The spirit of Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell was in the air throughout Hafez Modirzadeh and Bobby Bradford’s two-day Amherst residency. Their visit culminated with a Magic Triangle Series concert on Thursday, where tenor saxophonist Modirzadeh, cornetist Bradford, along with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer royal hartigan, transfixed 100 people in Bezanson Recital Hall with a transcendent 80 minute performance. Bradford, the 81-year old Los Angeles-based patriarch, was a dear friend and musical colleague of Ornette and Blackwell. Modirzadeh spent lots of quality time with Ornette, picking his brain and getting valuable feedback from the alto master. hartigan studied extensively with Blackwell at Wesleyan University.
So there was reverence for Ornette’s indomitable spirit and wonder at the elliptical nature of his thinking, and stories about the time he left his horn at an Italian airport with $50,000 dollars stuffed into the bell (returned safely), and the time Ornette followed someone’s smoking sax solo during a cutting contest by playing his horn with his right hand in his pocket.
The concepts of spirit and reverence were omnipresent during the visit, which also included a well-received class visit and concert at Amherst College, sponsored by Professor Jason Robinson.
During the Magic Triangle concert, hartigan, a 1981 UMass graduate, paid tribute to one of his mentors, Fred Tillis, with a touching speech. Dr. Tillis, responsible for much of the flowering of multicultural arts on campus and now 86, came to the stage to greet each musician. hartigan is a master of West African drumming traditions and began his composition, “Wadsworth Falls”, with an Asante rhythm and praise song, with Tillis’ name inserted. I teared up.
When I first contacted Modirzadeh at his Bay-area home about bringing a band to Amherst, he said he wanted to invite Bobby Bradford. I was thrilled because: 1) of his historical importance to the music; 2) he has never been to our area; 3) he has strong ties to two of my local heroes, Terry Jenoure and Marty Ehrlich; 4) his reputation for having enriched his Los Angeles jazz community for so long; 5) he can really play.
Over the two days, Modirzadeh displayed heartfelt deference, born not only out of health and energy concerns, but by the sheer thrill of spending an extended period of time with a respected elder. He peppered Bradford with lots of questions about Ornette among other subjects, and understood the significance of the occasion enough to professionally record both concerts.
Dennis Steiner’s Archive Project also preserved Thursday’s concert for posterity.
At a dinner in their honor at the home I share with Priscilla Page, we had the opportunity to introduce the musicians to members of our music-loving community. Jenoure and Ehrlich got to catch up with their old friend (there’s now a photo of the three of them floating somewhere on the internet), while they reminisced about the extraordinary series of John Carter records they made together in the 1980s. When scheduling a Thursday band rehearsal at UMass or Amherst proved daunting, my home became the woodshed. I loved seeing how the music comes together.
Ping Chong, the great theater artist, who along with Talvin Wilks, is in residence with the UMass Theater Department preparing their new work, “Collidescope 2.0”, is a friend of Hafez and a long-time colleague of his sister, Leila. We all met up at the Hangar on Thursday after the performance and the theater rehearsal for one more celebration.
As the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” It’s not often that one’s expectations, fueled by months of anticipation and preparation, are fully realized. Yes, the music was sublime, but being close to the spirit that informs the music, that exceeded my wildest dreams. Another peak experience.