassist Carlos Enriques on "W.R.U."
Also, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, a veteran of Coleman's bands,
played on "Ramblin'" and "Peace", demonstrating
more originality, maturity and conviction than anyone else on the
"These are some of Ornette's earliest compositions", Redman
said when he grabbed the microphone during the concert's second half.
"He has done so much more than these over the past 50 years.
Let's give it up to the genius of Ornette Coleman!" The audience
dutifully applauded. Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members looked
ready to get back to their scores. The neat and pretty organization
of Coleman's tunes may have made them accessible, reassuring and safe
to the people in the audience, but it robbed them of their composer's
insistence of surprise.
So the concert was mildly pleasing but also a disappointment. It presented
an opportunity for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra members to grow—to
embrace a challenging but rejuvenating approach to music-making, to
dig into themselves and come up with genuinely spontaneous, unpredictable,
and deeply personal improvisations. They wouldn't have had to employ
Coleman's still-controversial theory for all their future repertory
concerts, but it might have been a way of thinking they could have
applied his ideas when they seemed appropriate. They could have taken
his songs to heart.
Strangely enough, Wynton Marsalis never mentioned Ornette Coleman's
name from the bandstand, though he spoke up to credit every one of
his Orchestra members for their arrangements and their solos, and
even thanked those who didn't play solos that night for their contributions
to the ensemble. Marsalis often speaks of jazz being about blues and
swing, but another essence of jazz is its iconoclasm, its defiance
of accepted conventions, its sense of permanent revolution, its demand
that music be real and so always new. Marsalis's heroes Louis Armstrong
and Duke Ellington believed in that, and so does Ornette Coleman.
Is such iconoclasm at odds with the jazz repertory movement? If jazz
repertoire isn't performed to be real right now, but only to be considered
as an exhibit from the past, what good is it? Jazz isn't a museum
exhibit, it's a living thing. Jazz at Lincoln Center aspires to life—so
let the true jazz impulse breathe, and be.