Ornette Blows (and Then Some)

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman shows Austin what tone is all about.

The American original, Ornette Coleman, came home Sunday night, home being a loosely applied concept since the man who shocked the jazz and art worlds fifty years ago with his revolutionary concepts of playing music actually grew up in Fort Worth, 200 miles north of the Bass Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Texas. But since Coleman had not played in Texas since he christened Ed Bass' experimental Caravan of Dreams (RIP, for a steak house, no less; for shame Ed) in his literal hometown almost 30 years ago, Austin was close enough. Coleman learned his craft marching with the IM Terrell High School band under the direction of a Mr. Baxter, the band director who also schooled King Curtis Ousley, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Bernard Purdie, Dewey Redman, and Cornell Dupree, among others. He was further educated in the chicken shacks and rhythm & blues juke joints in the Trinity Bottoms and Stop Six where he performed in the band led by sax master Red Connor. But it wasn't until he hit LA in the early 1950s where he began to deconstruct the basic elements of jazz; according to Charlie Haden, the bassist who accompanied him to New York where he incited a debate whether he was a genius or an idiot, Coleman was fired from his day job as a freight elevator operator at Bullock's Department Store in LA for stopping the elevator between floors so he could practice on the toy sax he carried with him.

That was a half century ago. Coleman has since been recognized for his artistry around the work. But he's still a very difficult sound to understand.

Accompanied by his son Denardo on drums and bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, the mere sight of his living presence, splendidly attired in a blue suit and a pork pie hat, earned a standing O from the audience of 2,000 before he blew a single note.

The following eighty minutes were essential Ornette. The dueling bassists sawed and thumped in some kind of conspiratorial chaos pushed along by Denardo's light steady drum work, the quartet working the Harmolodic structure invented by Coleman that denies logic or convention even though the players all seemed to know where their disjointed collaboration was going. But at the center of the sonic storm was the purest tone I've heard a player produce on sax (and that includes John Coltrane, Redman, Fathead Newman, and maybe on a rare night Stan Getz), a tone clearly steeped in an environment of low-ceilinged clubs and the sound of shuffles and swings that are indigenous to Fort Worth.

Coleman played trumpet and violin as well--the latter creating some kind of stringed frenzy that replicated a beehive when he picked up the bow to saw long with the bassists working their bows. But it was the sax in the eye of the storm--rich, throaty, at times romantic, and in brief flashes, conventionally melodic.

Ornette makes a listener work to fully dig what he's saying. It helps that his work from the 1950s and 1960s has aged long enough to be somewhat accessible although his later compositions can be puzzling if not downright obfuscating. It helps he is now in his seventies, old enough to have mellowed. And it helps that a Carnegie Hall performance I attended a year and half ago provided a relatively fresh measure to compare this performance to.

But it was knowing some of the rough roots of his early life experience before he was tagged as genius that provided the road map to Getting It. I heard Cowtown in every note.

Experiencing him was a privilege and pleasure. I think he got a kick out of it, too. He expressed gratitude to the audience for the photograph of Red Connor that announcer Casey Monahan presented to him before the show. And he played an encore, something he did not do at Carnegie Hall. I'm not sure if he was he quoting from T. Monk as Kris thought or "What Now My Love?" which is what Tom Ordon heard, on that last number, but he did promised the gathering, "Next time, we'll all try to play better." He could have been referring to another concert or maybe to passing on to the Other Side, for all I know, but he genuinely seemed to be having as good a time as the people who came to see and hear him.

You want cool? Ornette's so cool, he turned down "Austin City Limits" because he doesn't do television.

Added props go out to Cynthia Patterson of UT's PAC for gambling on this show. She'd been angling for this performance for at least five years and took a considerable financial risk for booking this as a one-off when neither the Bass Hall in Fort Worth nor a Houston promoter would book a second date.

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