All-Star Cast Salutes Ornette Coleman in Brooklyn
Posted 6/27/2014

One of the most highly anticipated jazz events of the year in New York City was also the most rewarding. Not since Sonny Rollins’ 80th birthday gala at the Beacon Theatre in 2010 had so many devoted jazz fans been so psyched to see a concert.

The free outdoor celebration of Ornette Coleman on June 12 at the Prospect Park Bandshell, part of the long-running Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series, came just a few months after the saxophonist’s 84th birthday. It delivered so many surprises, crescendos and inspired, emotional moments that those in attendance—jazz fans or not—will not soon forget what they witnessed.

Organized by Coleman’s son, drummer Denardo Coleman—who made his recording debut at the age of 10 on his father’s 1967 album, The Empty Foxhole, and has been playing with him on and off ever since—the event attracted a diverse crowd. Concertgoers gathered at the park on the promise of seeing such advertised guests as Patti Smith, Flea, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Bill Laswell, James Blood Ulmer, Laurie Anderson, Thurston Moore and maybe even the honoree himself (though Ornette was not listed among the scheduled performers).

The evening opened on an emotional high with an impromptu speech by Rollins, delivered directly from the heart. Looking every bit the jazz shaman figure, Rollins stood side-by-side with Denardo and said, “Thank you for being such a beautiful son, such a beautiful leader. We need leaders in this world today to spread love.” Then, addressing the crowd, he added, “I knew him when he was ‘this little.’ He was a good kid then and he’s a great man now.”

Finally, Rollins shared a message that Ornette had given him decades ago: “It’s all good. Don’t worry about nuthin’. It’s all good!”

And with that, Coleman slowly shuffled on to the stage, looking frail but still hip, decked out in a bright red shirt and purple suit with white pinstripes. As the two titans met onstage, they embraced and Rollins bent over and kissed Coleman’s hand. The night’s honoree reciprocated, kissing Rollins’ hand and wiping back tears. At this profound moment, many in the audience also began to shed tears. (Coleman had performed with Rollins at the latter’s 2010 birthday bash—a fact that added to the poignancy of this incredible reunion.)

After Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams read the official proclamation declaring it Ornette Coleman Tribute Day in “the baddest borough on the planet,” Coleman gave a speech that was concise and brimming with emotion.

“All I know to do is cry,” he said. “It’s so beautiful to see so many beautiful people who know what life is, who know how to get together and help each other.”

Coleman continued with an uplifting message about living in the moment. “The only thing we have to do is to be alive,” he said. “So do what you want to do so that we can all have something to enjoy.” Coleman’s own seven-decade-long career of music making is a prime example of the sentiments he shared on this night.

The music commenced with Denardo’s new band, Vibe, featuring past and present members of Ornette’s band (upright bassist Tony Falanga, electric piccolo bassist Al MacDowell and former Prime Time guitarist Charles Ellerbee) along with powerhouse tenor saxophonist Antoine Roney.

With the addition of a third bassist, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, the group opened with a spirited “Blues Connotation” (from 1961’s This Is Our Music). Threadgill joined them on alto sax and Murray on tenor sax for a kind of clunky, ska-inflected reading of “Broadway Blues,” a song from Coleman’s 1968 album, New York Is Now! Flea laid down the funk in characteristic fashion while Murray wailed in the altissimo range before launching into an incredible display of circular breathing in the low register. Ellerbee’s dissonant chord clusters and steely guitar tones also lent an edgy quality to the harmolodic fray.

Coleman was then escorted onstage with his white sax in hand. As he took a seat, the band played his 1971 song “Law Years,” from Science Fiction, with MacDowell carrying the melody on piccolo bass and nimbly dropping in a quote from the Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune “If I Loved You.” Murray soloed first in robust, bar-walking fashion before scaling the heights, squealing in the highest possible range. Threadgill followed with an alto solo full of challenging intervallic leaps and containing more surprises than a Coney Island roller coaster.

The anticipation of Coleman soloing on this tune built up throughout the piece, but he sat patiently with his sax in his lap, looking out at the crowd and smiling benignly without ever putting the horn to his lips.

As the band finished “Law Years,” Coleman finally picked up his alto and began a solo improvisation. Fans could hear the sound of his birthplace—Fort Worth, Texas—in his bluesy, keening tones. This eventually segued into the buoyant “The Sphinx” (from 1958’s Something Else!!!!), featuring the front line of Threadgill, Murray, Roney and Coleman.

Clearly warmed up, Coleman soloed freely throughout this piece as Falanga held down the groove on upright and Ellerbee provided harmonic colors with his shifting chords. Suddenly, as this piece was beginning to peak, out from the wings stepped tap dancer extraordinaire Savion Glover, who took things up a notch with his energized and highly syncopated beats.

They next played Coleman’s 1959 blues-drenched classic “Turnaround” (from Tomorrow Is The Question!), which again had the composer digging into his Texas roots on alto sax. Rendered as a roadhouse shuffle blues, it featured Glover providing more sonic fireworks with his most inspired tapping of the set. It almost seemed he would levitate three feet off the stage. Murray dug into this earthy blues with a vengeance and Ellerbee added a nasty metal edge with his distorted guitar solo.

Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano joined the crew for a fierce rendition of “Congeniality” (from Coleman’s 1959 Atlantic debut, The Shape Of Jazz To Come) that also featured the mother-son team of pianist Geri Allen and young trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr. The younger Roney acquitted himself with confidence, impressive chops and just a touch of his trumpeter father’s bold instincts.

Murray’s brusque tenor playing was visceral, intense and exhilarating, and Allen responded with an energized piano solo that ranged from introspective to turbulent. Falanga’s lyrical bowing on the melancholy theme to “Sleep Talking” (from 2005’s Sound Grammar) set a tender tone for the young trumpeter, whose solo was probing and imbued with clarity.

Singer-songwriter Patti Smith featured her longtime colleague and bandmate Lenny Kaye on guitar and her daughter Jesse on piano. Smith walked onstage and kissed Coleman’s hand. He remained seated beside her for two poetry pieces accompanied by music. At one point during her recitation of a poem about Coleman (“He took each note and created a new alphabet based on the ancient phrases of angels … ”), Smith played some frenzied clarinet in the freewheeling manner of the late music critic Robert Palmer. (Palmer had contributed some wild clarinet alongside Coleman and his band Prime Time and the Master Musicians of Jajouka on 1977’s Dancing In Your Head.)

Then the tai chi master Ren performed some dramatic and powerful movements accompanied by a recording, piped through the house P.A. system, of singer-songwriter Lou Reed, who died last year at age 71 and was a lifelong fan of Coleman.

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Ornette Coleman (foreground) and Antoine Roney onstage in Brooklyn on June 12 (Photo: David Andrako)

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