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Ornette Coleman Takes Flight Again, in Music and Film, This Week at Lincoln Center

Jimmy Katz
Ornette Coleman

The first of many startling reveals in Naked Lunch, the 1991 David Cronenberg film, occurs five seconds into the opening title sequence. An orchestra has just struck its first chords, foreboding and tremulous, when Ornette Coleman’s alto saxophone goes skittering into action, like an errant flashlight beam across a velvet curtain.

Coleman is more than a featured soloist in Howard Shore’s original score for Naked Lunch: his quizzical, bracing cry also provides something like a point of view in the film, which was adapted from the landmark novel by William S. Burroughs. The chiming polytonality of the music shows an affinity with Coleman’s language, and he takes to the orchestrations as naturally as he does to the odd interlude with his trio.


This week Lincoln Center is honoring Coleman, who died in 2015, with a festival of music and film organized by his son, the drummer Denardo Coleman. The kickoff event, on Tuesday night, is a screening of Naked Lunch with live orchestral accompaniment and not one but two eminent soloists, the saxophonists Henry Threadgill and Ravi Coltrane. 

“They both have a depth to their playing and an understanding of their own concept,” Denardo said recently. “And with my father, he wouldn’t want anybody to try to recreate what he played, or play like him. He was all about moving forward with your own ideas, and looking for newer and better ideas. Both Henry and Ravi — he appreciated them, and their playing, and them as people. I knew there would be just a simpatico with this particular work and his music.”

Denardo was speaking in his father’s loft, in the garment district of Manhattan, during a recent rehearsal for the Naked Lunch performance. Against one wall, a large flatscreen monitor had the film playing on mute, with a time code in the corner.

Facing the screen at a folding table were Threadgill, Coltrane and Shore. Along with conductor Brad Lubman, they studied copies of the score as the music piped over stereo speakers. The scene underway at that moment was “https://youtu.be/WRUdLzy69C0">Welcome to Annexia,” near the end of the film. Coleman’s horn sounded plangent, imploring and fierce. Hearing it call out in the room — in his home — was a stirring experience.

This was also true, as it turned out, for Shore. “I thought I knew the score pretty well,” he said, “but the more I’ve been listening to it in the last month, because we’ve been doing rehearsals getting ready for the performance, I feel like I appreciate Ornette’s work on a much deeper level.”  

Credit Nate Chinen
At Ornette Coleman's loft, left to right: Ravi Coltrane, Denardo Coleman, Charnett Moffett, Henry Threadgill

Shore is a highly prolific film composer: in addition to his close association with Cronenberg, he is known for his work on the Lord of the Rings movies, and on several Martin Scorsese epics (including The Departed and Gangs of New York). But Naked Lunch represents a special convergence for him.  

He first recorded the score with the London Philharmonic, and a trio consisting of Ornette, Denardo and bassist Barre Phillips. For Tuesday’s concert, the orchestra is Ensemble Signal; the bassist is seasoned Ornette alum Charnett Moffett.

“With this film, and the way that Howard and Ornette conceived the role of improvisation,” said Coltrane, “there are moments where things are very choreographed to the images on the screen, and there are more often times when things are much looser. In those cases, it looks like the band and the live music will be able to gel and blend a little bit more smoothly. It was great to see it and be able to dissect each cue.”

Symphonic gestures were a rare but substantive thing for Coleman, who recorded his Skies of America with the London Phil in 1972. (He revisited that piece, a symphony, with the New York Philharmonic 20 years ago, the last time Lincoln Center presented a festival of his music.) While the score for Naked Lunch wasn’t orchestrated by Coleman, it owes enough to his Harmolodic concept to sit credibly within his body of work, and not just Shore’s.

“Imagine Skies of America with all the i’s crossed and t’s dotted,” wrote Gary Giddins in 1992, when he placed the soundtrack in his Top 20. He added: “The music is better without the movie, a Cronenberg mishap.”

