Ornette and Others

JVC Bounces Back Right on Schedule

Nothing in jazz is more moving than the purity of Coleman's sound and conception. Essentially, it has remained the same since 1959, when Shelly Manne marveled at how he could make the alto saxophone laugh and cry—never in a mimetic way, but through the natural effusiveness of his inventions. His tunes reach into an unguarded place where we store the most elemental tunes of childhood, and embody their universality, encompassing every kind of emotion. His solos chortle, sigh, exult, and dream, and when he's finished you get sent back to the dust of everyday life. Small wonder the audience wouldn't let him leave. Every Coleman concert is an event, but on this night he was preaching from the mountain and the clean air was exhilarating.

Meanwhile, there was much action in the clubs, including the return of Carla Bley's big band. On opening night at Iridium she performed the current Looking for America in the first set, and began the second with an alternate, unrecorded version of the Overture to Escalator Over the Hill, continuing with a jolly Monkian piece called "Hip Hop" and excerpts from the 1996 Goes to Church. Gary Valente, a distinctive and robust trombonist who disappears from view when Bley isn't around, was featured, along with Vincent Herring, Gary Smulyan, Steve Swallow, and other familiars, but it's the stirring unity of the orchestra and Bley's decisive writing that floats this mighty ensemble. At Birdland, Ira Gitler introduced respectful but never reverent repertory bands in tribute to the Tadd Dameron and Charlie Parker units that played the Royal Roost. Don Sickler, not an exciting trumpet player but an appealing one with his confident timbre and lyrical phrasing, straw-bossed the Dameron band, with Jimmy Heath outstanding on "If You Could See Me Now" and in tandem with Jimmy Greene, who played a knockout solo on "Our Delight." The rhythm sections for both bands were in the reliable hands of Kenny Washington, Peter Washington, and pianist Michael Weiss, who is never more commanding than when reaching into his bop bag—especially in the Parker band, which featured Jim Rotundi, an accomplished trumpet player who played too close to the mic, and altoist Jesse Davis, who is back in New York after five years in New Orleans, and approximates Parker's sound with fidelity, verve, and invention. Davis is long overdue for serious attention on the club circuit.

The festival climaxed at Carnegie with "Wayne Shorter: Life & Music," a program as concise and wary as Coleman's was effulgent and generous that nevertheless came to a smashing conclusion. Personally, I liked the first set, which was 45 minutes long and involved Shorter's quartet and one duet with Herbie Hancock, yet feel obliged to report that many colleagues grumbled. Though Shorter's sound was as light as a flute and his group a model of aggressive interaction, many fans want him to play conventional quartet music with coherent solos that have at least the vitality of his recent quartet album, if not the fabled might of the Miles Davis or Weather Report eras. Shorter, however, prefers at times a kind of hide-and-seek call-and-response with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade. In this mode, the band reminds me of Count Basie rhythm interludes, where instead of a piano solo you get a four-way immersion in timekeeping. With Shorter, the issue is less about rhythm than rests and retaliations—indeed, rhythm was nowhere to be found in the superbly executed, almost Debussyan duet with Hancock.

In any case, no one complained after the second set, which was dominated by tap dancer Savion Glover, whose lack of universal recognition amazes me—though I feel the same way about Ornette Coleman. With intermittent contributions from a chamber orchestra conducted by the histrionic Robert Sadin, he leaped to his platform and beat out so riveting a tattoo of complicated rhythms, with such finesse, that no one minded and some failed to notice that he often had his back to the audience. His music is that compelling—from any angle. After his initial solos and involvement with the arrangements, he kicked new life into Shorter, challenging him in a kind of standoff that had the tenor saxophonist wailing like a banshee or, better still, the old Wayne Shorter. Then he challenged the others, and one measure of his ingenuity was that Brian Blade, the greatest drummer of his generation and one of the most restlessly stimulating since Roy Haynes, was hard-put to match him. It was over by 10, a satisfying and fitting conclusion to a festival that felt like a festival, breaking little ground but sprucing up the old homestead just fine.

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