Years ago cellist/pianist Dave Eggar told me about one of his most memorable experiences playing music. He was hanging out at Denardo Coleman's place‚ having a jam session‚ when Denardo's father‚ Ornette‚ walked in. Eggar explained all the preconceived notions that crossed his nervous mind when Ornette grabbed his saxophone and was about to play with them. He was expecting Ornette to take it "out" -- anticipating the legend to play in a way that was well beyond him. He thought he was going to be bombarded with "free jazz" and forced to play in a musical language that he didn't understand that well.
Moments later he found himself in a wonderful conversation‚ perhaps the best musical conversation he'd ever been in. Ornette's presence was unassuming; he listened closely‚ reacted patiently‚ and let everyone play with equal space. The music began to breathe and take on a life of its own: egoless and without any judgment.
That's one of the greatest compliments I've heard about a musician. When Ornette Coleman took the stage at the Flynn Center during Discover Jazz Festival‚ Eggar's story about that experience came rushing back to me. Along with Denardo on drums‚ acoustic bassist Tony Falanga and electric bassist Al MacDowell‚ the quartet played music like I've never heard before. Composition after composition‚ they pushed the harmonic language‚ testing my ears and igniting my imagination to run wild.
The music was brilliant on several fronts. First‚ instantaneously they hit a deep pocket of sound as if they'd been playing and building over a long period of time. And second‚ so much of the music was emotionally ambiguous: riding on the edge between happy and sad‚ playing that fine line between sweet and sour‚ creating a contrast in movement that made you feel like you could be either flying or falling. Ornette would play a run on the sax‚ then put it down and pick up the trumpet and play something really tasty‚ then go back to the sax. It was so relaxed; you really couldn't tell if the music was meticulously composed or if they were making it up on the spot. And they all played with equal space: there was only one instance when the audience clapped during the music‚ which was after Ornette played an intense section on violin. It's a testament to the band and this performance -- this music is all about the collective spirit.
The experience seeing Ornette Coleman's quartet is one I'll never forget. It was inspiring on so many different levels. One being that the music was amazingly fresh‚ like nothing I've ever heard before. Another‚ even more so‚ was seeing Ornette‚ a musician who's been pushing the boundaries of music for almost 50 years‚ still bringing it‚ growing and evolving. We should all hope to live a life that way.