Published: December, 2005, Rasputin Manifesto
When Ornette comes to town
By Michael Fortes

When Ornette Coleman comes to town, you just have to be there. There's no room to even consider it. In the jazz pantheon, there are few living masters remaining who inspire as much awe, respect, and confusion as Ornette. So to pass up one of his live performances is to walk away not just from an inspiring, uplifting concert experience, but from the creation of another page of history.

Though he has no new album to promote (and hasn't put one out since 1997), Ornette isn't resting on his laurels at the age of 75. Not content to regularly rehash 'oldies' and recreate old times for nostalgia's sake, his live performances of the past several years have consisted of lots of unfamiliar material, with a few old bones thrown in for good measure. The Masonic Auditorium performance in San Francisco on November 5 was no exception.

Reprising last year's acclaimed quartet performances, Ornette again took to the stage with his son and close musical partner Denardo Coleman on drums, along with bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga. This particular band configuration is a welcome change from prior years, for the period when bassist Charlie Haden augmented Coleman, bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett back in 1967 was all too brief, and not well-documented.

The two bassists played complementary roles, rather than dueling each other. Tony Falanga - a virtuoso whose more 'traditional' musical pedigree added a beautiful tension to Ornette's compositions - mostly provided a singing, upper register bowed bass sound. He brought on board his experience on the bandstand with artists like Wynton Marsalis, Jim Hall and Randy Brecker, and a melodic sense that made him stand out as the 'other' leading voice in the band (though of course every voice in an Ornette ensemble 'leads'). Greg Cohen, on the other hand - having accompanied artists as wide ranging as John Zorn and Tom Waits - plucked away at his bass strings, sometimes busily dancing up and down the fret board with either hand.

And then there was Denardo. The younger Coleman made his debut recording at the age of 10 on his father's 1966 Blue Note session, The Empty Foxhole. Since that precocious beginning, Denardo has grown to become one of his father's most impressive and sympathetic drummers, and to be certain, he drew some of the night's loudest applause for his creative, orderly, exciting, perfectly timed drum solo towards the end of the set.

Ornette himself has been known to make an impression beyond his playing and compositions, and some of those non-musical trademarks were on display. His bright blue outfit and fedora hat have become a classic latter-day visual representation of Ornette the man, while his soft-spoken nature ensured that we'd have to be very, very quiet in order to hear him the few times he spoke. "Can you hear me now?" he joked.

Indeed, we heard him loud and clear. The mostly unfamiliar material bore Ornette's trademark haunting melodies and that striking, humanlike timbre of his alto saxophone. He did bring his trumpet and violin along, though they were used sparingly. Trumpet solos were few, bright and very brief, while he only picked up his violin once and put it down fairly quickly. The way he was fiddling with the instrument, it appeared that something was wrong with it, perhaps not being properly tuned. But no matter - Ornette played plenty of breathtaking alto, pushed forward by the momentum his young band generated along with him.

A few familiar tunes did pop up in the set, two of which were radically recast. "Gudalupe" and "Tone Dialing" were previously recorded by his electric ensemble Prime Time on the dense, challenging 1995 release Tone Dialing (Harmolodic/Verve). The pretty Latin-tinged melodies were laid bare on the acoustic bed of Cohen, Falanga and the younger Coleman, allowing their pure beauty to be easily heard.

But Ornette saved the best for last. Not particularly known for indulging his audiences with his most well-known compositions, Ornette and band returned after the main set for an encore performance of "Lonely Woman." For 90 minutes, we witnessed the master at work with his young quartet, finding new ways of expressing their musical ideas with age-old instruments playing tunes we had never heard before. But when Ornette's alto sang those opening notes of his encore performance over the insistently strummed bass that marks the tune's intro, it suddenly became clear: this really is Ornette Coleman! He's playing "Lonely Woman!" Holy crap!!

Not only was he playing this old chestnut of his early days as a controversial up-and-coming leader of the avant garde, he was living it and turning it into something new before our very ears, as he is wont to do. It was the perfect end to a perfect evening of music at the perfect length.