Naked Lunch was not a box office success — despite wide theatrical release, it only grossed about $2.6 million, a fraction of its roughly $17 million budget — but it has acquired the aura of a cult classic. Still, even by the standards of Cronenberg, the unrivaled auteur of body horror, the film retains its potential to shock. (Try an image search for “Mugwump,” or “Naked Lunch typewriter,” and you’ll get the idea.) 

You wouldn’t have to be a prim-and-proper moviegoer to agree with the assessment of Roger Ebert. “While I admired it in an abstract way,” he wrote, “I felt repelled by the material on a visceral level.”

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) and the Mugwump, in David Cronenberg's 'Naked Lunch'

But then this is true to the spirit of Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch was first published in Paris in 1959, and sparked an American obscenity trial several years later. A hallucinogenic novel steeped in drug addiction, exaggerated violence and sexual depravity, it inhabits a kind of post-beatnik paranoia, sharp and curdled. 

A crucial portion of the narrative is set in an evocative place called Interzone, which Burroughs named after the Tangier International Zone, in Morocco. At one point in the novel, he characterizes the exotic cacophony of sound in this setting: “High mountain flutes, jazz and bebop, one-stringed Mongol instruments, gypsy xylophones, African drums, Arab bagpipes…”

Ornette Coleman and William S. Burroughs

To suggest that Shore took this list as a set of instructions would be an oversimplification. But it’s no mistake that his first instinct, in scoring Burroughs, was to look to Coleman. The saxophonist and the novelist were acquainted as part of a bohemian demimonde; in fact, Burroughs was present when Coleman recorded “https://youtu.be/SMewk7B8pE0">Midnight Sunrise” in Morocco with the Master Musicians of JaJouka (and New York Times critic Robert Palmer, on clarinet). 

“The score’s a combination of North African music by The Master Musicians of JaJouka, and Ornette Coleman — who was a contemporary of Burroughs,” Shore said in an interview with Noisey last year. “I tried to put the idea of New York bebop and Moroccan music together.”

The boppish side of that equation is tangible, if a little abstracted: Shore and Coleman spent some time listening to Dean Benedetti’s bootleg recordings of Charlie Parker, and that frame of reference crept into the score. At Shore’s request, Coleman also arranged https://youtu.be/xj7E0eiUM6w">a version of “Misterioso,” the Thelonious Monk tune. 

“We met at Wembley Studios, and started recording with the London Phil,” Shore recalled. “Day by day we kind of played pieces, worked on the film, Ornette arranged ‘Misterioso,’ and we just developed the score as we went. It was a very creative, very open, very improvisational type of process.”

Coleman and Shore reunited to perform the score at the Barbican in London, in 2001. What’s different at Lincoln Center this week, of course, is the glaring absence of Ornette. Denardo, who has been a conscientious steward of his father’s legacy, was smart to consider both Threadgill and Coltrane for the all-important saxophone chair — and not just in an effort to fill some unfillable shoes.

Credit Jon Sadleir
Henry Threadgill, Denardo Coleman and Charnett Moffett rehearsing for 'Naked Lunch' in Ornette Coleman's studio.

Threadgill, an enthusiastic admirer of Shore’s orchestration, said the dual saxophone interaction will lend the work a new dimension. “It changes the dynamics and the weight and the force, the actual physical force, the weight and coloration — all of this now has to be adjusted to a different kind of concept,” he said.

“This is not just a movie,” Threadgill continued. “This is a live production with film and music. It is not going to look at a movie in the theater or on your television. It’s a new medium, in a way.”

Tuesday’s Naked Lunch performance kicks off this week’s Lincoln Center festival, which will also include a screening of the Shirley Clarke documentary Made in America (Wednesday); a reunion of Ornette’s electric band Prime Time (Friday); and a concert of his chamber music (Sunday). For tickets and more information, visit this page at Lincoln Center’s website.

And stay tuned: WBGO will have more Ornette coverage, focusing on Prime Time, later this week. 

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.