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Music Review: Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

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But for the half century of composer and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman's stalwart advocacy of freedom of expression, jazz (and other styles of improvised music) could have evolved (or devolved) into musical Jabberwocky. There are days when I think the bulk of improvised music has done exactly that despite torch-bearer Coleman's repeated call to arms.

Coleman's new CD, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006), represents: his first album in more than 10 years; his first live album in 20 years; the recording debut of his current band: Ornette Coleman (sax, violin, and trumpet), his son, Denardo Coleman on drums, and two acoustic bassists, Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen; and, is the first release from Coleman's new label, Sound Grammar.

Today, the 77-year-old Coleman is generally acknowledged as a pivotal figure in the history of jazz. He's been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and received: the MacArthur "Genius" Award; honorary doctorates from several colleges and universities; an American Music Center Letter of Distinction; the Lillian Gisch Prize, the New York State Governor Arts Award; and, on February 11, 2007, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (Sound Grammar was also nominated in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category).

But, don't let the goodies fool you. It's been a long, hard road for this music iconoclast and his plastic saxophone.

Born 1930 in an essentially segregated area of Ft. Worth, Texas, Coleman received his first saxophone from his mother (a seamstress – his father passed away when he was ten) at the age of 14 and taught himself to sight read from a "how to" piano book. It wasn't long before Coleman was working the local honky tonk circuit with R&B bands. His horizons stretched beyond Texas when he joined Pee Wee Crayton's traveling band and Coleman eventually found himself in Los Angeles by the time he was 20. The road, however, had already turned rocky. The story goes that by the time Crayton and Coleman reached L.A., Crayton offered to pay Coleman not to solo.

In a 1960 Downbeat article, Coleman put it to writer Robert Tynan this way: "Most musicians didn't take to me; they said I didn't know the [chord] changes and was out of tune." It wasn't readily clear to most musicians (and critics) in the late '50s and early '60s that a player might pursue dissonance by choice. "I could play and sound like Charlie Parker note-for-note, but I was only playing it from method. So I tried to figure out where to go from there,"

Where Ornette Coleman went from there would (and continues to) alter and expand the way we think, talk about, listen to, and ultimately, enjoy music. Coleman's career from the late '50s, (especially the albums The Shape of Jazz To Come [1959] and Free Jazz [1960]) gave birth to three questions important to those who take their music listening pleasure seriously:

Who wants Jabberwocky?
Can the ugly be beautiful?
Who's the customer?


`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
– First stanza of Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll (from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

You might think the improvisational element of jazz would automatically keep the genre from becoming stale, but that's not the case. If you listen to a fair amount of improvisation, especially if you're a musician, improvised lines are often predictable to the point of being disposable. Given a certain chord or chord progression, it's likely that a player will use a particular set of arpeggios, scales, or modes with which to improvise a solo, which is fine, but players tend to develop improvisations in keeping with the way other players have used the same harmonic and rhythmic resources. A good number (and I mean a very good number) of improvised solos strike this listener as "the same old thing, only different", and the question arises, is anything being expressed beyond some musical pleasantry? Much jazz improvisation (and I could say the same thing about improvisations in any style from blues to metal variants) goes the way of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky – it sounds pleasant, it meets our expectations of what we think an improvised solo should sound like in the situation, but it lacks real substance or meaning. As Alice said on hearing Jabberwocky, "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don't exactly know what they are!"

From early on, Ornette Coleman's demonstrated a different point of view. "I seek to play pure emotion," he's said. To Coleman, the message is the medium. The goal is communication and "music" is simply the vehicle. The player need not be a slave to style, harmonic and rhythmic convention, method, or history; the player is free to use whatever he commands to express what he thinks, feels, or experiences. It's not advocating the unpredictable or unusual for the sake of variety or novelty, it's a willingness to incorporate whatever helps the musician communicate meaning.

Ornette Coleman's music is for players and listeners who want more.

Can the ugly be beautiful?

Visual art addressed this paradox long ago, that the ugly can convey artistic significance, value, and yes, pleasure. Edvard Munch's 1893 painting, Scream, is the classic example. It's not a lovely picture, but it certainly captures in a poignant way something basic to the human condition. Its artistic value lies not in a lovely facade but in its direct, powerful, and truthful communication.

