I’ve seen Ornette Coleman perform three times. The first two, in 2003 and 2005, were performances at Carnegie Hall with a group that included bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen (joined in 2005 by Al McDowell) and drummer Denardo Coleman. The third was his appearance with Sonny Rollins at the saxophonist’s 80th birthday celebration. Each was different; the first one was a headlong blast, with Coleman whipping the band through arrangements that seemed inspired by John Zorn‘s interpretations of his work on Spy vs. Spy, while the 2005 performance was moodier and more expansive, with songs stretching out and Ornette’s own improvisations dripping with blues feeling and a kind of piercing melancholy. And the guest appearance at the Rollins concert was fascinating and unique. Thrilling in the moment, upon reflection I’m not sure what to think. Coleman looked extraordinarily frail as he slowly, cautiously walked across the stage, bowed to Rollins, and began to play. When he was blowing, he sounded utterly like himself, but that was simultaneously awesome (Ornette’s approach to the saxophone is one of the sonic wonders of the 20th Century) and worrisome. It seemed as if he was incapable of meeting Sonny on Sonny’s territory, as though his style, after 60 years or so, had become a cul-de-sac.

This served to solidify an impression I’ve had since meeting Ornette for an interview at his Manhattan apartment—I feel like he’s fading, like age is taking its toll on him mentally a little. I don’t want to say more than that, but it was a strong feeling. When we talked that day, it was the second time I’d interviewed him—the first had been two years earlier, by phone, to promote his live album Sound Grammar, and he’d been as elliptical as ever, but there was a lucidity there that wasn’t nearly as present in 2009. On his couch, he talked in slow circles, returning not only to subjects but to phrases and figures of speech as though repeating them would anchor his brain and keep it from spinning off into vapor.

I don’t know how much longer we’re gonna have Ornette Coleman around. Which makes each recorded artifact that much more precious.

This two-CD set, Reunion 1990, was recorded in Italy; a reunion of Ornette Coleman’s 1959-60 quartet (with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins) was arranged for a festival. It’s a bootleg, and sounds like it. The quality is very good, all things considered, but there are occasional flaws. In any case, the music is fantastic.

The set includes only one piece from this quartet’s Atlantic studio recordings, “Lonely Woman.” Other tracks from later albums also pop up, like “Singing in the Shower” and “Spelling the Alphabet” from Virgin Beauty; “Him and Her” from Of Human Feelings; and “The Sphinx,” from 1958’s Something Else!! (punctuation in original). Also included are “Word for Bird” and “Latin Genetics,” from In All Languages, the 1987 album that featured one disc of pieces by Prime Time and a second disc of the same compositions, performed by this quartet. What might be of most interest, though, are the otherwise unreleased pieces that make up the bulk of Disc One. “Buckminster Fuller,” “Magic,” “Dancing Flower” and “If You Could See My Eyes.”

“Buckminster Fuller” is the best of these, to my ear; it’s a calypso groove over which Ornette takes the kind of solo only he can, one that’ll spin your head around and triple your heart rate. “Magic” is a showcase for Cherry and Haden, each of whom solo at length. (Haden sounds fantastic on this disc, by the way, a sound as full as any he ever got with Coleman in the studio—remember how huge he was on The Complete Science Fiction Sessions? He’s that dominant here, too, when he wants to be.) Ornette solos last, and does a good job of batting cleanup, but territory was definitely ceded to his bandmates on this one. “Dancing Flower” sounds like its title; it’s a swaying, uptempo blues, with Haden and Higgins setting up a shuffling groove while Ornette states a melody and then embarks on a series of semi-connected disquisitions. Cherry’s solo is muted and sharp. And “If You Could See My Eyes” delves deep into abstraction, with Haden taking another solo, bowed this time, that’s all rumbles and scrapes; it sounds like he’s playing a musical saw at times. This is followed by a massive, concussion-inducing solo from Billy Higgins.

There’s not a dull moment on this double disc. It’s easily as important an entry in the Coleman discography as any of his official releases. Get it.

Phil Freeman

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