New York City is a great place to be in the summer. There are an amazing number of free outdoor events, especially concerts. Last week, I saw “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and I saw one show with three New Orleans bands in Prospect Park. Two nights ago, I went to a terrific concert by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Last night I was back in Prospect Park for a very special evening. As part of the Celebrate Brooklyn series, the evening was billed as “Celebrate Ornette Coleman”—a tribute to one of the most important innovators in jazz. Organized by Coleman’s son, Denardo, it was to include an impressive list of artists. Of course, everyone was hoping that Ornette would show up, but that was no guarantee.
The bandshell at Prospect Park is a great place to hear music. There are plenty of seats up front and for those who are more interested in picnicing and socializing, there is a grassy area in the back for blankets and BYO chairs. We got there before the doors opened—so that we could get in and grab seats in the front row behind the VIP section. While we were waiting for the music to start, we munched down some tortas from Puebla on 1st Avenue in the East Village.
The evening started with some surprises. No sooner had the introductions begun, then Sonny Rollins came out as an unannounced guest. He quoted Ornette’s expression “it’s all good, don’t worry about nothing, it’s all good”. Next thing we know, a weeping Ornette Coleman, is walking onto the stage. So right there, we have two living jazz greats on stage together. (Coleman is 84 and and Rollins will turn 84 in September).
The music started off with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Henry Threadgill playing with the back-up band: Denardo Coleman – Drums, Al Macdowell – Electric bass, Tony Falanga – Acoustic bass, Charlie Ellerbee – Guitar and Antoine Roney – Tenor sax. David Murray joined in the second song.
At this point Ornette Coleman came back on stage, took a chair, and at first listened, but didn’t play. Like jazz, the evening was full of some scheduling improvisation—after some conferring and confusion, Ornette plays a few bars and stops. Applause. More confusion. Then, to the happiness of the crowd, Ornette starts playing again and keeps on going. Clearly this part of the evening was unplanned and unrehearsed. One by one, the other musicians on stage join in. And they all keep on playing. As long as Ornette Coleman is playing, it seems like they’ve given up on the list of musicians scheduled to join in. In the middle of the song, Savion Glover comes on stages and starts tapping away. Sweat is pouring off of him—he’s wearing one of those Keep Calm t-shirts—his says “Keep calm & drink wine”
Ornette stays in his seat on stage, and Joe Lovano, Geri Allen and Wallace Roney come out for the next couple of songs.
Everyone leaves the stage except Ornette. Patti Smith and her band come out and she is the only one of the evening who doesn’t perform Ornette’s music. Instead, she read two of her own poems to music.
A short break, that’s the last we see of Ornette, but it’s all good—we got more than we expected.
The second half starts without the back-up band. Just Laurie Anderson, John Zorn and Bill Laswell. Laurie Anderson and John Zorn are two of my favorites, so it was great to see them. It was a particularly special moment of the evening, because Anderson’s late husband Lou Reed, a big Ornette fan, was included posthumously in the tribute.
Before Anderson started playing, we heard a clip of Lou Reed talking about Ornette: “’Lonely Woman’ has been a favorite song of mine ever since I heard it when it first came out. Not a day goes by where I’m not humming it. . . It’s not your standard jazz thing where this guy solos and this one solos and this one solos. It’s a real composition that brings all of [the musicians] together . . . “
Then, four of Reed’s guitar’s are set up against amplifiers to create a feedback that Reed called “The Drones” to accompany Anderson, Zorn and Laswell’s rendition of “Lonely Woman”.
A couple more acts without the back up band: Bruce Hornsby on piano and Branford Marsalis on sax (just the two of them) and then, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Nels Cline (Wilco).
Then, the back-up back comes back and play three or four more songs accompanied by some combination of Ravi Coltrane, James Blood Ulmer, Bill Laswell, Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby. A little international flavor is added as The Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco join. This seems to be the finale. But no,
Geri Allen takes the piano and is joined by 4 saxophonists: Joe Lovano, Wallace Roney Jr., Branford Marsalis and Ravi Coletrane to play “Lonely Woman”.
It was a free Free Jazz evening of legends, surprises, avant-garde, improvisation. It was all good.