The Ornette Coleman Quartet's one-night engagement at Disney Hall was one of the most eagerly anticipated events here in Los Angeles in recent memory; tickets were all but impossible to find. L.A. doesn't get enough of Ornette Coleman. Most towns could probably lay a similar claim, given the fact that Ornette scatters only a handful of dates in American cities every year; but given the important role this city has played in his career, it still seems rather shocking that this was the legendary jazz innovator's first show here in more than a decade. After all, it was here that his now-classic quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and, alternately, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins was formed. As a nice touch and an added treat Charlie Haden, the last surviving sideman from that group, opened up the evening with a set of his own as a bandleader.
Walt Disney Hall is the still-new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The auditorium opened last year, a sleek, post-modern combination of curves and angles designed by architect Frank Gehry. Though some of Gehry's other buildings scattered across town feel cold to me, this one is warm and inviting as a concert hall should be. The aluminum edifice is striking and imposing, but the theater it encloses is actually quite intimate. Quite a fitting locale for Ornette's music, really, which can similarly appear stark and complicated on first approach before revealing its emotionally accessible core.
Charlie Haden's Land of the Sun featuring Gonzalo Rubalcaba started things off nicely with a program of songs from Haden's recent Verve release of that name. The Land of the Sun group on stage was very similar to the Land of the Sun
group on record, with the substitution of Quartet West member and local favorite Ernie Watts for Joe Lovano on tenor and the absence of a second percussionist alongside drummer Ignacio Berroa the only differences. Land of the Sun
is in some ways an extension of the Nocturne
album that preceded it; "Nocturnal," the bolero that inspired the title of that set, was written by Jose Sabre Marroquin. Marroquin's daughter Patricia approached Haden to thank him for the recording, which led him to record an entire album of Marroquin compositions.
The late Mexican composer's songs are haunting and beautiful, and Haden's group played them with tenderness and grace on this evening. Rubalcaba was in typically fine form on the piano, playing the glissando part of "Solamente Una Vez (You Belong to My Heart)" to aching perfection. Everyone played well: Berroa was nonchalantly steady, trumpeter Michael Rodriguez provided harmonic depth alongside Watts, alto man Miguel Zenon and flautist Oriente Lopez. Lopez was particularly outstanding, his solos on "Anoranza (Longing)" and "Cancion a Paola (Paola's Song)" among the evening's best. The veteran Watts filled in admirably and soloed fittingly, but it was nonetheless evident that he was less steeped in the music than the players that had been involved in the project from the beginning; not that he did anything wrong, he just seemed to be coming from somewhere else--bop, namely. Larry Koonse augmented the group for a part of the set, his Spanish guitar illuminating such numbers as "Sueno Solo Con Tu Amor (I Only Dream of Your Love)."
As for the bandleader? Charlie Haden acquitted himself well. Concluding a set of introductory remarks with a humorous appropriation from the recently concluded campaign season--"I'm Charlie Haden and I approve this message"--Haden anchored the music well on bass despite an arthritic condition that forced him to rest his fingering hand from time to time, and was able to deliver his lead passages with requisite authority and again proved his unparalleled mastery of the instrument.
The structure of Ornette's set was naturally less obvious. Taking the stage to a standing ovation, a dapper Coleman offered only the self-deprecating remark that he hoped not to disappoint anyone before launching into an hour and a half of what appeared to be new compositions. Portions of them sounded familiar; he certainly seemed to echo his earlier work at times, if not exactly quoting or reinterpreting it.
Ornette has led groups that vary wildly in terms of size and instrumental makeup. The make up of his current quartet is unusual even given that, consisting of Ornette on alto, trumpet and violin, his son Denardo on drums and two acoustic bassists, Greg Cohen and Tom Falanga. While Ornette has experimented with two basses before with the Double Quartet that produced the seminal Free Jazz
LP and in his electric group Prime Time, those groups were large bands across the board. His current quartet is different in that he was the only player wielding any upper ranged instruments. The harmonic and melodic--harmolodic, if you will--onus was not entirely placed on Coleman due to both the nature of Ornette's music and the arrangement between the two basses in which one was bowed and the other plucked. The latter played something close to the bass's traditional role of holding down the bottom of the music while the other acted more as a melodic counterpoint to Coleman's playing. Denardo's drums seemed to be in several tempos at once, and the moods went from abstract to bluesy to balladic, changing not only from song to song but at times note by note.
During a performance by the L.A. Philharmonic a strict decorum regarding seating is enforced; the ushers were more relaxed for this first show in 2004-05 jazz series. While people didn't quite come and go as they pleased, there was enough movement in between songs that the crowd situation at times looked like a more dignified version of a Dodger game, with fans still arriving in the middle of Haden's set and some members of the audience departing during Coleman's. If virtually any other artist had been playing, this would've seemed a terrible affront. Yet given that it was Ornette Coleman, once considered the enfant terrible of the avant garde, this seemed oddly vindicating. Nearly fifty years after polarizing jazz audiences at the Five Spot in New York and elsewhere Ornette's place in jazz history is acknowledged by even its most conservative stewards, yet the reality of his music still retains the power to shock--particularly his fiendish technique violin, which has grown into something quite impressive over the years.
Those who stayed to the end--the vast majority of the sold-out crowd at Disney, it should be emphasized--were rewarded with a very special encore. Charlie Haden came out with the Quartet and played something that was recognizable from the very first note he played: "Lonely Woman," the great Ornette Coleman ballad that starts the classic 1959 The Shape of Jazz to Come
LP. The song took on an epic dimension, taken at a slower, more deliberate tempo with Ornette blowing serpentine, lyrical lines from his alto atop the tripartite bass attack. Following this performance, the old comrades embraced each other warmly before departing the stage.
The evening was a memorable one for those fortunate enough to be able to get tickets. And good thing, too. Who knows when Ornette will get back here again? Hopefully it won't take another ten years to bring him back.