Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"His work was play": Celebrating Ornette, then, now, always

I wrote about it at the time, the poignancy of this image of Ornette Coleman sitting onstage at his own tribute show — the epic Denardo-directed Prospect Park hang of June 12, 2014 — simply listening as all these wondrous sounds took shape around him. Thanks to the new Celebrate Ornette box set, which documents, audiovisually, the entirety of both that gig and his memorial service at Riverside Church the following June, we can relive the night, really get back inside it and see not only what it meant then but what it means now.

One thing that going back to the Prospect Park show confirms is that it was a pretty loose night overall, an Ornette-themed jam session, really, with some beautiful moments of communion but also a charming by-the-seat-of-its-pants quality. As Rolling Stone's David Fricke pointed out in his review of the new box set, as rich as it is, and despite Ornette's own presence on a few of the pieces, this is not so much a definitive summation of Ornette's legacy but more, as the title suggests, a celebratory coda to an extraordinary life, an invitation to witness the beginnings of a post-Ornette, but still Ornette-suffused, musical and creative reality.

Back to the image of the seated Ornette, and how we get to that point in the proceedings. The Prospect Park event begins with a remarkable Sonny Rollins benediction (I don't think I'll ever forget his Ornette paraphrase of "It's all good!" as long as I live), followed by a teary-eyed blessing from the honoree himself, spreading as he always did a message of unity and kindness that feels, now, in this bleak, chaotic 2017, like a dispatch from some sort of long-bygone utopia. Ornette exits the stage for the first piece or two, leaving players like Henry Threadgill and Flea to jam with the effervescent house band, Denardo Vibe (such a pleasure, throughout the show, to just kind of swim in their odd flow, sprightly yet turbulent), then makes a surprise cameo at his own party, blowing lines of sublime fragility, paper-thin but dripping with that swooping, blues-saturated feeling we knew then and always will know as Ornette-ness. (In in a subtly brilliant bit of producer's sleight-of-hand, Denardo places the pieces where Ornette himself played first in the running order on the CD and LP documents in Celebrate Ornette, even though they actually came a bit later as we see on the DVD, so that the first sound we hear on the audio-only versions is Ornette's horn.)

In some ways those first few minutes of "Ramblin'," more or less a Coleman a cappella moment, with some slight accompaniment from guitarist Charlie Ellerbee (a Prime Time member and longtime Ornette loyalist, who tells a beautiful story on the DVD about Ornette sitting his band members down, asking each of them where in the world they would most like to play, and then fulfilling those travel dreams one by one), are the most precious, like fragments of garments worn by a saint. These versions of "Ramblin'" and "OC Turnaround" are the last of Ornette's sound that we have, really, and what his playing here lacks in his old command and swagger, it more than makes up for in feeling. The band comes in behind him on "OC Turnaround"; tapdancer Savion Glover is sitting in. There's not much of an arrangement to speak of — the proceedings are loose. Coleman and tenor players David Murray and Antoine Roney blow simultaneously; the band sings the classic Ellington-esque theme. There's such a happy casual-ness to it all. "Ornette is here, and he wants to play, and we've got these tunes, and all these amazing guests, and we're just going to go for it." Sometimes these tribute events get stiff, overly manicured, but what this concert was, in some of its best moments, was simply a hang, a last chance for Ornette to just exist within this vibrant community, this unique musical and social circumstance — an environment where Geri Allen and Thurston Moore, Patti Smith and James Blood Ulmer, and Jack DeJohnette and John Zorn and Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane and so many others could all come together — that his music and presence nurtured for almost six decades.

