Is there anyone that doesn’t know Ornette Coleman is one of the most important jazz musician/composers of the 20th century? For those that don’t, thumbnail sketch: In the late 1950s Coleman developed an alternative method of jazz improvisation, far looser/flexible in terms of harmony and chord progression. His approach was "freer" than other saxophonists yet was based firmly in the blues (the feeling, if not structurally). At the time, some critics, listeners, and musicians (among them Miles Davis and Roy Eldridge) dismissed him as (to put it mildly) a fraud while others (including classical conductor Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thomson) declared him a genius.
The world to a degree caught up with Coleman in many ways. Coleman has composed tunes that’ve become standards ("Lonely Woman, "When Will The Blues Leave"), he’s appeared on movie soundtracks (American films Naked Lunch and Finding Forrester), he performed with the Grateful Dead, whose iconic guitarist Jerry Garcia played on Coleman’s album Virgin Beauty, performers disparate as John Coltrane, Lou Reed, Elliott Sharp, and John Zorn acknowledge him as an influence, and 2009 saw Coleman receive the Montreal Jazz Festival’s Miles Davis award, given to jazz players of international stature for the entire body of his or her work and its significance to jazz.
At this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival, Coleman’s Quartet performed at the plush, find-sounding Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts to a near-capacity crowd. The foursome takes the stage to excited applause laden with expectation-after all, a major aspect of Coleman’s career has been one of confounding expectations. Coleman’s son Denardo took the drum chair; Al McDowell was on electric bass and Tony Falanga played upright acoustic bass. If anyone thought this lineup was going to sound sparse or skeletal (without, say, a guitar or piano), that was forgotten after a song or two. The sound was full and immediate, due in no small part to the opulently large, plush sax sound of Coleman and the subtle way McDowell got and maintained a guitar-like tone from his bass. Falanga has a big tone not unlike that of Charlie Haden (who’s played bass off & on with Coleman since being a member of his 50s Quartet) and got some rich, cello-like resonance when he bowed his acoustic. It was as if these three provided an interactive, ever-shifting matrix on which Coleman soared. Coleman was playing many of the same licks/phrases he played two decades ago, but gad, he played them better as few if anybody else could, perhaps the most distinctive alto saxophone style in jazz (up there with Bird, Cannonball, Desmond, and Konitz). There was a sense of swing throughout-different than Basie and Marsalis, true, but swing, the feeling, was undeniable. The crowd loved it, they yelled and clapped for an encore...and they got it.
Ornette Coleman is getting up in years-try to give him "the flowers" while he’s with us, while he may enjoy them.