Ornette Coleman

July 9 and 10, Avery Fisher Hall,

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York

By Peter Margasak

In a way, Ornette Coleman’s four-night stand in the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center would have been exceptionally gratifying no matter how the actual performances turned out. As the founding father of free jazz, Coleman has fought long and hard for acceptance. He’s been catching flak for his unorthodox ideas almost since he started playing saxophone, as a teenager in the late 40s. According to John Litweiler’s biography, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, bluesman Pee Wee Crayton paid Coleman not to take solos when he played in the guitarist’s horn section in 1950–and a modernistic one he had taken a year earlier in bluesman Clarence Samuels’s band actually got him and his saxophone beaten up. By the end of that decade he had a contract with Atlantic, but the freedom he granted his own soloists from standard harmonic moorings led many of Coleman’s peers–including Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis–to dismiss him as a fraud.

As time passed Coleman’s music was slowly assimilated into the jazz canon. Today, of course, he’s considered one of jazz’s greatest innovators–and one of the country’s greatest artists in a broader sense. In 1994 he received a “genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and this year he’s to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“? Civilization,” the Lincoln Center series, sought to highlight three distinct sides of Coleman–composer, improviser, and postmodern conceptualist–though in reality all three were at work each night. The first two evenings featured performances of his rarely heard “classical” work Skies of America, the third reunited him with bebop compatriots Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, and the finale augmented his electric band, Prime Time, with videos, dancers, rappers, contortionists, and, inexplicably, in-your-face lovebirds Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. Judging from the two shows I saw, the second Skies of America performance and the trio gig, the event was an accurate retrospective of Coleman’s career: uneven and riddled with artistic contradictions, but marked by some utterly transcendent music.

Skies of America, which Coleman wrote in the early 70s, was plagued by problems from the start. The New York Philharmonic, which performed it at Lincoln Center, declined to do so back in 1972. The London Symphony Orchestra agreed to take it on, but since Coleman couldn’t afford an army of copyists to write out parts for every musician, the score was something of a jumble. The complexity of the piece begged for generous rehearsal time, the bill for which Columbia, the label Coleman was on at the time, was reluctant to foot. British union regulations prohibited Coleman from using his trio as he’d originally intended, so he became the only soloist. And when Columbia issued Skies of America, in truncated form, it was arbitrarily broken down into shorter sections with titles that made it look like a jazz record.

Some of the same old problems marred the Lincoln Center performance of Skies of America–only the tenth ever, including the one I missed the night before. A July 6 article by Ben Ratliff in the New York Times illustrated the difficulties Coleman still has in conveying his ideas to classical musicans. “When [members of the New York Philharmonic] saw a particular G in the score…Mr. Coleman suggested to them…that they could unlearn what they knew, if they wanted to, and play a B nearly two octaves below it.” And although Coleman reportedly worked hard with conductor Kurt Masur in preparation, their execution was far from successful. On the recording, Coleman’s solos are well integrated with the symphony’s parts, but the interaction between the New York Philharmonic and Prime Time at Lincoln Center came off more like a battle of the bands than a cohesive work. The notated orchestral passages and the improvised jazz passages rarely seemed in any way connected, and while at times Prime Time reacted to the asymmetrical melodies, strange chord progressions, and climactic percussion parts played by the orchestra, the larger ensemble stuck to its script. Coleman also added new sections to the Prime Time component, including tunes like “Song X” and “What Is the Name of That Song?,” which are familiar to his fans but here served more as a distraction than anything else. The most exciting moments were when the groups overlapped–Prime Time’s fluid, multilinear improvisations, particularly Coleman’s breathtaking solos, creating a thrilling, prickly dissonance against the orchestra’s huge slabs of sound–but unfortunately such moments were the exception and not the rule.

The first set of the following night’s performance, on the other hand, bristled with creative energy almost from start to finish. The death of trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell eliminated the possibility of reconvening Coleman’s original quartet from the 50s, but Higgins, who used to trade off drumming with Blackwell, and original bassist Haden succeeded in turning the trio performance into something special. Rather than offer a nostalgic selection of classics, the forever restless Coleman reportedly composed most of the set the day before. The tunes themselves weren’t particularly memorable, but they served as effective launch pads for some dazzling improvisations. For me the highlight of the evening came while Higgins was tapping out a minimal but sophisticated pattern on his high hat. Coleman grabbed his violin (he also took up the trumpet on a few tunes) and began playing a screeching seesaw line that fit with it like a puzzle piece. In the quartet’s heyday this sort of intuitiveness was common. It wasn’t here, for obvious reasons, but the clarity and melodic inventiveness made the set remarkable anyway.

For the second set, the trio was joined by pianist Kenny Barron and trumpeter Wallace Roney–which just made me wonder why more sympathetic musicians Coleman has worked with in the past, like trumpeter Bobby Bradford, saxophonist Dewey Redman, or pianist Geri Allen (Roney’s wife), who performed masterfully on last year’s Sound Museum albums, weren’t invited. Barron, a brilliant instrumentalist, delivered one beautifully complex and haunting unaccompanied solo, but his contributions as an ensemble member were negligible. Roney, a technical whiz who’s made his name emulating Miles Davis, was less wooden than usual but still not particularly responsive. Even he seemed like a godsend, however, next to vocalists Lauren Kinhan and Chris Walker, both of whom sang on the worst selection on the Sound Museum albums, “Don’t You Know by Now.” (Coleman’s acquired an impressive array of new skills during his illustrious career, but writing slow jams isn’t one of them.) All three tunes Kinhan and Walker performed were miserably banal, and their overwrought flamboyance was truly trying. Coleman warbled quietly in the background, and the rest of the practically idle musicians seemed genuinely embarrassed.

Coleman has never been shy about pushing the envelope, and even at his worst he’s always resolute and serious about what he’s doing. The Lincoln Center performances weren’t his best, but, especially given the lack of adequate rehearsal time, they don’t necessarily signify a flagging of his vitality. What they do mean is that even as the establishment tries to claim his past for posterity, he’s still taking chances on the future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ornette Coleman photo by Stephanie Berger.