Further Ornette sightings: the prophet of life-beyond-conventions returns on Friday to New York’s Town Hall, where he’s suffered and triumphed throughout his career.
Internationally acclaimed as an enquiring multi-instrumentalist, composer and conceptualist, Ornette has a special place in his heart for Town Hall, the historic midtown Manhattan venue where he self-produced a genre-defying concert in December, 1962.
“I took all my life savings,” he told me (as I quoted him in my
book), “wrote a string quartet, hired a rhythm and blues group, and had [bassist] David Izenzon, [drummer] Charlie Moffett and myself. . . and that night there was a subway strike, a newspaper strike, a taxi strike . . . I hired a guy to record it for me, and [later] he committed suicide. . . I could tell you a lot of tragedies.” He claims the production was a financial rout and went unreviewed, but nonetheless, ESP Disks released a portion of the tapes and they became known as a breakthrough album that scuttled previous easy definitions or rigid requirements of “jazz” limiting a musician’s scope and freedom. Coleman revisited Town Hall thereafter with somewhat better attended result, to perform Song X with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnnette in 1986, and with an extraordinary double bill of his “classic quartet” and his wildly tight septet Prime Time, celebrating In All Languages, in 1987.
Having just turned 78 years old, still Ornette performs with uniquely penetrating power on saxophone and usually violin and trumpet, too. As recently reported on this blog, he was in fine form in February at the Portland Jazz Festival, and he re-tuned my ears to the expansive sounds of the world, leading an ensemble of three bassists (including Charnette Moffett, son of his late drummer Charlie) and his own son Denardo on drums. The sold-out show was held in a former movie palace, and was the launch of a tour that got as far as the Far East and New Zealand.
Denardo recently sent me a link to a clip of Ornette on a previous Asian tour. Here’s his “Dancing In Your Head” band Prime Time on Youtube at the Jazz Under the Sky Tokyo jazz festival of 1986. Denardo himself and electric bassist Albert McDowell (playing with Ornette again now) appear with guitarists Charlie Ellerbee and Bern Nix, electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Kamau Sabbir. The band nails its de facto theme song in a version, and Ornette’s explosive post-genre alto saxophone is captured perfectly. He starts with a childlike riff, churns it into a windmill, fragments it through multiple dimensions in a manner he’s described as “harmolodic” (for the fundamental union of harmony, melody and motion). Then he offers an episode of ripping violin, a blast of urgent trumpet, a return to the head — which the super-tight ensemble has been holding firm and infinitely expanding — then the end.
At seven minutes, it’s bracing, a jolt, a lift.