So after two pieces on which he performs, he remains onstage, seated, listening. (I remember seeing him mouth "I want to stay" to an assistant who had come to lead him offstage, a phrase that I borrowed for my write-up.) The horn rests across his lap. At times he smiles at a musical event — he's clearly delighted by the presence of Wallace Roney Jr., for example, seen in the photo above — but often he's just sitting there, his hands clasped. We can't know what he was thinking, but I like to think it was something like what the audience (at least the one member I can speak for), the musicians and everyone there was thinking that night: Isn't this something. "This" being a joyous occasion for pilgrimage, with so many diverse expressions of whatever this or that artist felt they wanted to bring, from Nels Cline and Thurston Moore's intense, exacting guitar duet to the no-frills jamming of Denardo Vibe and ace soloists like Threadgill and Lovano, to the sort of Lou Reed feedback seance of Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Laswell and Stewart Hurwood, to the big "Song X" jam with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, James Blood Ulmer and others.

There's one powerful moment when Patti Smith, during a break from her powerful recitation piece "Tarkovsky (The Second Stop Is Jupiter)," in which she also plays clarinet, asks Ornette to join in with her. Coleman, still seated there onstage, as dusk has given way to night, one of those magical summer nights in Prospect Park that are so emblematic of the Brooklyn Experience, and here we have two legends on the stage, and one is inviting the other to jam, essentially. And Coleman, clearly done playing for the night, for whatever reason, graciously declines. And there's something about that moment that scans for me as a passing of the torch, as a "this is all going to go on without me" or an "I'm here with you even when I'm not here," a foreshadowing of a time, not so far in the future, when his fans, admirers, collaborators, family, everyone whom his music and humanity touched, would continue on without him literally beside them but always with this sort of ever-proliferating Ornette spirit (that fragile ghost of an OC sound that we hear on "Ramblin'") hanging in the air. I know that his sound, and not just that of his own saxophone, but of the happily shaggy funk that, say, Denardo Vibe lays down, as well as the coiled-spring mirth/mania evident in his best small groups from throughout the years, will persist in our minds. Like with the output of any true icon, you never forget the sensation of Ornette's work, and that night in Prospect Park, even after he fell silent, the feeling and spirit of the Ornette-o-verse was still dancing in all our heads, a state of bliss we can now happily relive.

The film of the Ornette memorial, a lengthy document that I'm still digesting, is another welcome gift of Celebrate Ornette, with copious speeches that are as enlightening as the brief musical episodes by fellow travelers such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor — both just getting up and being themselves in the most no-nonsense of ways, Sanders with a solo tenor piece, Taylor with a bewitching few minutes of poetry and piano, paying no kind of explicit tribute in terms of repertoire but expressing a kind of tough solidarity with the late master. I loved hearing New York Amsterdam News writer Herb Boyd recall seeing Ornette's gamechanging early quartet in Detroit in 1960 as part of a meager crowd — after the show, he spoke to Ornette and lamented the turnout, and Coleman simply told him, "It's about quality, not quantity."

In a beautiful speech about all his years covering and conversing with Ornette — I again direct you to the essential Miles Ornette Cecil — Howard Mandel captures the sense of inspiration felt by so many of us whose lives have been touched by Ornette. Wonder in his presence and art, and a feeling that whatever it is that we do, we know more about how to do it well, and humanely, and in a deep lifelong way, because of Ornette's example. Near the end of his speech, Howard says of Ornette, offhandedly, that "his work was play," a simple phrase that sums it all up.

What that night in Prospect Park was, was a night of pure play, inclusive and infectious — like so much of Ornette's greatest work, fun but not frivolous. I like to think that, seated there onstage after he was done actually playing the horn, Ornette was perhaps meditating on this concept, how fun and full of wonder a creative life can be, how it can turn a stage filled with some of the world's greatest musicians from, essentially, a workplace into a playground. And how anyone who takes that principle to heart — call it harmolodics, or what you will — can carry it with them always, not just through art but through life, thus celebrating the great Ornette Coleman long into the future.


*Learn more about the Celebrate Ornette box here and read Denardo's essential essay.

*Read Seth Colter Walls' excellent Pitchfork review of the box, which has much to say, in particular, re: the preciousness and fragility of these final moments of Ornette-on-alto that we have to savor.

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