When extraterrestrials in the '60s did hallucinogenic drugs and made slimy, unbridled alien love aboard the UFO afterwards, they might have played an Ornette Coleman album on their anti-gravity record player to set the right mood.
If you've never heard Coleman, his unmistakable brand of free-form jazz alternates between the cacophonous, the ethereal, sublime and orgasmic. Atonal sounds meet masterful harmonies and dance hand-in-hand. Licks and runs simultaneously feel random and perfectly calculated with Fibonacci-like precision. When Ornette first started recording over 50 years ago, the world of jazz had never heard anything like him. Today, he still elicits the same reaction.
When Ornette played to a packed audience Friday night at the Schnitz with his three bassists and son Denardo on drums, there were many impressive things to see on stage. Dressed in a blue suit and a black fedora, with his stark white saxophone in tow, Ornette was the definition of cool. There was the spectacle of electric bassist Charnett Moffett, who moved his hands across the neck of his instrument with a speed and graceful tenacity that should have made any breathing person in that room jealous of his girlfriend. Concert-goers could marvel at the way Ornette handled the trumpet and violin with nearly the same virtuosity as his sax.
But the best way to talk about seeing Ornette Coleman on Friday night @ the Schnitz is to talk about what you didn't see on stage.
Because I don't really think I saw Ornette Coleman at a real place, somewhere forged out of stone and concrete like the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. That building has chairs, curtains, concessions in the lobby and urinals in its basement. People in there breathe air. That place exists.
No, no, no, I'm pretty sure that's not where I saw Ornette. The concert I saw took place in a much more spectral venue, a spot where there's no one to tear tickets or show me my seat, because the seat doesn't really exist. That's the kind of venue that Ornette loves to play best. The venue you create in your head.
That's where I saw Ornette. And I don't think I was alone. Leaving the building, the guys I chatted with on the street could also only talk about one thing—what they saw when Ornette's lips touched his magic reed and they too sat back and closed their eyes. The pictures were much better that way.
Here's what I saw when I shut my lids: pre-historic birds with large wingspans flying spastically through the overcast winter sky, deftly maneuvering around the roaring motor of an out-of-control 747 in order to avoid being chewed up by its spewing blades. Some of them made it. Dogs humping cats in a dirty alleyway, then sharing a sloppy Masaman Curry together afterwards through neon bendy-straws. A buxom woman in a red velvet dress offering me free smack in exchange for a dance through a hall of mirrors. Late-night conversations with recently decapitated chickens. Pandemonium in the streets. A giant Buddha walking down Broadway and the only way we could stop him is if we all got together and rubbed his belly and…
Fuck. That music was trippy.
Anyone who ever believed that jazz was just for dinner parties and elevators should see Ornette Coleman live. For better or for worse, he will most certainly change your perception.
Unfortunately, jazz suffers to a degree today because it is the music of choice for elevators and dinner parties. And I think most of the guilty music is penned by a man with the seventh-letter of the alphabet as a last name. Thankfully, guys like Ornette Coleman wipe their jazzy asses with Kenny G albums (and it should be noted that putting a Kenny G album in your ass is still a lot less painful than putting it in your CD player). I do believe that playing Ornette Coleman in an elevator would make the cable snap almost instantaneously.
You can say that you hated the show and you'd be right. You could say you didn't understand the music and you'd also be right. You could say that it was one of the best shows of your life, and there'd probably be a lot of people who'd agree with you. The jazz Ornette played on Friday was not easy-to-swallow or even traditionally beautiful. It was more challenging, exploratory and abrasive than his earlier recordings. It forced the listener to hear jazz, and maybe even sound itself, in a new way.
Ornette now calls his jazz mantra “sound grammer,” which refers to a style giving every voice an equal weight. It encourages each musician to “make deep individual contributions while listening closely to one another, at once giving & taking space for their respective creativity.” The execution of that idea won him a Pulitzer Prize last year, for his recording of the same name, Sound Grammar. The concept played out in true form Friday night. Aside from the occasional lone clap, there was rarely a decibel of applause during any one of Ornette's compositions. That wasn't because the audience was rude or ungrateful. Unlike traditional jazz pieces, with recent Ornette compositions, it was impossible to tell when one solo began and another ended. In fact, I think all five musicians may have just been soloing the whole time. Three days later, I'm still not sure.
Each member of the band seemed locked in his own headspace. It was like each person on stage was surrounded by a mini, invisible, semi-permeable force field, allowing each one to go off in their own wild, frenzied direction, only to return back to the band on that rare moment of unison during each piece. The cohesion and delicate balance that made legendary tracks like “Congeniality,” off Coleman's seminal The Shape of Jazz to Come record in 1959, so infectious, was drastically transformed. Parts of me wondered whether Ornette may have explored too far with his “sound grammar” on Friday night. Rather than playing jazz that sounds like it's descended from outer space — for many listeners, I wondered whether Ornette's performance may have just been plain alienating.
But at the end of the set, the crowd finally had their opportunity to offer a standing ovation. To say Ornette seemed reluctant to play an encore is an understatement. The almost-78-year-old looked spent and depleted, like he had given all he had to give, hesitant to return to the stage. I actually felt bad asking for more. But he gave in to the roaring applause, and served up an immaculate rendition of Lonely Woman. I'm glad he came back out to play. It was blissful.
Photo: Portrait of the artist as a young man. Courtesy of OrnetteSpace (and uncredited). No, we didn't have a photographer at the show.