At WSJ on the new Ornette Coleman disc

So one side of the story goes like this. I was at Spuyten Duyvil, the wonderful Williamsburg beer and wine bar about five or six years ago when one of the bartenders, a musician, told me that his friend at the end of the bar had just been to Ornette Coleman’s house to jam. My drinking buddy thought I should pursue a story from it. I thought I should order another mead-barrel age bierre de garde. Turns out my drinking buddy was right, but the beer was really good.
At WSJ (yes again!) on the new Ornette, yes, the new Ornette.

Completely New Yet Pleasantly Familiar

Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996.

With shockingly little advance publicity, a new recording featuring jazz great Ornette Coleman has been released. The album, “New Vocabulary” (System Dialing Recordings), became available late last month via the label’s website, and it features the innovative saxophonist and composer in a collective ensemble that includes trumpeter Jordan McLean, drummer Amir Ziv and keyboardist Adam Holzman.

The release comes at a time when new music from Mr. Coleman has grown scarce. He made a guest appearance on one track of “Road Shows Vol. 2” (Doxy), a 2011 release by fellow saxophone legend Sonny Rollins. His last official recording was “Sound Grammar” (Sound Grammar), a live recording from 2006, which received the Pulitzer Prize for music the following year. His last studio recording was “Sound Museum: Three Women” (Harmolodic/Verve) in 1996.

Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996. ENLARGE
Ornette Coleman’s ‘New Vocabulary’ is his first studio album since 1996. Getty Images

Mr. Coleman, who is 84, is one of the most pivotal figures in jazz history. In the late ’50s, he arrived on the scene, first in Los Angeles and then in New York, with an approach to music that loosened the rules of harmony and freed musicians to play more of what they felt. The approach was often called free jazz, a name taken from one of Mr. Coleman’s best recordings of the time. Later in the ’60s, he was one of the first jazz musicians to compose string quartets. His band in the ’70s produced classic recordings like “Science Fiction” (Columbia, 1971), and in 1976 he released his first recording with Prime Time, a band featuring electric guitars and basses that seamlessly combined jazz and funk.

Although its arrival was a surprise, the timing of the release of “New Vocabulary” is entirely appropriate. Mr. Coleman’s music was the subject of two heralded tributes in 2014. In October, The Bad Plus performed the entire “Science Fiction” recording in a series of concerts; in June, music luminaries including Mr. Coleman himself played his works in a Celebrate Brooklyn concert called “Celebrate Ornette.”

The new album was recorded in 2009. A year earlier, Mr. Coleman had attended the musical “Fela!” Afterward, he went backstage and met Mr. McLean, who was assistant musical director for the production and is a member of Antibalas, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Afrobeat band that arranged and performed the show’s music. The two men became friends, and Mr. Coleman invited Mr. McLean, who is 40, to his home to play music. Those sessions evolved to include Messrs. Ziv and Holzman, Mr. McLean’s bandmates in an electronic music group called Droid. Mr. Ziv, who is 43, has been a leading sideman for more than 20 years; his credits include work with Sean Lennon, Lauryn Hill, and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Mr. Holzman, who is 56 and leads several bands, has played with Miles Davis and Chaka Khan. Informal jamming gradually became more rigorous rehearsals as the musicians honed the 12 songs that appear on the recording.

“New Vocabulary” is a concise 42 minutes, and it begins with two spare tunes, “Baby Food” and “Sound Chemistry,” that contrast Mr. Coleman’s bright, often gleeful saxophone tone with electronic effects by Mr. McLean and piano from Mr. Holzman. From there the intensity picks up on pieces like “Alphabet,” “Bleeding,” “If it Takes a Hatchet” and “H20” as Mr. Ziv’s drumming becomes more prominent and both Mr. Coleman and Mr. McLean accent and play off of his driving rhythms. The album ends with “Gold is God’s Sex,” a ruminative piece that lends the recording a bit of symmetry.

Most Ornette Coleman projects offer either something completely new or something closely related to what he has done in the past. Prime Time and the band on “Sound Museum” were radical shifts. “Science Fiction,” built on the Blue Note recordings that preceded it, and “Sound Grammar” placed Coleman in a familiar setting—a quartet—with repertoire from his lengthy career. “New Vocabulary” does a little of both. Without directly quoting melodies, Mr. Coleman’s playing at times recalls his work in the early ’60s, early ’70s and late ’80s. Yet the backing is completely new for those who know his work only via recordings, and Mr. Coleman sounds energized by his bandmates. One can only hope it is a direction he will continue to pursue. Despite its under-the-radar launch, “New Vocabulary” is a valuable addition to Ornette Coleman’s extraordinary discography.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.


About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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