SCENA Jazz

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ornette Coleman, Montreal International Jazz Festival, July 9, 2009

by Mark Chodan


After an absence of more than 20 years, it would have been hard to pass up seeing Ornette Coleman on a Montreal stage. And what an impression he made…

The evening started with the FIJM presenting Ornette with their Miles Davis award, ironic given that Miles had little positive to say about Ornette and his band when they arrived in New York in the late 50s. His acceptance speech (or more accurately, "non-acceptance speech") was in the typically esoteric Ornette style where he spoke about how the only thing that was important for humanity was love. Ornette politely declined the physical award, dismissing it as a "gadget". Note: for those interested in familiarizing themselves with Ornettese, search out the CBC unedited podcast of an Ornette interview with Jian Ghomeshi from 2008.


Ornette and his quartet then proceeded to play well over one hour's worth of a mix of classic and newer Ornette music. With son Denardo Coleman on drums and bassists Tony Falanga (upright) and Al MacDowell (electric piccolo), the quartet was definitely closer to Ornette's Prime Time zone of the 80s than to the classic quartet of the 60s. Ornette stuck primarily to his alto although at many points he did switch to violin or trumpet for segments of many of the pieces.


The best way to picture the music, in my opinion, is to think of the quartet as a stripped down Prime Time, where the bassists function as the foundation, the x-axis, and Ornette and Denardo as the y-axis, where time can be stretched, compressed or side-lined. Falanga and MacDowell are clearly master musicians of the highest caliber, Falanga laying down the basic groove and MacDowell commenting and interjecting with his guitar-like piccolo bass. On this foundation Ornette and Denardo are free to enter dialogue amongst themselves and/or with the bassists.


Not to knock Denardo, but I couldn't help but wonder at certain points how different this quartet may have sounded with a different drummer. Throughout his career Ornette has not usually strayed too far from a basic pulse in his music, and this Denardo does provide. But it would be interesting to consider the musical possibilities if Ornette were to team up with, well, maybe not a Paul Lytton or Tony Oxley, but maybe Hamid Drake.


At 79, Ornette still has formidable stamina and a stunning sense of time. The set was followed by two encores, his classic Lonely Woman, and another piece which was either Michael Jackson's (!) "Beat It", or another Ornette piece that quoted the Jackson tune extensively, in the wake of Jackson's death only two weeks earlier.


Overall, Ornette Coleman's quartet provided an evening of exciting music. Gone are the days when Ornette could easily clear out a venue with his "radical" music of days gone by. These days Ornette is selling out concert halls and other large festival venues. This is an encouraging sign that perhaps great artists are no longer only recognized upon their deaths.


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