Change of the century: Musical tribute to Ornette Coleman

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There will be an expansive celebration of Ornette Coleman at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University Avenue on Saturday Sept. 26, 2015. Photo: Myles Boisen

A few nights after Ornette Coleman’s death on June 11 at the age of 85, Berkeley guitarist John Schott put out the word that anyone interested in share music, memories, or thoughts relating to the iconic saxophonist should come by the Berkeley Arts Festival space for an informal gathering.

The event was warm and unscripted with musicians describing life-changing encounters with Coleman and offering impromptu versions of some of his beatific blues. Jazz lovers are almost used to the loss of our foundational artists, as the ranks of players born before World War II continues to dwindle.

But Ornette was far more than a seminal improviser who exponentially expanded the music’s rhythmic and harmonic possibilities. He embodied the playfully heroic duality-erasing ideal at the center of African-American musical innovation. Radical and rootsy, avant garde and populist, philosophical and visceral, genius and trickster, Coleman arrived on the Los Angeles scene in the mid-1950s with an utterly and insistently individual aesthetic and never strayed from his own wending path.

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Myles Boisen: Organizer of the Ornette Coleman celebration on Sept. 26 in Berkeley

In explaining his need to be around other people mourning Coleman, Schott said, “We didn’t know what it would be like to be in the world without Ornette, until now.”


With the perspective of a few months, guitarist and sound engineer Myles Boisen has organized an expansive celebration of Coleman at the Berkeley Arts Festival on Saturday. The festivities start at 5 pm with saxophonist Steven Lugerner’s quartet SLUGish featuring bassist Matthew Wohl, drummer Britt Ciampa, and Berkeley-raised trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden. A vividly original player and composer who recently released a duo project with piano great Fred Hersch, Lugerner credits Coleman with transforming his musical consciousness.

“My life and concepts around music where totally changed after I first got my hands on Something Else!!!! ,” Lugerner says, referring to Coleman’s epochal 1958 debut album on Contemporary. “We’re going to reimagine a few of these selections.”

Altogether the program runs through at least 10 p.m. and includes seven disparate acts, including a duo set by drummer Jason Levis and trombonist Rob Ewing (5:45 p.m.) and reed master Sheldon Brown’s quartet (9 p.m.) with saxophonist David Slusser, bassist Richard Saunders, and drummer Vijay Anderson. Steve Dickison, director of San Francisco State’s Poetry Center & American Poetry Archives, will also offer several readings.

“I kind of cast a wide net,” Boisen says. “Everyone has 45 minutes, and they’re free to interpret the music any way they want. Aside from the MiniWatt String Trio, which is a working ensemble, these are unique groupings coming together to do this show. This is the only chance to see these great musicians in these particular settings.”

Boisen performs with violinist John Ettinger’s MiniWatt trio (6:30 p.m.), which also features guitarist Jon Preuss and special guest vocalist Lorin Benedict on several pieces. Boisen’s Ornettology big band closes the evening around 9:30 p.m., bringing together many of the musicians featured earlier on the program, plus saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and trumpeter Chris Grady (Boisen’s bandmates in the cinematically inspired Orchestra Nostalgico). Formed about three years ago, the band usually covers a broad swath of Coleman compositions from his late 1950s albums through his turbo-charged 1980s funk/rock band Prime Time and his collaboration with Jerry Garcia on Virgin Beauty (Portrait), with charts by reliably inspired arrangers like Greenlief and Darren Johnston, but “since a lot of our regular musicians are on the road we’ll be doing a little less formalized set, in the spirit of free jazz,” Boisen says.


Saxophonist Phillip Greenlief is part of the Coleman celebration

Colemans’s creative canvas was so vast there’s no way to sum it up simply, but he arrived in Los Angeles in mid-1950s with a good deal of Texas blues and R&B experience under his belt, a gutbucket sensibility that he carried with him to the end. Early on he was often spurned by his contemporaries who thought he was wrong notes, but he slowly attracted a brilliant cadre of musicians who collaborated on his groundbreaking early recordings. An extended run at New York City’s Five Spot in 1959 with his quartet featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins is arguably the most consequential gig in jazz history. For listeners who came to Coleman’s music decades later, it could be hard to hear what unsettled so many of his peers. They ended up absorbing many of his unorthodox forms and rhythmic concepts, but there was no accounting for Coleman’s searing lyricism and his gift for spinning long spiraling lines.

“He only got to scratch the surface of what was possible in his music,” Boisen says. “There’s still a lot to be explored. There were many decades where jazz ceased to be dance music, and Ornette brought it back, linking back to the earliest days of jazz. He brought back this joyful feeling of dance music. This is music for your body, and if you want to tune in with your head you can relate to on a number of different levels. Unlike a lot of music of its time, compositionally his tunes can be pretty simple. You can sing the melodies, which is a departure from a lot of his contemporaries.”

You can sing them, or you can even play one on a Jew’s harp processing with electronics, which is what ROVA saxophonist Jon Raskin is planning on his 8:15 p.m. solo set when he interprets Coleman’s aching ballad “Lonely Woman.” While ROVA never performed with Coleman, the saxophone quartet came tantalizingly close to a collaboration.

“We almost got to a point where he was going to write us a piece for saxophone quartet,” says Raskin, who performs with ROVA Oct. 5 at the Make Out Room, and Oct. 10 at the Starline Social Club in Oakland with guests Scott Amendola and Gino Robair. “He had a singular language and encouraged people to find their language. He picked up lots of stuff, violin, different saxophones, trumpet. He was always probing and trying to stretch his ideas out. He was one of the key people braking away from role playing in an ensemble, and that was a big influence on our approach.”

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.


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