Ornette Coleman
Sound Grammar

(Sound Grammar)

It was almost the end of the year, and at last I felt like I was finally starting to develop a real understanding of the new Ornette Coleman album, which was finally in my possession (details to follow in a minute), when a title written in giant, bold characters - Harmolodic Convergence, it said - which appeared on my computer screen above a picture of a musician whose face I knew so well told me that Sound Grammar had won the title for Best Jazz Album of the year in the new - and, it appeared, drastically downscaled - edition of the Village Voice Poll. My satisfaction in learning about this fact is easily explained: far from being a meaningless "Lifetime Achievement Award" for a 76 year old musician who had released his first CD in about ten years, the "critical consensus" of those polled by the Voice had paid homage to the depth of an album that was, yes, highly communicative, but also highly sophisticated and not terribly easy to get on first listening - in fact, the opposite was true: Sound Grammar promised to be a case of the classic album which will reveal its charms over time.

Now, it's quite obvious that if one chooses to buy an album in a "real" (as opposed to "virtual") shop (of course, it's not always possible, but "it's distributed in this country, no problem!") in order to play his/her part in trying to keep those tiny shops alive, and not going belly-up the way of Tower Records, one doesn't really have the option of protesting when the album one had ordered is quite a bit late in coming. But here circumstances are really funny: my disappointment in not finding the new Coleman CD in the shop was greatly counterbalanced by the satisfaction I felt as soon as I learned that the album had sold out! And had to be reordered! Well, since I've known this particular shop-owner for ages, I asked him how many copies he had sold. "One", was the answer. So I had to start thinking (again) about the (still widening?) gap existing between "critical consensus" and reality.

Sure, there had been times when not only reality but even "critical consensus" had been unfavourable to Coleman (the best introduction to his biography and his music is still the nice book by John Litweiler titled Ornette Coleman - The Harmolodic Life, published in '92 but which hasn't aged a bit). Listening to Sound Grammar - an album featuring his recent, and highly original, quartet with two double basses - made me want to listen again to some of my favourite albums in the Ornette discography, from the still fresh-sounding classic Change Of The Century (which has Charlie Haden on bass) to Volume 1 of At The Golden Circle, Stockholm (where the bass in played by David Izenzon) to Crisis (was it ever re-released?) to his "special guest" role on Howard Shore's soundtrack to Naked Lunch.

Keeping in mind that it's jazz we are talking about, I'd say Coleman's name to be well-known. An innovator whose innovations provoked heated controversy at a time when controversy over musical innovations was still a possibility, he has become part of the "classic elders" category, a musician about whom a newspaper will talk about provided the right occasion arises. But I'd say that his music is far from being "understood" (and the definition of "Harmolodic", though coined by Coleman himself, has ended up as being a smoke screen behind which one can hide one's lack of understanding of the music). Alas, as it has been written, the one started by Coleman is a "permanent revolution", which will never become part of the mainstream. Only scholars, then, are left to discuss Coleman's influence on the "Chicago School" of music-making, or the way his definitely original - and at the time, bitterly criticized - violin playing has revealed to be an important influence for some. While trendy magazines, well aware that it's always the unknown quantity that sells best, have put Coleman aside and chosen to champion Albert Ayler instead.

Recorded live in Germany in October 2005, Sound Grammar features the new quartet with two bass players. "Haden plus Izenzon", someone has suggested, and there's a pinch of truth in this, but reality is much more complex. Of the two bass players, the most familiar name is without a doubt Greg Cohen: sporting formidable technique, here Cohen has the role of a very fast, and quite swinging - sometimes, literally - pizzicato. I was not familiar with Tony Falanga, whose arco bass here is the real revelation: now counterpoint, now independent line, often full of pathos. And while the former has a deep, round sound, the latter has a drier tone, at times quite reminiscent of a cello. On alto sax and, briefly, on trumpet and violin, the leader is his usual fast and creative self, and his instrumental breath is (quite prodigiously, I'd say) dictated more by his musical logic than by his age. On drums, Denardo Coleman's approach is one that's functional to the music as a whole, with a dry propulsion on cymbals and an ultra dry and of fast release snare drum (with a metal shell, I'd say) which goes "t!" that give a touch of appropriate simplicity that makes it easier for one to understand the bigger picture. The CD is very well recorded, but I noticed that by adding a bit more volume and some more highs made it easier for me to appreciate the work of the two double basses.

First track Jordan could have been part of Change Of The Century, so typically Coleman-sounding with its jumpy, "start and stop" theme. Good saxophone solo, then Cohen in full swing, Falanga has a nice counterpoint, then some in(ter)dependent melodic lines, solos by Cohen and Falanga, the leader on a trumpet solo (surprising, at first sounding like Don Cherry!) introduced by a nice drum roll, then theme, end.

It was Francis Davis who noticed that the notes played by the double bass at the start of the following track Sleep Talking, and which later return as a part of the theme, quote the bassoon part of the introduction to The Rite Of Spring by Stravinsky. The closing part of the theme - a descending melodic figure - sees Falanga, Coleman and Cohen together for something that to me sounded very Mitchell-like. (Here we could start quite a critic discussion, mentioning the cover of a theme by Monteverdi recorded by The Art Ensemble Of Chicago on Les Stances Sophie, or the name of the track that, forty years ago, opened Sound, Roscoe Mitchell's first album, and which was titled... Ornette.) For me this is maybe the top of the album, it has a solemn and concentrated air. The work of the double basses is beautiful and lyrical, Falanga playing the melodic line under Cohen's solo. Funny to notice how the atmosphere at the time of Coleman re-entering the scene reminded me of another great Texan from Forth Worth, the late Julius Hemphill.

Not showing its age, Turnaround brings us back to the '59 album Tomorrow Is The Question: it's a blues with a "cool" theme where the solo is perfectly backed and enriched by the group. Matador has a highly joyous theme with overt latin echoes (and tasty counterpoint from the double basses). Nice "triple" solo, and nice echoes of flamenco which one can hear here and there.

Waiting For You has a nice lyrical intro by Falanga, a sad/bitter theme by Coleman (which reminded me a bit of Henry Threadgill) and a musical development that is melancholic, but not resigned. Funny ending, where the leader's decision to play the theme then and there seems to catch the other musicians by surprise. Call To Duty has a lot of swing, with the double basses going full speed, then trumpet again, then the alto.

Once Only is for this writer the other high point of the album: theme played by Falanga, backed by Cohen, then Coleman, who later introduces a faster, more latin-sounding, theme. Then it's back to the first theme, with Denardo's drums changing the mood, and a dense dialogue between the double basses.

Song X is probably the theme by Coleman that's today the most well-known, thanks to the version he recorded with Pat Metheny. Here we have a real train of a solo, always accelerating, and as soon as the violin (which starting from about 7' reminded me of a country fiddle) adds itself to the basses the effect is really great. Drum solo, theme, end.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007

CloudsandClocks.net | Jan. 7, 2007