Music listeners haven't been as open eared. Dissonance, squawking, atonality, and other elements that fall short of the traditionally pleasant are fair game to Coleman in the delivery of a pointed communication. And why not? Is the only way a saxophone player can communicate pain through the techniques of volume, attack, sustain, and vibrato? Who hasn't felt dissonant or squawkish? It's just that we don't expect such sounds from music since historically even the heart wrenching has been delivered with ear-pleasing tone.

Ornette Coleman's music is his method for conveying a wide range of emotions as honestly and thoroughly as he can without dumbing down the message or wrapping it in any other package than his own.

Who's the customer?

Art is a two step process: creation and consumption. As consumers, the questions we ask of a piece of art are in what way and to what extent will you pleasure me? We paid for the CD, we bought the concert ticket, it's now the performer's obligation to please, and how difficult can that be? Artists need only to observe what seems to be pleasing people and deliver something similar, a pleasure that's been road tested. Bring on the Jabberwocky. Give us a quick and pleasant meal without substance so we'll overeat: The heart knows when it's being underfed.

While to the makers of most commercial music, the customer is king, to musicians like Ornette Coleman the message rules. The difference is between what I call listener-centric and player-centric music. A Coleman performance is an act of communication in which he serves as a journalist of sorts surveying a range of emotion and reporting what he finds in detailed language that ranges from loud and raw to moments of tender nuance. But it's journalism, not romantic fiction, and the listener may not always like (or be prepared for) the news.

The majority of music critics were certainly unprepared for Coleman's musical news flashes when he entered the broader jazz scene in the early '60s. His music earned the label "free jazz" and he was called a musical charlatan by some noteworthy jazz figures of the day (though he was embraced by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thompson).

Free jazz or harmolodics?

The "free jazz" tag that attached to Coleman's music, especially in the early years, in an important sense misrepresented his work. The word "free" in this context should not mean devoid of form or structure, nor should it imply a free-form ad hoc rambling. Coleman's playing and composition relies heavily both on melody and structure (chordal and temporal), but not in the usual ways. His music was (is) more or less free from the typical restraints of chord progression, tempo, and single line development, but very much in keeping with his own sense of compositional and performance structure, which Coleman has dubbed harmolodic.

Coleman's website provides this description of harmolodics:

"The richness of harmolodics derives from the unique interaction between the players. Breaking out of the prison bars of rigid meters and conventional harmonic or structural expectations, harmolodic musicians improvise equally together in what Coleman calls compositional improvisation, while always keeping deeply in tune with the flow, direction and needs of their fellow players. In this process, harmony becomes melody becomes harmony. Ornette describes it as, 'Removing the caste system from sound.' On a broader level, harmolodics equates with the freedom to be as you please, as long as you listen to others and work with them to develop your own individual harmony."

Harmolodics paved the way for sound grammar (and Sound Grammar and Sound Grammar)

These days, Coleman prefers the phrase "sound grammar" to harmolodics to describe his music, which accounts for both the title of the new album and the name of his new record company (Coleman's earlier record label was aptly called Harmolodic on which he released a number of CDs in the '90s beginning with Tone Dialing). "Sound Grammar is to music what letters are to language. Music is a language of sounds that transforms all human languages," says Coleman.

2006's Sound Grammar is eight tracks of Coleman originals, including: "Turnaround", which appeared on his 1959 album, Tomorrow Is The Question; "Sleep Talking", from 1979's Of Human Feelings (though it's titled "Sleep Talk") on which his son Denardo plays drums; and, "Song X", which was the title track of a 1985 Coleman album that featured guitarist Pat Metheny (with Denardo again on drums). Grammar also contains an opening track that's a spoken introduction to the performance. It was recorded in late 2005 during a concert in Germany.

While, as some have said, Sound Grammar may be his "most accessible" (meaning listener-centric) album to-date, Coleman's principle of harmolodics (sound grammar) remains the cornerstone of his compositions and the group's performance. You'll hear Denardo Coleman's drumming contributing to melody and harmony development as if he was a horn player or at times as if his drums were serving the function of piano or guitar. In a way, Denardo demonstrates the essence of sound grammar (harmolodics): all sound, whether tonal or rhythmic, is an equal part of music's language and in a Coleman performance each musician is invited to contribute creatively to the composition's development within the context of the theme (message) at hand and the manner in which it's evolving collectively.

