Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ornette Coleman in Prospect Park June 12, 2014

The climax of Celebrate Brooklyn!'s Celebrate Ornette tribute in Prospect Park June 12 was supposed to come when the two 1930-born saxophone legends, Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins, would stroll if not strut in to join the "Lonely Woman" encore and prove their unvanquished puissance. But instead the climax came early.

Before a note was played, engineer turned emcee Gregg Mann and Ornette's son Denardo Coleman, his drummer at 10 and his manager for thirty years, called Rollins out. Rollins 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 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, young turks turned old lions at 70 and 59, proved for the millionth time that Ornette's "free" jazz was a cornucopia rather than a cacophony. Like Armstrong in his way and Parker in his, Coleman 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 Prime Time band bonding as strong as his father's bottomless 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 in awed silence. Then the ensemble slowly joined in until saxman Antoine Roney steered them toward Ornette's beloved Diddleybeat blues "Ramblin'."

Standing O, forty minutes in. The music never got better. But for more than 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," a subdued Ravi Coltrane reimagining his own father's freedom. But plenty else signified: Flea's bass funking Threadgill up; Lou Reed metal machine drones rendered by Laurie Anderson, John Zorn, and Bill Laswell; two Master Musicians of Jajouka braying and skirling "Song X"; Patti Smith praising Ornette's "alphabet based on the ancient phrases of angels." On tape, the departed Reed had told us that "Lonely Woman" ran through his head every day. Lovano, Roney, Ulmer, Allen, Coltrane, and Murray took it home.

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

Billboard, June 2014