Moments before the lights dimmed, a white, overweight soundman
dressed in running shorts and a T-shirt took the stage to make
last-minute adjustments. Just as he was finishing, someone asked,
“Is that him? Is that Ornette Coleman?”
While humorous and very naïve, this uncertainty is telling.
While many who attended Friday night’s sold-out concert at
Hill Auditorium had heard Coleman, many came because they only had
heard of Coleman. And while a name attracts, the whole scenario is
too reminiscent of a concert in New Jersey that paired pianist
Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. After just minutes,
the audience was reduced by almost half. The fact is, no one
anticipated hearing cerebral, complex interchange between two
musicians with little showmanship. Given that Hancock and Shorter
are no radicals, what would greet a musician that decades ago
challenged the very concept of music?
Ornette Coleman took the stage to a standing ovation, dressed in
a powder-blue suit, looking like a leader ready to preach to his
people. Within moments, Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen supplied
frenetic bass while son Denardo Coleman pounded away on drums. With
the air charged, Coleman entered on alto saxophone and played a
floating melody that dripped in affecting harmony. The contrast
between Coleman’s fluid lines and the band’s cacophonic
spirit helped create the sound of the evening, a sound invented by
From the first note on, the music melted into a prolonged
meditation. Each moment was entirely unique, drawing on
Coleman’s insistence on writing new material for every
performance. At times Coleman turned to trumpet (and once a
violin), but it didn’t matter. Coleman has the ability to
communicate on a level that turns any instrument he touches into a
singular voice. When he wasn’t playing, he was attentively
studying the sound around him, enraptured by the sonic
The music itself fell within different Coleman idioms. There
were the post-bop themes a la 1959’s “Bird Feed,”
rubato themes similar to 1958’s “Lorraine.”
Nonetheless, each tune began and ended with a theme, and what came
in between was entirely undefinable.
After playing intensely for an hour and a half, Coleman
retreated from the stage, returning moments later for an encore.
The crowd sang “Happy Birthday” (it was his 74th) and
Coleman thanked his audience for their energy and proceeded to
philosophize about existence. The band then burst into an
aggressive blues jam that showcased each musician individually. The
overall level of musicianship was unbelievable, but Denardo’s
inspired solo stood out as a highlight.
At the night’s conclusion, the person who’d confused
Coleman with the soundman had a large smile on his face. And it was
easy to tell why, for attendees had just participated in something
special: a musical happening that will echo for years, an evening
spent with the one-and-only Ornette Coleman.