I was at these shows, my old review here. Here’s a review of the same shows from the NY Times:
July 6, 1997
Ornette Coleman gets the treatment
By Jon Pareles
Ornette Coleman is a soft-spoken man, with the gentle, earnest voice of an associate professor at a state college. You might never guess that he has shaken up jazz and set off unending debates about the nature of musical freedom; that he has been denounced as an ignoramus and, more and more often, hailed as a genius. Now 67 years old, Coleman comes across not as a defiant crusader but as a quiet, ceaselessly curious man who could never help seeing things a little differently.
”I sometimes realize,” he says, ”that there is something on the earth that is free of everything but what created it, and that is the one thing that I have been trying to find.”
Sitting in his Harlem office, he wears a brightly patterned shirt and an equally bright, if clashing, vest. His wardrobe is true to his music, which revels in multiplicity — multiple keys, multiple tempos and multiple moods, somehow set in equilibrium by the mysterious rules of his evolving theory of music.
He calls that theory harmolodics, a word merging melody and harmony, and despite his best efforts, it is not easily explained. It has to do with moving beyond chord structures and song forms toward emotions and gestures.
Coleman, who has performed with not only jazz musicians but also ecstatic pipers from Morocco and the Grateful Dead, among others, tunes to moods, not keys. ”If I was playing with you, I would use your sound as a tonic,” Coleman says. ”Everyone’s tone gives you lots of information. If someone talks to you, even if they don’t tell you how they feel, you can hear a certain thing in their tone. The human voice doesn’t have to transpose; all it has to do is change its attitudes.”
Coleman says he has never fit in musically, not even growing up in Texas, where he started playing alto saxophone. ”When I was playing in dance bands,” he recalls, ”one time the guy gave me a solo on ‘Stardust,’ and I started playing and people stopped dancing and they started listening. The guy fired me. It wasn’t that I was playing wrong. But I had outgrown my music environment.”
So he built his own. He formed a groundbreaking quartet in California, then brought it to New York, where it started arguments that have never ended. By the late 1950’s, he had already broken free of conventional harmony and theme-solos-theme structures. Yet his music was too tuneful, too gutsy, to be considered atonal. And while some listeners have been baffled by Coleman and his music, he has never been entirely rejected.
Still, in the past, Coleman has made bitter pronouncements about being underappreciated. Two decades ago, he was asking $300,000 per album and got no takers. ”I’ve never had an audience problem,” he insists. ”I’ve always just had a business problem. It’s very hard for anyone to become successful just by only doing what they do.”
In the 1970’s, when he repositioned his alto saxophone amid the electrified hurly-burly of his group Prime Time — two guitars, two basses, two drummers — rock fans started paying attention as jazz die-hards plugged their ears. A MacArthur Foundation ”genius” grant arrived in 1994. And this year, Coleman is getting the full treatment of a classical composer: membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a full-scale retrospective in Paris.
This week Lincoln Center presents a four-night Coleman retrospective called ”? Civilization — A Harmolodic Celebration.” On Tuesday and Wednesday, his symphonic-length set of themes and variations, ”Skies of America,” will be performed by the New York Philharmonic and Prime Time. On Thursday, he is to rejoin the surviving members of his 1950’s quartet; on Friday, he performs a multimedia work, ”Tone Dialing,” with Prime Time, dancers, rappers and video.
In some ways, his music remains true to Texas, which breeds gutsy saxophone players and roadhouse hybrids. Yet Coleman is also one of jazz’s most urbane thinkers, graceful amid a flood of information, responding to everything around him while never looking back. Steeped in bebop, he knows the rules but dances around them, treating tonal harmony the way M. C. Escher treats perspective. And with all his sophistication, he reaches for the beauty of the untutored: the irregular lines of rural blues and country, the open-ended naturalness of a child’s made-up song. American art, always seeking wise innocents, has found one in Coleman; like Huckleberry Finn, he’s the country bumpkin who outwits the city slickers, a winning outsider who stays true to his own code.