Friday, June 13, 2014
I want to stay: Celebrating Ornette in Prospect Park
Last night's Celebrating Ornette tribute show at Celebrate Brooklyn (part of the ongoing Blue Note Jazz Festival) ended pretty much how everyone hoped/expected—with a stage full of star players performing "Lonely Woman." But the depth and intensity of that performance—it sounded more profound to me than any other version of the piece I've heard aside from the original—was indicative of just how right this entire event felt.
No rhythm section to start, just Geri Allen playing a swirling textural introduction, setting the stage for the horns to enter—and what an insane assemblage of talent: Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis and, eventually, David Murray. To hear them each solo in turn was magical, but to hear them unite in service to this, one of the greatest compositions I know—the late Lou Reed made the same point in a recorded excerpt—was even more so. Jazz, and culture in general, is glutted with homage that feels rote, slight. But these musicians didn't need any goading to celebrate Ornette. In just about every performance that went down last night, you sensed a very genuine kind of reverence, deference, humility in the presence of the man and his music.
And there was no guarantee beforehand that he'd appear. I'd heard troubling rumors about Ornette's health, so I expected maybe a brief glimpse at the end, if that. But there he was onstage, minutes after the show began. Shockingly, the man who preceded him was Sonny Rollins (second from the right in the photo, with Ornette to his left and Denardo Coleman to his right—sorry for the blurriness!), returning the favor to the saxophonist who had shown up and jammed at Rollins's now-legendary 2010 80th-birthday gig—and who, more than 50 years ago, helped open up new vistas in Rollins's playing. I must admit, it was a slight disappointment that Rollins didn't play, but his brief benediction—that's the only word I can think of for what his speech felt like—was priceless in and of itself. I don't remember the exact content of his remarks, but what I do remember is the graciousness with which he spoke, and the sincerity of his affection for Coleman.
There was one repeated phrase, Rollins relaying something Coleman had told him years ago: "It's all good" or "It's going to be okay," or something similar. Ornette spoke briefly, simply and equally profoundly, stressing the importance of happiness and unity. He was visibly shedding tears. There was a real sense of knowledge learned and earned—especially from Coleman, who faced so much aesthetic (and, no doubt, social) adversity early on. He is the opposite of bitter. When he first came out, he clutched Rollins's hand and kissed it. It was one of the most moving human moments I've ever seen on a stage.
Rollins's "It's all good" was a prescription for the show (and maybe, in the end, the perfect summation of Coleman's famously hard-to-define harmolodic system). The event was long, occasionally—as during some of the longer, more crowded jams—chaotic. Denardo Coleman, Ornette's son, was drumming, and ostensibly in charge, but from what I could tell, there wasn't a whole lot of bandleading going on, or predetermined form. For the most part, the guests would emerge, a head would be played (a lingua-franca Coleman theme such as "Dancing in Your Head"), and then everyone sort of took it from there. That was just fine. Nearly every one of the guest-star turns felt special. Flea was there from the beginning, bringing an infectious energy and willingness to jam; David Murray was a volcano of passion and soul; Ravi Coltrane, as he always seems to, avoided pyrotechnics in favor of sublimated intensity; James Blood Ulmer strummed away, providing a compellingly insular sort of commentary; Henry Threadgill, almost seeming relieved not to be, for once, playing the mastermind's role, offering up his patented gritty, torrid alto lines, Coleman-inspired, but not at all Coleman-like; Joe Lovano, humbly laying waste in customary fashion.
Whatever anyone contributed did indeed feel all good. Certain sets were their own little isolated pockets. Some felt rushed (a Branford Marsalis / Bruce Hornsby duet) or a tad prolonged (a Patti Smith Band interlude; though I'll say that I loved her clarinet playing and wished there had been more), but others served a perfect palate-cleansing function, e.g., a gorgeous ambient quartet featuring Laurie Anderson on violin, Bill Laswell on bass, John Zorn on alto and the ghost of Lou Reed on guitar drone. (A Reed associate whose name I didn't catch had set up Reed's actual guitars and amplifiers in a Metal Machine Music sort of formation, and he "played" this apparatus along with the other three. As Hal Willner indicated in a spoken introduction, Reed was a Coleman fanatic, and it was no minor happening for the late to be there in spirit last night.) A Thurston Moore / Nels Cline guitar duet was similarly brief and similarly successful—a humble offering placed at the altar of the master.
The supporting cast—Denardo Coleman's so-called Vibe ensemble, featuring core Ornette associates such as guitarist Charles Ellerbee, bassists Al MacDowell and Tony Falanga, and saxist Antoine Roney—mostly stayed in the background, but occasional a weird and wonderful Ellerbee guitar squiggle would burble up to the fore, or Falanga would take the lead; the latter's arco introduction to "Sleep Talking," one of my absolute favorite Coleman themes, was one of the highlights of the entire show for me.
At times, as during the "Lonely Woman" finale, Denardo's drumming felt perfectly attuned; at others, it seemed overpowering, the backbeat rhythms boxier than what I would've liked to hear. But his presence was vital for this family affair—I loved his spoken introduction; something to the effect of "I'm biased, but Ornette is the greatest musician on the planet"—as was that of gregarious MC Gregg Mann, a longtime Ornette engineer and associate.
And, it must be said: a beautiful night in Prospect Park. A free, public event should feel exactly like this. Challenging, nourishing music, presented without pretense of artiness or "high culture." A tribute that doesn't bore you with ponderous context; that instead simply rounds up the heaviest presences possible, invites them onstage and lets them figure out their role on the fly. A context that leaves room for accident, for meandering, for brain-scrambling collisions. I remember seeing the Master Musicians of Jajouka onstage with, among others, Bruce Hornsby, Branford Marsalis, Bill Laswell and James Blood Ulmer and thinking, man, what other figure could've united all these folks?
Ornette's music is people music—that was the message. When I was first getting into jazz, around 20 years ago, friends tipped me off to Kind of Blue, certain Monk records—you know, the canon. But it was Ornette's Shape of Jazz to Come that really set me off. It spoke to me directly; I'd heard the baggage about "free" this and "avant-garde" that. But all I really needed to hear was Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins performing "Lonely Woman," or "Peace" (which also made a welcome appearance last night), and I got it. Of course you would want to listen to this music. It's for everybody. It's not that its once-controversial radical-ness has been tempered; it's more that the music has been given ample time to disseminate to its true audience, the public, flowing past the gatekeepers/naysayers and eventually submerging and silencing them.
That populism is at the core of Ornette's music, and it was the driving principle of last night's concert. Everyone's invited: musicians, fans, the honoree himself, who sat onstage for an extended period, listening, soaking up the sounds. (At one point, an assistant came to lead him backstage, and I could clearly see Ornette mouth, "I want to stay.") There were so many highlights that I've forgotten to mention until now that, yes, Ornette played. Damn, did he play, and for a good while. That alto cry sounding slightly more fragile or faint than we're used to, but still, as identifiable as the laugh of a cherished friend. A welcoming wail—the sonic star of the show, but only one voice among many. Ornette wanted to stay—to relish this extended communal affirmation, celebration, meditation—and so, it goes without saying, did we.