Sunday, February 17, 2008


I know Portland isn't on a par culturally with Berlin, Shanghai, New York etc. But when international cultural figures come here, we really turn out for them. A more appreciative crowd there cannot be.

And generally, artists and thinkers of a high caliber are more accessible when they are in Portland, partly because the venues and vibe are low key and less crowded, and the audience less star struck.

So it was that over this weekend I was able to hear jazz great Ornette Coleman and even get a few hours' chat with him, and hear James Turrell speak for a couple of hours at PNCA.

Turrell is an artist of light, and as he put it himself an artistic descendant of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Monet and others who have created progressive art theories around light. However, Turrell is certainly one of the most scientific, with a degree in perceptual psychology and with a knowledge of the retinal and ocular that surely would stump most of the rest of us.

And it struck me listening to his talk how much science informs really great art today. Ornette Coleman's music is about ideas of sound, ergo, his "Sound Grammer" theses. It's not an original thought to point out that there is beauty in science, but these artists do it with a divine touch.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Ornette Coleman hearts Portland

After a long trying day full of situations that were fubar and snafu'd, we were rewarded with an evening with a living treasure, jazz Hall of Famer Ornette Coleman.

The Schnitz was packed to the point of overheating, and that was before Ornette's band started playing bits from "Sound Grammar." Ornette writes an extreme form of intellectual music, one that is, in his own words, about ideas.

I'm not ashamed to admit that Ornette's invention, free jazz, is not what I normally gravitate to, as it is quite challenging. But it is also plain astounding in its ultra expression of the essence of jazz.

And Portland was most appreciative. Post-concert, we sat with Ornette, invited to visit with him by our friend who was part of the musician's entourage. Ornette (and what a nice name) seems to be one of those greats who became an outsized genius out of an inner urge to explore originality, humbly, at the feet of the masters. In Ornette's case, these were Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk among others. He speaks softly and with a touching sincerity.

On Portland: "People here are so nice. So nice. I just can't get over it. So nice."
On his performance: "At first I was a little nervous, but after feeling that the audience was so nice, so quiet, I knew I could try any idea I could think of, and so I did."
On his music: "Improv isn't a style; it's an idea."

He is the Picasso or the Pollock of music.