Ornette Coleman
Massey Hall, Toronto
October 29, 2005

In a review of Broken Shadows, writer Rafi Zabor described Ornette Coleman as “the man with the wonderful hole in his head,” a description that may seem unflattering, even disrespectful, to listeners unfamiliar with the jazz legend and his music, but the phrase has stayed with me over the years as it succinctly captures the enigmatic essence of Coleman's work. Like Thelonious Monk, Ornette's compositions are cubistic creatures whose initially jarring strangeness eventually subsides to reveal innovative brilliance. Now closing in on five (five!) decades of recording and performing activity, Coleman may not be the revolutionary iconoclast he once was yet is still capable of raising an eyebrow or two—his current two-bassist quartet the latest evidence. A rare opportunity to witness the Texas-born saxophonist's magic presented itself when he brought the group to Toronto's Massey Hall, known to jazz aficionados as the site of the legendary May 1953 concert by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell.

That Ornette, double bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, and drummer Denardo Coleman were received so rapturously upon their arrival onstage was not just an acknowledgement of Ornette's stature and an audience's show of gratitude (it was his first Canadian appearance since a 1988 show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal) but as a bittersweet recognition that the visit could be his last. After all, Ornette's 75 now, and whilst he's always been a lean figure, he now appears thinner and more frail. (Consider also that one-time Coleman compadres Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, and Billy Higgins are no longer with us, and that the seemingly indestructible Miles died at 65). Still, any such thoughts about his physical well-being evaporated the moment those signature spiraling runs burst from his alto. Throughout the night, Ornette's rapid stabs attacked the tunes' melodies from oblique angles, his playing often circling the themes, alluding to them rather than stating them outright. There was also a serene edge to his playing, even in the uptempo pieces, his tone so inviting it seems bizarre to contemplate the violent reaction which his playing once incited.

If the line-up of drums, sax, and dual bassists sounds unusual on paper, it was hardly so in performance. The bassists assumed positions on either side of the leader, with Falanga predominantly bowing as a secondary soloist (often shadowing the saxophonist's lines) while Cohen's impeccable pizzicato playing assumed a more traditional anchoring role. Unfortunately, Falanga's arco playing sometimes sounded thin (especially in the upper register that he favoured throughout the evening), the bass lacking the penetrating projection that Geri Allen's piano, for instance, brought to Coleman's other recent quartet. The tumultuous lead-in to “Song X” served as a mere framing device for the concert's singular drum spotlight, though in true Harmolodic style, one could easily argue that Denardo was soloing all night long—remarkably at that, with Ornette's son (his infamous, auspicious debut coming at the age of 10 on The Empty Foxhole in 1966) keeping up a perpetual storm of colourful invention throughout. Though Denardo's playing was a constant fixture of the Prime Time units, it's in this acoustic setting that he's able to show what a remarkable percussionist he's become.

As with past configurations, Ornette remains the indisputable nucleus with his colleagues hastening to keep pace with the leader's mercurial changes. Compositions alternated between Coleman's uptempo tunes with their bright, sing-song melodies and dirges. One of the key advantages the quartet format affords is elasticity (something the large Prime Time ensembles could little accommodate), allowing the four to collectively arrest or accelerate the tempo with ease, or abruptly take off in another direction; merely witnessing the quartet handle the material so malleably was a highlight unto itself. In “Lonely Woman,” the group's single encore, the tune's keening wail was as poignant as ever with Ornette's delivery almost ghostly in its restrained quietude. Borrowing from the title of an early Coleman composition, beauty is a rare thing indeed, but how wonderful it was to witness the jazz legend's unique version of it one more time.

November 2005