Legendary jazz innovator plays at Bass Concert Hall

Andrew Kreighbaum

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman made his name in the late 1950s by defying traditional jazz forms and embracing collective improvisation as part of the “free jazz” movement. He didn’t fail to surprise audience members at the Bass Concert Hall last night during the only Texas stop of his current tour. Coleman plays with a quartet, and in the first song — a nearly 10-minute surge of sound — he alternately took up a saxophone, a trumpet and finally, a violin, the last of which he played with quick, frenzied strokes. The quartet — Coleman’s son Denardo on drums, Tony Falanga on acoustic bass and Al McDowell on electric bass — then played a rendition of a musical standard, Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Other band members pushed the limit themselves with McDowell playing the bass at times like a classical guitar. The set challenged the audience much like Coleman has done throughout a career that’s spanned five decades. “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” released in 1959, received criticism even from fellow jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Max Roach. But many of his innovations are considered tame today, said Austin-based saxophonist Elias Haslanger. “The concept that Ornette brought to the floor was that there’s no need for a formal structure as far as a song form,” Haslanger said. Bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk pushed jazz further, but the genre still mostly stuck to a form based on the blues and the standard meter. “What Ornette did was say we don’t need that,” Haslanger said. “We’re just going to use melody. It’s kind of a basic concept now, but it basically defined a monumental change in direction at the time.” Haslanger said Coleman has influenced him not just as a fellow saxophone player but as an innovator. “Ornette kind of became one of the signature guys that did it his way and had a vision and a sound, so of course that’s going to influence me,” he said. “That’s what we all strive to be.”