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The Friday Morning Listen: Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

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Sometimes, curiosity will get the best of me. A strange attraction to something new — a particular (and often peculiar) food, drink, author, musician — will emerge and the craving will not be denied. Mostly, this works out. I've got a large appetite for new experiences in these areas and my instincts rarely let me down.

Quite often I get asked how it is that I came to discover this or that musician. "Bern Nix? Never heard of him!" "Marc Ribot? Never heard of him either?" The truth is that many times these people are not nearly as obscure as you'd think. Usually, I discover them by either reading liner notes or doing a little research to uncover who the side musicians are on some recording that I'm fond of. Simple as that. Then I just roll the dice and look for records under those names. Do this for twenty years and your shelves will be groaning just like mine.

But James Joyce… now there is a big fat enigma. I've said many times that I'm very familiar with the first five or so pages of Ulysses because I've read them about ten times. That's where the wall of "What the hell is he talking about?" is encountered. So a rational person might think that I'd lost my mind last Saturday when I walked into the bookshop and bought a copy of something even more 'difficult' — Finnegans Wake.

Is this book the world's most famous literary practical joke? I doubt it. Joyce clearly knew what he was doing. Maybe the man just had too much knowledge in his head and this was a way of releasing the pressure. After reading the introduction, it's at least reassuring to know that many people are content to open the book to a random spot to see what they can find. More fundamental than that: "One of the more interesting features of Finnegans Wake is that it even encourages the expansion of our understanding of what exactly it means — or can mean — to read."

This is an attitude that I wish more people would bring to their listening experiences — especially in their willingness to "process" new and supposedly difficult music.

Yes, it's okay to not "get" everything at first. It's also just fine to settle on the portions of a composition that rub you the right way (even if there are only a handful of them over the course of an hour).

No, I'm not moving toward equating the music of Ornette Coleman with the odd intricacies of James Joyce. Though there are some parallels, particularly that both men liked to ignore the accepted "rules" of their crafts, what's more important to me is the idea that people be more open to the experience. I'm not suggesting that anybody start off with Coleman's version of Finnegans, which would have to be Free Jazz. No, this new live recording is the perfect place to begin the expansion of your musical horizons.

Ornette's brand of jazz ("Harmolodics") sidesteps the usual rules of jazz (melodies inside of chord-based harmonic structures) to give greater freedom to everyone in the band. A composition might start off with a nice, winding melody but then branch off to unknown territories as the musicians improvise on whatever aspects appeal at the moment. The drummer might follow the sax line, while the bassist keys off of just the drummer's floor toms. You just never know where this is going to lead.

Sound Grammar is a live album recorded at a show in Italy in 2005. The sax/drums/two basses lineup allows for lots of space and group dynamics, but with the extra twist of the textures provided by the presence of both plucked and bowed bass. This set contains a fairly wide range of Ornette styles, from the more or less straightforward blues of "Turnaround", to the slowly evolving sound suite of "Once Only", to the full-on freakout of closing track "Song X."

Aren't you just a little bit curious?

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Coincidentally enough, there’s an interesting piece on Coleman in this morning’s New York Times.

  • Mark Saleski

    cool! thanks lisa.

  • dyrkness

    Two suggestions for you, though you might have tried both: Literature-“Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust, And Music- just about anything by John Zorn.

  • Mark Saleski

    right you are. Zorn is the man (and can always cause the room to clear!)

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Goddamn I love Ornette, and need this album badly. Although I need to finish off my study of the Atlantics first…

  • Mark Saleski

    i don’t think i’ll ever be done with that particular task!

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Ornette’s music is often hard to describe, expecially in a way that’s easy for any reader to understand, I think you did a bang-up job with that.

    Am I curious? You damned straight I am!

    -P

    p.s.–Finnegan’s Wake is also the name of a classical-prog group that I recently listened to for the first time. Interesting stuff to check out, if you ever come across it.

  • Ivan

    I just came across your blog (thanks to Google) while looking for reviews of Sound Grammar.

    I love Ornette’s early stuff, and some of his later work (eg Song X, Virgin Beauty). Also, Finnegans Wake is my favourite novel (yep, I’ve read it all the way through 3 or 4 times). By an even weirder coincidence, I’m currently reading Proust.

    So – thanks for your review of Sound Grammar. I’ll pick it up. And how did you get on with FW?

    Actually, I always thought Cecil Taylor’s music was more like FW, esp his duets with Max Roach.

    All the Best

    Ivan

  • Mark Saleski

    ivan, i’ve made no attempt to actually read FW. instead, i just pick it up and read bits here and there. honestly, i don’t think i have the stamina to read it from start to finish.

    ah yea, Cecil Taylor!