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Ornette Coleman in Ann Arbor

An icon of American music, Ornette Coleman’s innovations of the ‘50s and ‘60s continue to have an impact on forward-thinking jazz, both in terms of the way Coleman broke free of harmonic constraints and the way he placed a formal emphasis on melody. Although he has continued to document his latest developments via recordings, performance opportunities have been somewhat more limited over the years, making his appearance on the campus of the University of Michigan a rare treat. Add to that the fact that the historic Hill Auditorium had just been re-dedicated recently following a dramatic renovation project, not to mention that Coleman was celebrating his 74th birthday that evening, and you get a good idea of the historic implications of what proved to be a very special occasion.

Performing on alto saxophone, trumpet, and violin, Coleman was heard along with bassist Tony Falanga on bowed bass, Greg Cohen on pizzicato bass, and son Denardo Coleman on drums. While the overall acoustical properties of this wonderful old hall made for an accurate and pleasing sound from Coleman and his bassists, Denardo’s drums were surrounded by one of those Plexiglas drum enclosures that seemed nothing short of superfluous and made for a muddy drum mix that was just a tad bit disappointing.

Clad in a solid baby blue tux and utilizing his signature white plastic alto, Coleman was congenial and in fine form throughout. Although he refrained from making any lengthy commentaries and did not introduce any of the pieces by name, much of the evening’s program consisted of new works composed specifically for this occasion. The pace alternated between fast pieces and dirge like numbers, but regardless of the tempo, the rhythm was mostly implied and did not swing in a conventional sense. Falanga and Cohen meshed together beautifully, with Denardo utilizing a complex and busy approach that might have been more effective if his snare and toms had been more audible.

After about four tunes, someone in the audience shouted for "Lonely Woman" and Coleman acquiesced quite congenially, providing for one of Coleman’s finest solos of the evening. Very quickly however, the routine became quite obvious and repetitive. First, Coleman would solo and then Falanga would take a turn, all the while Cohen and Denardo kept up a complex whirl of sound as a backdrop. It was at about the mid point of the show that it occurred to me that while many avant garde musicians claim that structure is confining, a good deal of the music sounded much like any Coleman disc you might choose to spin. It was also as if all four players were doing their own things independently, void of the kind of interaction that is common of mainstream jazz.

The foregoing not withstanding, Coleman was never less than intriguing, even when playing trumpet and violin, two instruments that he plays with a less than orthodox technique. After the final piece, a standing ovation gave way to an audience sing-a-long of "Happy Birthday," followed by an encore. Coleman pulled out all the stops for a performance of "The Turnaround" that included some sly quotes, including a brief snippet from "Beautiful Dreamer." It was a joyous conclusion to an historic evening, even if one’s attention tended to flag from time to time.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ornette Coleman
  • Concert Date: 3/19/2004
  • Venue: Hill Auditorium
  • City State Country: Ann Arbor, Michigan
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