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Ornette Coleman’s Innovations Are Celebrated at Lincoln Center – The New York Times

Ornette Coleman’s Innovations Are Celebrated at Lincoln Center - The New York Times


https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/arts/music/ornette-coleman-lincoln-center.html?emc=edit_tnt_20170717
 
Ornette Coleman’s Innovations Are Celebrated at Lincoln Center
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLOJULY 17, 2017
 

 
From left, Wallace Roney, Al MacDowell, Joshua Redman and Kenny Wessel during an Ornette Coleman festival at Alice Tully Hall. Ian Douglas for The New York Times
In Ornette Coleman’s most mythic period, from the late 1950s into the early ’60s, he released a run of albums for Atlantic Records that bent the blues-based sound of Charlie Parker into a looser and more inclusive style — all molded around Coleman’s bright and pure alto saxophone sound. These were years of intense creative release; by their end, Coleman had established an understanding of what’s now called free jazz.
But it was also a time of frustration. Coleman was arguably the jazz scene’s most important star, but he was not earning much money from his albums or performances, and he felt that his audience was being circumscribed by promoters. In 1962 he left Atlantic and fired his booking agent. Before long, Coleman had done more than revolutionize acoustic jazz: He had offered proof positive that a black musician could self-determine off the bandstand, too, turning the gentle utopianism of his artistic persona into a life ethic.
Over the past week, Lincoln Center presented “Ornette Coleman: Tomorrow Is the Question,” a broad celebration of Coleman’s life’s work — the first of its kind since his death in 2015. Notably, it sped right past the Atlantic years, instead elevating the broad range of work that defined Coleman’s later career.
Starting in 1962, Coleman began writing for chamber ensembles and collaborating with filmmakers; hosting his own concerts; and eventually releasing albums on his own labels. All of this work was represented at the week’s events. Each was self-contained, without much overlap or imposed cohesion, but all together, they were a reminder that Coleman long ago embodied the kind of interdisciplinary entrepreneurship that’s taken for granted today.
The festival included a reunion show featuring two formations of Prime Time, Coleman’s keyed-up avant-funk band from the 1970s and ’80s; a screening of the film “Naked Lunch,” with a live performance of the score that Coleman and Howard Shore wrote together; a concert featuring some of Coleman’s compositions for chamber ensemble, drawn from the late 1960s through the ’80s; and a screening of the filmmaker Shirley Clarke’s experimental portrait “Ornette: Made in America.”
Coleman’s son, Denardo, a drummer who helped plan the events, intends to continue presenting similar engagements, upholding his father’s legacy by engaging with its breadth. (He recently founded the label Song X, which this year put out a live recording from his father’s final concert.)
“I’m on a mission to keep his energy going,” Denardo Coleman said, then switched to the future tense: “His inventions are going to change our perception of what music can do, and the impact music can have.”
At Sunday’s closing concert, standing onstage with members of Ensemble Signal at the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse, the conductor Brad Lubman explained that the best way to get to know a classical composer was through his chamber work. Whether or not that’s true for someone like Coleman, his writing for small classical ensembles does convey a lot of the same features that define his improvised music — in particular, a détente between individualism and symbiosis.
On “Forms and Sounds,” from 1967, for woodwind quintet, the stippled, tense energy of the oboe and the clarinet spritzed the curious lines of Max Grube’s bassoon. No key or gravitational center asserted itself. The work culminated in a fast, punching phrase, played in five-part unison; it was almost ludic, but landed with a jolt.
“In Honor of NASA and the Planetary Soloists,” for string quartet and oboe, featured violins and viola engaged in gently dissonant, softly sinking harmonies. It was music of disappearance and atrophy, but not pathos: There was an inevitable logic of regeneration about the piece. It culminated on the upswing, with a passage of slowly rising chords reminiscent of the irresolute, parallel motion in “Skies of America,” Coleman’s major concerto. Finally, a vigorous passage of sharp polyphony heralded the end.
There were lines to be drawn between that afternoon’s concert and what had transpired earlier in the week. In Clarke’s masterly film, which features footage of Coleman in 1968 and again in 1983, he explains the thinking behind harmolodics — the enigmatic term he coined to signify a utopic vision of music-making. “Each being’s imagination has its own unison,” he says, “and there are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky.”
On Friday, both of Prime Time’s major iterations reunited in a concert dedicated to the memory of Bern Nix, a guitarist with the group who died in May. (He was originally expected to perform at the event.) The group’s mid-1980s incarnation played first, with Kenny Wessel on guitar and Dave Bryant on keyboards; Denardo Coleman on drums; Badal Roy on tabla; and the bassists Al MacDowell and Chris Walker.
As both improviser and composer, Coleman conveyed a genius-level innocence, tinted by undeniable beauty and Southern dignity. Prime Time, his first entree into electrified music, warped that without upending it. The band made a kind of tangled funk that was always racing and outpacing itself. By the time it formed in the mid-1970s, Coleman had been in New York for over 15 years, fighting eviction and the occasional violent mugging. Prime Time made “Ford to City: Drop Dead” music; dangerous joy music; post-industrial and high-flash. Coleman didn’t use two basses to add low-end heft: He was creating the illusion of unsteady ground.
That’s a lot to communicate in a half-empty Alice Tully Hall, which in any case is built for orchestral music, not for speed. The first set on Friday had more than a few moments of startling success, particularly a duet between Mr. Roy and the guest saxophonist Joshua Redman, and some arresting drum breaks by Denardo Coleman. But the second set never got entirely off the ground, largely because of issues with the sound. It’s a shame, because that band — featuring the subtly propulsive clang of Charles Ellerbee’s guitar and the double drums of Denardo Coleman and Calvin Weston, as well as Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Mr. MacDowell on basses — had a longer and more multifaceted career than the later version of Prime Time.
The whole celebration began on the previous Tuesday, with the screening and performance of “Naked Lunch.” Two pre-eminent saxophonists — Henry Threadgill on alto, and Ravi Coltrane on tenor — played with Denardo Coleman and the bassist Charnett Moffett, covering the material played on the soundtrack by Ornette Coleman’s trio. The full iteration of Ensemble Signal handled orchestral duties, playing Mr. Shore’s score.
This was the series’s most cleanly successful event, though it didn’t have the heavy historical gravitas of the Prime Time reunion, or the charmed revelation of the chamber music show. Mr. Threadgill — a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, and the only alto saxophonist on the festival — brought his own brand of bluesy acridity. Over cool, dark-toned string arrangements, he let out shivery cries that harked to the influence of Coleman, but had their own wry relationship to the surrealism of the film.
In the festival’s program notes, Denardo Coleman quotes his father discussing the pivotal 1962 concert he organized at Town Hall, when he had first decided to split from his booking agent and manage his own live shows. “On that day in New York City, there was a snowstorm,” Coleman recalled, adding, “and a newspaper strike.” But I didn’t lose any money.” It’s a quintessentially Ornette Coleman way of speaking. He circles the point, illustrates it, doesn’t get too explicit. The listeners can draw their own conclusions.
 



 
 


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