The shock of Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic free-jazz concepts — a style that fractured the jazz world 45 years ago — is gone, although his musical constructions continue to amaze. He still takes his alto sax in one direction while his backing band swirls in individually designated directions. And in his current setup — one bassist bowing, another playing pizzicato and his son Denardo on drums — they covered melody-free terrain that, when the roots were showing, exposed the blues.
The rarity of a Coleman appearance ascribes a certain weight to his every passage — bask in that scramble of notes coming from his alto or his trumpet or violin because he may never be heard from again. Coleman appeared out of nowhere in 1958 with improvisational and compositional ideas that tossed out bebop and stripped away the construction of songs to a folk-blues blueprint.
Pianoless from 1959 forward, Coleman made his mark with a series of recordings for Atlantic with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell. Though his 1970s and ’80s works often involved electronics and a guitarist as the second soloist, Coleman has returned to his ’60s work for this current outfit.
Playing behind a music stand and often resting against a stool during his 45-minute main set, Coleman worked, as usual, in torrents of sound. Every passage had a marked angularity; the power of his playing at 74 may be diminished, but its pointedness certainly isn’t.
Coleman proffered songs marked by their capacity to swing, bite or even cry. On one number he worked in lines from “The Star Spangled Banner”; on another he mourned as if at a funeral. And on another, against an insistent backing, he soloed on each of his three instruments, his trumpet sounding OK and his violin being the least expressive.
In this band, the musicians all played singular roles: Denardo Coleman often setting a swinging beat, Greg Cohen bowing smooth and even soothing passages and Tom Falanga supplying a bounty of walking line and free flourishes. Beyond Coleman, who kept the songs short, there were no true solos.
The band is operating with enough precision that were a recording made, it would have the potential to be judged on musical merits and not just the return of Coleman after an eight-year absence.
In considerable contrast, Coleman’s bassist from his revolutionary bands, Charlie Haden, opened the evening with an octet performing the works of Mexican composer Jose Sabre Marroquin, requiring each note to be placed delicately against the next as if constructing a sunset. His goal, as was the case with his Quartet West, is to create “beautiful music”; though he doesn’t challenge the listeners the way Coleman does, his is an equally successful enterprise.
For an encore, Haden joined Coleman band to deliver a bracing — and beautiful — version of the Coleman classic “Lonely Woman.”