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Ornette Coleman
Ann Arbor MI, 19 March 2004

The folks at the University of Michigan had already bestowed an honor named for civil rights leaders on Ornette Coleman before he even stepped on the stage. The audience in the university's venerable venue Hill Auditorium rose to their feet before he had a chance to even pick up his saxophone. Such is the reception given to a legend.

At 75, Coleman, dressed with eccentric elegance in a pastel blue suit, is clearly an aging legend. His steps onto the stage gingerly with bassist Tony Falanga solicitously close to his right elbow. He appears even gaunter, if that's possible, than before. Yet unlike other elder jazz statesmen, Coleman doesn't give himself any musical crutches. When I saw Sonny Rollins a couple years ago, it was clear his backup band was carrying more of the weight with the leader strategically planning his spots to give the audience a flash of trademark fireworks. Late in his career Dizzy Gillespie added Sam Rivers—"Yes, THE Sam Rivers", as he would announce—to his lineup to help with the solo load. At Ann Arbor though, it was Coleman center stage, flanked by two acoustic bassists (Falanga and Greg Cohen) with son Denardo Coleman covering his back on drums.

According to the program, most of the music was newly composed for Coleman's brief residency at the university. No matter. It was characteristically Coleman: Taut, keening lines in a grafting of primeval folk blues onto urban bop. None of the heads would have been out of place on the early Atlantic sessions, and when Coleman mid-set intoned the familiar strains of "Lonely Woman", the audience applauded. Since his belated arrival on the scene in 1959, the core of Coleman's music has remained constant. What have changed are the contexts he's set it in. He has shown that the muse that sang in his ear as a teenager in Texas sings as sweetly for an entire symphony orchestra or during a jam session with North African musicians. While the melodies limn the same essential territory, the history of all those encounters informs what comes after it. That certainly holds true for this current group.

The distinguishing feature of this current ensemble is the use of two bassists with distinct duties. Coleman casts Cohen in the traditional bass role; and throughout the night Cohen laid down insistent pizzicato lines. Falanga, on the other hand, played arco almost the entire night and served as a second solo voice. Known as much if not more as a classical chamber player, he merges the free jazz traditions with new music techniques. As such, his improvisations contrasted with Coleman's ever-astringent alto sound. Falanga's solos were never less than engaging; in fact, his ballad statements were ravishing. He seemed to be channeling the folk songs from some distant village on the edge of the cosmos. Together he and Cohen created an orchestral carpet of sound as the doubled basses resonated complex series of overtones.

Over this Coleman burned characteristically peppery lines, his own personal folk-art music. While this quality is enduring, what seemed new (to my ears at least) was the way he seemed to set his lines at some remove from the inspired tumult of the ensemble. He was like the ghost of Petrouchka floating over the fair. In contrast to the expansiveness of his alto, his trumpet and violin are more one dimensional, shrill complements to the horn. He employs them sparingly, but on the seventh offering of the set, he and the bassists locked into an eerie arco string passage.

The dynamo that drives all this is Denardo Coleman. I wonder if he would be far more esteemed had he not devoted his career to working with his father. He is as good a drummer for the elder Coleman as any of his esteemed predecessors. He picks up all the rhythmic implications of his father's music, realizing them with complex, slashing grooves. No matter how intense his work, it remains fluid, responsive and evocative. Denardo Coleman also provides a percussive outline of the structures of the compositions, shifting tone with the soloists, picking up cues and accenting them. Consistently, he signaled the return to the head by ratcheting up the polyrhythms.

Throughout the 10-song, 80-plus minute set Coleman never spoke. Yet at the end he offered a few aphoristic remarks: "Existence is not only a day or night, it's only forever inside of you." Then he exited with the audience resuming the ovation with which they had greeted him. Of course, there were those who used the ovation as cover to head for the exits, but not many, among them the couple who sat in front of me. Late arrivals, the female half gave a puzzled look to her partner the first time Coleman wielded his violin. Certainly there are those who feel legends should by nature be safe listening. To Coleman's credit, his music is still a challenge, still animated with the single-mindedness that can cause some to wonder if he's a charlatan. That's part of its enduring appeal.

After the second curtain call, Coleman relented and assembled the band for an encore. (Audiences can be so greedy—hadn't he already given his all, I wondered.) Just as he was ready to lift his horn, the still standing audience started serenading him. "Happy birthday to you!" Coleman had turned 75 just 10 days before, a fact played up in the university's promotion of the concert. He stood hands folded, pleasantly bemused. Then he gently applauded the audience's efforts. He appeared to signal a change in the tune to come.

After some conversation with the band, he launched into "Turnaround" from his second Contemporary album Tomorrow Is the Question! What followed was Coleman's most intense, engaged playing of the night. In two solos—separated by more inspired bowing from Falanga—he seemed to pull each phrase from someplace deep inside of him. His blowing had the elemental power of field hollers, yet informed by a certain wry humor. He even closed his first solo with a quote from "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean". After Denardo Coleman signaled the return to the composition's central blues riff, and the band let the tune conclude with an extended denouement, the audience, now satiated, was again now on its feet. For tonight the question had been answered—tomorrow we'd all still have Ornette's searing lines singing in our heads.