Sound Grammar will serve well as a listener's introduction to Ornette Coleman, especially for those still developing a taste for music that's more player-centric. The haunting beauty of the very melodic "Sleep Talking", with its interplay of the two acoustic basses (one plucked by Greg Cohen, the other bowed by Tony Falanga) set against the sparse declarations of Coleman's sax (until sleep talking becomes sleep walking for about a minute toward the end of the tune), is impressive and very listener friendly. If, after reading the above, it was the first Coleman track you ever heard you'd scratch your head wondering why the fuss.

In fact, with the abundance of "freer" free jazz, avant-garde, and experimental jazz that's come and gone since the late '60s, much of Coleman's catalog may now sound tame to the veteran jazz fan. Writer and long-time Coleman associate Robert Palmer said something similar in his notes to the 1993 Atlantic Records Coleman compilation, Beauty Is A Rare Thing: "The present day listener will most likely hear these pieces [Coleman recordings from 1959-1961] as well conceived and superbly realized works on their own terms and will again wonder what all the controversy could have been about."

On the other side of the coin, Sound Grammar does not work well as functional music (thank goodness), which is to say, it's not the CD you'll reach for as freeway-driving background sound or dinner time soundtrack. It demands the listener's attention, in part due to its rhythmic idiosyncrasies, but also because there's so much going on that only a close listen (make that several close listens) will reveal the contributions of each player. Coleman, whether playing alto sax, trumpet, or violin (his alto's the main participant) is the upfront ear-catcher, which is understandable due to the timbre of his instruments and the fact that he often introduces the melodic theme, but each track contains equally relevant creative contributions from the other three members of the quartet, often simultaneously. The improvisational emphasis weaves in and out of solo, duo, trio, and quartet mode, making Sound Grammar the type of album that continues to deliver pleasure listen after listen. The grammar being put to use is both individual and collective.

Sound Grammar is indeed about the language of music. Hopefully, it will inspire younger generations of players to pursue grammar instead of jabber.

Getting to know Ornette Coleman

Though always close to the hearts of a serious Coleman coterie of both musicians and listeners, his broader popularity and exposure tends to wax and wane. Thanks to the release of Sound Grammar and the recent Grammy accolades, the age of 77 finds Coleman once again in the sights of a wider base of critics and listeners. This might inspire new Coleman converts to work their way backwards and discover his earlier catalog. And, just as his music is worth a listen, his personal story is worth a read. Here are a few tidbits to whet your appetite.

– Pee Wee Crayton reputedly offered to pay Coleman not to solo while Coleman was with Crayton's band.
– Used a plastic alto saxophone on early recordings (and performances)
– Recorded two early albums in part to prove he could play his own compositions
– Was physically assaulted by a notable musician, the result of a musical feud
– Supported himself as an elevator operator at Bullocks department store in Los Angeles
– His 1959 six-week appearance at the Five Spot in NYC polarized the jazz community
– In the mid-'60s withdrew from the public limelight and taught himself to play the violin and trumpet
– In 1966 recorded The Empty Foxhole with Denardo Coleman on drums. Denardo was 10-years-old at the time.
– His symphony, "Skies of America" was written on a Guggenheim Foundation grant and debuted in 1972 at the Newport Jazz Festival
– In 1973 went to Morocco to study with the Master Musicians of Joujouka. Later in the decade, he formed the band Prime Time featuring two guitarists (James "Blood" Ulmer would be one) and recorded "accessible", even danceable albums.
– In 1985 he bought an old public school in Manhattan to create the Harmolodic Institute, which proved to be an overly ambitious project and didn't pan out
– In the '80s performed on occasion with the Grateful Dead and had a close association with Jerry Garcia
– In 1997 French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida opened Coleman duet (with German pianist Joachim Kuhn) shows with a lecture

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About Brad Chenowski

  • Thanks all for the kind words.

    Michael J –

    That’s the incident (and drummer Max Roach is the answer).

    Thanks for adding a link to your piece about Coleman, it’s an excellent read.

  • Excellent review/essay. Anything that gives more attention to Ornette, the greatest living jazz musician no matter what Sonny Rollins does, is fine by me.

    By the way, you seem to have avoided mentioning the name of the prominent musician that assaulted Ornette, so I’m only guessing, but is that the incident at the Five Spot with the musician whose name rhymes with “Lax Coach”?

  • Outstanding. A fine introduction to a jazz giant for the unfamilar. I’m ready to queue up Sound Grammar again.

  • Mark Saleski

    nicely done! and oh yea, this is a great record. maybe a nice ‘gateway’ cd for those interested in checking out music that’s outside of the ‘normal’ jazz boundaries.