One purpose for the recent “Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come” event at BAM, as part of the Bang on a Can Long Play Festival, was to celebrate that historic recording of 1959, and another, as Ornette’s son Denardo told a packed audience, was “to keep that energy going that he set in motion.” And that mission was more than accomplished by the 20-member ensemble and Denardo’s “Ornette Expressions,” including pianist Jason Moran, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., and saxophonist Lee Odom.
Odom was an exceedingly wonderful surprise for those unfamiliar with her potency, and during several riveting solos she captured not only Ornette’s exuberance but his uniquely created harmolodic vocabulary, her horn a searing mix of spectacular intervallic leaps and modulations. Her power was particularly noteworthy against the orchestral arrangements, at once blending and then soaring with every wave of Awadagin Pratt’s conduction.
There was no program denoting the new arrangements of the six tracks from Ornette’s third album, now listed in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Industry, and on Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums of all time, but that was unnecessary to a segment of his followers who with the first notes of “Lonely Woman,” erupted in applause. Arranged by vocalist and electronics avatar Pamela Z, her treatment gradually opens like a blooming flower, with expansive interpolations from Roney and Odom, and a delicate, lyrical phrase or two from the alto flutist. The tune rises and falls with a haunted sadness before fading like one of Ornette’s poignant codas.
Equally captivating during the more than two-hour performance was the bravura moment when Ulmer, Tacuma, and Denardo, in contrast to the aforementioned “Lonely Woman,” laid down a sizzling piece of rhythm and blues with Ulmer’s guitar leading what appeared to be a musical conversation. A similar intensity closed out the evening, and Denardo summoned all the driving energy he referenced at the beginning of the concert, all the musical maturity acquired under his father’s tutoring.
Overall the music was as splendid and colorful as the garments of the sextet in front of the orchestra, from Moran’s flowing yellow jacket to Denardo’s brilliant turquoise suit, all of which would have probably commanded Ornette’s approval. And all the talk nowadays about Afrofuturism in music can to some degree add this interpretation to the mix, and realize that the shape of jazz to come has arrived.