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I don’t make a lot of concert-specific trips to NYC, but sometimes circumstances force your hand. When Ornette Coleman is playing the historic Town Hall, for example, and the date coincides with the premiere weekend of BoltBus.
So after an excursion in a surprisingly nice vehicle (that was nonetheless 90 minutes late) came an evening that was worth every penny of the not just the $2 BoltBus roundtrip, but the $77 concert ticket. Coleman, wearing a gray sporting cap and a green-plaid outfit that can only be described as a pimp suit, hit the stage with his drummer/son Denardo and two bassists: Al MacDowell on electric and Tony Falanga on acoustic upright. Their music was most unusual by the standards of free jazz’s inventor. MacDowell played his electric bass in the highest register, so that it sounded more like a guitar, and played the one thing that’s least expected in an Ornette Coleman performance: chords. Sometimes they were mellifluous; other times they were abrasive; often they were overly loud, drowning out the subtleties of Coleman’s work. But they were always interesting.
Yet Coleman himself is the focal point, and he was inspired. His eccentric trumpet didn’t appear much, but his compelling violin made quite a few appearances—and of course his soaring alto was dazzling. Particular highlights included “Theme from a Symphony,” as well as a free-jazz recasting of Bach‘s Prelude to Cello No. 1. But the encore, in which Ornette and the band gave a slightly funky interpretation to his signature composition, “Lonely Woman,” was miraculous.
In concert, Coleman’s music is much easier to digest and enjoy, which makes it a crime that he doesn’t get booked in D.C. more often. Indeed, awarding him a Kennedy Center Honor might even make our city’s highest-profile arts award almost credible.