Live: Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman Grows in Brooklyn

Free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, who changed the course of music, is honored with an all-star concert featuring Patti Smith, Branford Marsalis and a historic meeting with fellow saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins

The climax of Celebrate Brooklyn's Celebrate Ornette tribute in Prospect Park on June 12 was supposed to come when two 1930-born saxophone legends, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins, strolled, if not strutted, in to join the "Lonely Woman" encore. But instead the climax came early.

Before a note was played, engineer-turned-MC Gregg Mann and Ornette's son Denardo Coleman, his drummer at 10 years old and his manager for 30 years, called Rollins out. Rollins, 83, didn't strut - he had a helper. His voice was shaky. But he knew what he wanted to say: "Ornette has changed so much in music, in politics and in human relations between people." And also: "I'm going to say something that Ornette already said to me. It's all good. Don't worry about nothing."

Enter Ornette, 84, with the same helper. "All I want to do is cry. It's so beautiful to see so many people who know what life is. I want to be alive when I'm alive."

The two men kissed each other's hands and were led off. The crowd cheered wildly because it didn't want to cry.

The climax came half an hour later, after saxmen Henry Threadgill and David Murray proved for the millionth time that Ornette's "free" jazz was a cornucopia, not a cacophony. Like Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Ornette has the precious gift of melody, which he arrays in spiky, thoughtful, impulsive variations over rhythms that mirror, elaborate and support it. With Denardo's version of his father's band bonding as strong as his father's songbook, Threadgill and Murray transmuted "Blues Connotation," "Broadway Blues" and "Law Years" before Ornette was led smiling to an onstage chair, where Denardo and others quietly urged the horn to his lips.

Ornette blew so frailly it was heartrending, until the wandering beauty of the melody brushed the frailty away. For several minutes he was unaccompanied. Then the ensemble slowly joined in, until saxman Antoine Roney steered them toward Ornette's beloved Diddley beat blues "Ramblin'."

Standing O, 40 minutes in. The music never got better. But for over two hours a panoply of avant-gardists reminded Ornette's well-wishers of what he had wrought - species of "free" music he couldn't have imagined, which was how he wanted it. The jazz was the best-realized: Saxman Joe Lovano and pianist Geri Allen pondering "Sleep Talk," James "Blood" Ulmer shredding "Peace," Ravi Coltrane reimagining his own father's freedom. But plenty else signified: Flea's bass funking Threadgill up; Lou Reed-inspired drones rendered by his widow, violinist Laurie Anderson, along with saxophonist John Zorn and bassist Bill Laswell; two Master Musicians of Jajouka braying "Song X" on Moroccan horns; Patti Smith praising Ornette's "alphabet based on the ancient phrases of angels."

Like the man said, it was all good - it wanted to be alive.

-Robert Christgau


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