By: Josh Potter
Ornette Coleman :: 06.07.08 :: Flynn Theater :: Burlington, VT
In most cases, the debate over a given artist's "genius" is generally moot – relative, as it were, to the way a listener fits the art in their own schema of history, interest and influence. As a result, we often talk about "legends" and "heroes," those individuals who have risen in a timeless sort of way to the rim of our cultural consciousness and then slipped into the sphere of demigods. The trouble with genius is that those who posses it have no value for the designation. These artists are so rooted in human experience, so mortally human, that their genius is palpable. To be in this presence is to feel more deeply, to be present in time, focused in mind and wholly, physically human.
Regardless of what you choose to call him, Ornette Coleman emits precisely this gravity. At 78, most successful artists would look back on their work with glowing nostalgia. Only the most exceptionally vivacious bring the novelty of their legend back to the attention of crowds that were there way back when or who hope to catch the quasi-mythological figure before they die. Not so for the man that invented free-jazz and then swore off its moniker. From the moment his frail form took the stage, it was apparent that Coleman has never lived in any time but the glowing, tremulous present. In wing tips and an iridescent blue suit, his Burlington Jazz Festival closing performance at the Flynn Theater bore the same unflagging precision and courageous commitment to improvisation that began earning the multi-instrumentalist champions and rivals at the age of 14.
In the wake of a Grammy, a Pulitzer and a MacArthur Genius Grant, Coleman has clearly not been slowed by age. Performing on alto sax, trumpet and violin amid a quartet that features his son Denardo Coleman on drums, Al MacDowell on upright bass and Tony Falanga on electric bass, Coleman has taken his latest musical philosophy, "Sound Grammar" (lifted from his latest studio effort from 2006), beyond the "harmolodics" that he used to dissect the bebop establishment in the late 1950s, and into an existential, musical worldview.
His first piece began with a flurry of alto notes then shifted suddenly to trumpet. What might have sounded chaotic proved meticulously composed as the band fell in behind him, establishing a crisp, walking vamp. MacDowell and the younger Coleman pulsed forward with a sort of groove rare to the free-time-loving free-jazz idiom. Coleman's contempt of the title is evident at times like this when improvisation is merely the outer texture of the song's fully pre-conceived architecture. Keeping with the metaphor, Falanga was the bungee cord that kept Coleman tethered to the building, as the chords he comped expertly interpreted Coleman's cascading chromaticism into shapes the rhythm section could identify. Sticking to the upper register of his instrument, Falanga performed the role a guitarist would normally fill, offering support and harmonic embellishment at turns. Far from the overkill two bassists could provide, Coleman used the two to jump between worlds, simultaneously accessing territory that Victor Wooten and Dave Holland might tread in their respective ensembles.
As soon as it began, so the first piece ended, marked by a crisp return of Coleman to his white alto. A drifting ballad followed, featuring MacDowell's expert bow-work and Coleman at his most lyrical. In stark contrast to the clattering nihilism that many expect from "free" jazz (and many musicians legitimately perform), Coleman's notion of freedom continually proved to be more of an omni-lingual approach to sound. In the course of a single piece there are traces of blues, Eastern European ethnic music, classical counterpoint and bop prosody. The dissonance that an unsuspecting listener might detect is not that of happenstance but rather a deliberate inclusion of all the quantum dialects into a singular musical dialogue.
Later in the set, MacDowell bowed a straight Hayden sonata under a breathy atonal saxophone solo. Far from defaming the Western canon, Coleman's addition to the piece lent it an immediate, physical intimacy that such music loses when overplayed. Perhaps this is the overarching lesson of "Sound Grammar" – that abstract art is not the cerebral head-trip most make it out to be, but rather a physical phenomenon apprehended through the senses that creates a real emotional response.
The set moved seamlessly from new tunes to those off his 1959 breakthrough The Shape of Jazz to Come, delineating the arch of a musical vision that has climbed and evolved for nearly half a century. Even during a touch of gritty blues, the band held together a dapper sort of anarchism. With bright cymbals and a crisp sense of pitch, the quartet shied away from the animalistic, neo-primitive sort of adventure that contemporary improvisors tend to take. Instead, Coleman's vision has always been an avant-futurism that projects an ivory tower of telekinetic beings on a distant but not-unfamiliar celestial colony where art and industry have finally merged. Within this vision, a left-handed violin solo over a surf-rock groove is not entirely surprising. This is, after all, the way the set closed.
When the tiny, bleary-eyed man returned to a dark corner of the stage to acknowledge his thunderous ovation, aspects of age and mortality were unmistakable. He hadn't said a word all night. As the crowd cheered for more, a sense of guilt followed that what was offered already exceeded what ought to be expected of such a humble figure. Rubbing inspired exhaustion from his eyes, his re-appearance alone seemed a proper encore. This is why it came as such a treat and surprise when, after long deliberation, Coleman turned to his band offstage and nodded that he'd do one more.
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