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.
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 announceto 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
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 greedyhadn'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 solosseparated by more inspired bowing from Falangahe
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 answeredtomorrow
we'd all still have Ornette's searing lines singing in our heads.