Ornette Coleman’s Crisis Music Returns


In a scene from Ornette: Made in America, Shirley Clarke’s unconventional — and unforgettable — documentary portrait of Ornette Coleman, the musician and composer is on a New York City sidewalk in 1968. Deadly earnest, he asks his drummer the following: “What is it that you do that’s different from other drummers?… It’s obvious you don’t have anything to go by, yet you’re playing as if you did, and that is a very modern way of playing. I’m trying to find out what method you use to be correct, to be right. You’re more right than wrong.” The drummer, smacking away at chewing gum, responds, “Aw, I dunno. I don’t have any particular method or anything.”

That drummer is Ornette’s son, Denardo; Denardo was twelve at the time. He’d already appeared on a record, The Empty Foxhole, two years before, to great criticism. Not that Ornette cared; this was a man who was all about upending orthodoxy, who was more representative of the counterculture than any long-haired Summer of Love rock ’n’ roller. At the time that exchange was filmed, it had been nine years since the puckish Texan had stormed into Manhattan with his plastic alto saxophone and run an end around jazz’s chord-obsessed playbook. By ’68 he’d added to his repertoire the trumpet and violin, both of which he’d taught himself to play.

In August of that year, Ornette took young Denardo — along with bassist Charlie Haden and saxophonist Dewey Redman, his longtime brothers-in-arms — to play at the University of California, Berkeley. Seven months later, in March of 1969, they played back in New York at NYU’s old Loeb Student Center, when that institution was still a scrappy commuter school. Those two performances, both riveting, were recorded and released on the influential Impulse! label, the former as Ornette at 12 in 1969, the latter as Crisis in 1972, just after the Watergate break-in. Soon they would be out of print, and they were never released on CD. Until now, that is, as part of Real Gone Music’s double-CD set.

On Ornette at 12, whose cover features a photo of father and young son not unlike that clip in Clarke’s documentary, the quartet plays only four pieces, all Coleman originals, with Haden perhaps overly, and uncharacteristically, determined to play arco on this set. Ornette movingly breaks out the trumpet (on “Rainbows”) and the violin (on “Bells and Chimes”), and if you took a blindfold test, you’d never know the drummer was between the sixth and seventh grades.

The NYU concert is even more inspired. (None other than jazz encyclopedists Richard Cook and Brian Morton referred to it as “apocalyptic.”) Added to the Berkeley Four was the visionary Don Cherry, making it a reunion of sorts: It was Cherry, with his toylike pocket trumpet, who traveled from Los Angeles with Ornette, Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins to downtown New York’s Five Spot in 1959 and slung paint at the canvas. (The cover to Ornette’s 1960 album, Free Jazz — the title taken from a phrase he coined — was, remember, Jackson Pollock’s White Light.)

Crisis opens with the dirgelike “Broken Shadows,” as agonizing, and affecting, as anything Ornette ever wrote or played. His alto sounds as if it’s in tears. Redman, his ideal flanker on tenor, weaves his patterns in and out of Coleman’s theme. Cherry briefly bleats and bursts behind them, then lays out. For all the braininess associated with Ornette’s music — and he was as deep a thinker as any artist of the twentieth century — he was also startlingly sincere.

“Space Jungle” has the relentless drive and fury, while remaining steeped in down-home tradition, of Charles Mingus’s finest compositions. Haden’s “Song for Ché” — the only piece from the two concerts not written by Coleman — has a different inflection here than on the bassist’s monumental 1970 Liberation Music Orchestra recording, but it upholds, and even enhances, the composition’s revolutionary spirit.

Of “Trouble in the East,” the late critic Martin Williams, who was at NYU that night, wrote in his book Jazz Changes, “It felt spontaneously ordered in all its aspects, and had the timeless joy and melancholy of the blues running through it. It had its feet planted on the earth and it spoke to the gods. It was one of the most exciting, beautiful, and satisfying musical performances I have ever heard.” He then added: “Yes, it got recorded.” (It did, then it vanished, and now it returns.)

There are imperfections, in sound quality and amplification — any NYU alum of a certain age can verify that the Loeb Student Center was a dump — and, well, there’s still a pre-teen at drums, even if he’d develop into an anchor in his father’s highly original Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties avant-funk bands. But these count as two of Coleman’s most essential live albums, up there with his 1962 concert at Town Hall (which, out of defiance, he rented out himself); Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street; and At the Golden Circle Stockholm.

Ornette Coleman may have passed away in 2015, but earlier this year, Denardo, now 61, produced a beautiful two-DVD, three-CD package of his father’s final concert as well as his memorial service at Riverside Church. Last month there was a week-long festival at Lincoln Center that probed Ornette’s rich, diverse oeuvre. (Dewey Redman’s son Joshua played at the tribute.) And now, with these two reissues, which, in the words of author Howard Mandel, who penned the liner notes, sound “as if they were recorded yesterday, or tomorrow,” we’re reminded that Ornette is still very much with us.