Monday, January 22, 2007


Ornette Coleman (Jazz)
LP: Sound Grammar (2006)

The first CD I purchased this year was Ornette Coleman’s astounding and magnificent Sound Grammar.

I’ve always responded to the cool and meditative feel which Coleman effected in his early masterpieces The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1960). Visionary and controversial, those early classics blew apart the chordal constraints of jazz - of be-bop itself - and classics like Lonely Woman and Congeniality still sound fresh today.

By omitting chordal instruments like piano from the group set-up, Coleman created ‘harmolodics’, an approach conferring harmonic freedom on all soloists. Trumpeter Don Cherry explained that “essentially you improvise on the melody rather than the chordal structure", and that "you solo pretty well all of the time but keep out of everyone else's way". Hmmm. Almost sounds like an ideal for living: involvement, co-operation and respect.

Coleman’s ground-breaking 60s band - Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and my favorite drummer Billy Higgins - became avatars of the avant-jazz movement, and their work had a decisive influence upon jazz musicians, including Miles Davis (who was initially dismissive but later respectful of Coleman's innovations).

So first there was ‘free jazz’, then 'harmolodics' and now 'sound grammar', where in Coleman’s words, “The people can't hear nothing you're doing, but they feel everything that you're playing. Do you know what I'm saying?"

Yessir, I believe I do.

But though I’m a confirmed Ornette Coleman fan, nothing could have prepared me for Sound Grammar. And let me tell you why: to put it simply, this is one of the greatest live jazz records I’ve heard.

Recorded live in Germany, Sound Grammar features sax, drums, and two basses (one plucked and one bowed). The material is mostly new, though there is a certain familiar feel to some of the tunes, especially in the way they recall the classic At the Golden Circle in Stockholm recordings from the mid-60s.

After a respectful spoken intro, the band are off to the races with the exciting and unpredictable romp Jordan, in which Coleman’s sax soars over a stunning rhythmic backdrop led by Gregory Cohen's manic bass. Following that, the modal blues Sleep Talking is nothing short of astonishing, and there are strangely familiar cadences from Coleman’s classic free jazz period - echoes of Lonely Woman - as Tony Falanga’s bowed bass unerringly shadows Coleman’s sax lines.

Matador starts out as a kind of deconstructed cha-cha-cha before transmogrifying into – well, I don’t quite know what it is – I can only say that it is something utterly beautiful and free, and judging by the awestruck applause which follows each solo, I’d say the audience who were privileged to be present at this concert felt the same way.

And it just keeps getting better. During the astonishing Call to Duty I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It sounds like time itself has been reshaped. Coleman’s quantum physics approach to melody and improvisation is simply stunning and, in what is definitively a group performance, the way the band miraculously leaves room for the tune to breathe defines Don Cherry's summation of the free jazz credo.

What’s exciting about this set is that, from measure to awe-inspiring measure, you never know what’s coming next, there’s such an audacious range of styles on display. The loping Turnaround is pretty much a straightahead (for Coleman, that is) blues, while Once Only is a stately, slowly unfolding meditation. As if that weren't enough, the closing track Song X presents magnificent wig-out free-form jazz which had me jumping out of my chair with excitement. All human emotion - joy, heartache and everything inbetween - seems to be contained here.

If there’s one beef I have with the album it’s that the drums are placed waaay back in the mix. Shame, because drummer Denardo Coleman (Ornette’s son) is a deliriously funky and inventive musician. Oh yeah, I have a second complaint: after immersing myself in Sound Grammar for two weeks there's nothing else I want to hear. No other LP in my record collection can keep up with this level of excitement and instrumental genius.

After rewriting the rules of jazz three times it’s amazing and immensely gratifying that, at 77 years of age, Ornette Coleman is still around, as out there, yet as in there, as any musician can be. The Shape of Jazz to Come, Free Jazz and other landmark Coleman recordings will always be definitive, but to my ears, he may have surpassed even those masterpieces here.

As Wynton Marsalis explains, Jazz is about freedom and negotiation: freedom of ideas, negotiation with one’s fellow beings. Both of those qualities are in plentiful supply here, and the beauty on Sound Grammar is like nothing you’ve heard. Intense, incandescent and transcendently soulful, Sound Grammar provides evidence – if indeed any were needed – of Ornette Coleman’s pre-eminence and critical significance not only to jazz, but to modern music as a whole.


kazami said...

You might enjoy the following link:

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Thanks Kazami! It's great to have your feedback.

Romperstomper said...

Wow! I'm not really a jazz fan, but after reading your review I might have to check it out. Your best piece yet. Good work Shiffi!

Peter said...

You sold me, man. Amazing review. Now I want to hear this record.

kazami said...

I have just bought a copy as a present for my boyfriend who really likes Coleman...

Shiffi Le Soy said...

Hi Kazami-san,

If your boyfriend is an Ornette Coleman fan, I am sure he will not be disappointed!

Thank you!

kazami said...

If you had a player in this blog,we could hear some of it...
I had to go to Amazon and listen to the soundclips!
Sound Grammar

Shiffi Le Soy said...

It's a great idea Kazami! Maybe you could remind me how to do that, and what are the legal aspects?

fanny and aleczander said...

Dear Mr Shiffi Le Soy,
We checked out your blog on the advice of a friend, and we have to say it makes for good reading. As jazz fans we agreed that your account of Sound Grammar hits the mark, and any Marilyn Manson fan is a friend of ours. This seems to be a new blog, so we hope you'll continue to produce writing of this quality.

Markus said...

I am very familar with this recording, and I must say this is an EXCELLENT review. Very impressive. Couldn't agree more with your description of this modern jazz classic.

Joaquin said...

Definitive review. Well done.