Ornette Coleman – alto saxophone
Jordan McLean – trumpet & electronics
Amir Ziv – drums
Special appearance by Adam Holzman – piano
Where the idea meets its destiny
A new collaboration by
Ornette Coleman – Alto Saxophone
Jordan McLean – Trumpet & Electronics
Amir Ziv – Drums
Adam Holzman – Piano *
Mixed by Marc Urselli, Abe Seiferth (1, 10), and Amir Ziv (11)
Mastered by Dietrich Schoenemann
Additional engineering by Jonathan Jetter
Artwork by Michelle Bothe
Produced by Jordan McLean & Amir Ziv
Special thanks to:
Bill T. Jones, Reggie Workman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joel Segel, Jac Holzman, Martin Mueller, Peter Sarsgaard, Kenwood Dennard, Bill Kirchner, Jonathan Jetter, Easy Partners, Shelly Joy, David Read, Laurel Angrist, Angelina Mike, Justin Stern, Peter Strunsky, and Gadi Shorr.
"New Vocabulary is a valuable addition to Ornette Coleman’s extraordinary discography. "
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.
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.
"New Vocabulary is a real treat."
A couple weeks back, an unassuming-looking LP showed up at the Time Out New York office. The cover featured a simple black-and-gold design and the title New Vocabulary. When I flipped the album over, my intrigue level shot way up. One of the participants was none other than Ornette Coleman, the 84-year-old alto-saxophonist, jazz innovator, pan-cultural NYC-via–Fort Worth icon and star/honoree of a blockbuster Celebrate Brooklyn! tribute show this past June. (Turns out D’Angelo wasn’t the only major artist planning a surprise holiday-season album drop.) Though the record is brand new, the music that appears on it—teaming Coleman with trumpeter Jordan McLean, also of Antibalas and the Fela! musical, drummer Amir Ziv and pianist Adam Holzman—dates from 2009. Still, given that Coleman issues albums infrequently and typically with great fanfare (his last record was 2006’s Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar), any freshly released material under his name deserves a serious look.
Novelty factor aside, it turns out that New Vocabulary is a real treat, a chance to hear Coleman’s signature alto swoop and dance in an unfamiliar context, a freeform musical zone informed by funk, dub and electronica. After I blogged about the album, McLean and Ziv—co-owners of System Dialing Records, which released New Vocabulary—reached out to say thanks and offered to provide background info on this surprise release. Here, we present McLean and Ziv’s first Q&A on the experience of working with Ornette Coleman on New Vocabulary. (You’ll also read about why the album’s thank-you list includes actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.)
How did you get to know Ornette?
OC (as we call him) was in attendance at a performance of the Off Broadway production of Fela! (for which Jordan McLean was trumpeter and associate music director). After the show he invited Jordan to come by his place sometime. Over the course of weeks, the bricks of friendship were laid through music and conversation. Amir Ziv joined the hang soon after and the cycle continued.
How this particular project came about?
Through time spent in one another’s good company. We played with OC in his home a handful of times while there were various other guests and musicians present. Shortly after, OC started asking us to stay on and not leave while whoever else was there would conclude their visit. Once the place was cleared, we would get back to playing. When these trio sessions started happening, the music got intense and focused quickly, in conjunction with our conversations about the music and life going to the next level as well. What started as what you might call a “jam” turned into full-fledged rehearsals.
What were your goals for the sessions, and how did they actually progress? Was everything fully improvised, or was there discussion re: structure, time frame, mood, etc.? Did you have any touchstones for how you wanted the New Vocabulary album to sound (or not sound)?
Touchstones, no. Just a continuation of the good-humored closeness we were experiencing in the time spent listening to and discoursing with OC. Our goals for the session were to capture the sound of the band and of the possibilities inherent in the kind of communication we developed. We worked for long periods of time on specific modes of sonic communication, on particular types of intensity and variations of sonic counterpoints. The process was back and forth, playing and talking. Sometimes the various musical ideas instantaneously clicked, in which case over the course of days, weeks, months we would build on them. At other times, things would not magically jell together, in which case we would stop playing and discuss deeply related cosmic topics, and then try those ideas again—sometimes they would fall into their natural compositional place, and if not, at that point we would usually discard those ideas and not return to them.
When our dedicated trio rehearsals got on their way and we were in a groove, we started recording them on MiniDiscs. We would then sit together, all of us, and listen back. This really helped highlight what pieces and parts all of us were excited about and what parts would ultimately be destined for the scrap heap. On the more technical side, at the time we were in the process of configuring new studio components, able to record digitally at extremely high sample rates. OC was very interested in these new sounds and recording possibilities, which ultimately led to what types of gear were used to record the album. After our tracking days (which at this point included [pianist] Adam Holzman), we went through the process of mixing the songs and going back with them to OC again to listen together. This went on until all thumbs were up.
What can you tell us about working with Ornette? The way he fits into the context of the group is really impressive. What did it feel like to improvise with such a legendary figure (whose work I’m sure you all knew extremely well)?
We were so at ease making music with him because he can set a person free (“of the tonic?” he would ask) just by being himself, and with the generous nature of his whole being. He would often call us “twins” (a word he will use to relate to something one might say, or a trait you might have in common).
The term “improvise” becomes a bit confusing here, because even though we never played the same idea exactly the same twice, the pieces on this album have all been worked on for months prior to the final tracking, so while one set of ears might hear it as all purely improvised, another set might hear it as through-composed.
Are you still in touch with Ornette? Are future recordings or performances by this group a possibility?
Though it can be a challenge to stay connected, every time we do see one another, it is a fast dialing into the frequencies we share. As for the future, the idea has no destiny.
I noticed that Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal contributed to the press release and are thanked on the LP. I’m curious about their involvement—are they just friends of yours/Ornette’s, or did they have some hands-on role in New Vocabulary?
We have been friends with them for years and they love Ornette’s music (DROID [which features McLean, Ziv and Holzman] was probably Peter’s favorite band for a while there). Thanking them and including their thoughts on the music in our press release is recognition of the moral support they have loaned us through everything. This is the case with all of the other folks mentioned in our thank yous and who have contributed various press quotes. None of them is more or less important than the other.
"The trio of musicians, occasionally augmented by pianist Adam Holzman, function as if they’ve been playing together for years."
Even as he nears 85 years of age, there remains an unshakable method to Ornette Coleman’s particular brand of madness.
The Fort Worth-born jazz legend never approaches anything in life from a conventional angle, electing to take his time and peel away the layers at his own pace.
Either get on board and acquiesce to his process, or stand aside, mystified by the seeming inability to really connect with the mind behind harmolodics.
For Jordan McLean, composer, arranger and trumpeter for Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas, a chance meeting with Coleman would, unexpectedly, yield the saxophone-wielding iconoclast’s first studio recording in nearly 20 years.
McLean, along with his longtime collaborator, drummer Amir Ziv, helps form the core of New Vocabulary, released with little fanfare in December on McLean and Ziv’s label, System Dialing Records.
It’s a remarkably vibrant, concise recording, featuring sparkling interplay between McLean’s trumpet, Ziv’s drums and Coleman’s horn.
The trio of musicians, occasionally augmented by pianist Adam Holzman, function as if they’ve been playing together for years.
That sense of connection was fostered not through intensive studio sessions, forging familiarity in the crucible of creativity, but rather over many months of conversations and jam sessions at Coleman’s Manhattan apartment.
McLean and Coleman first crossed paths when Coleman attended a performance of Fela!during its off-Broadway run in 2008. (McLean was the associate music director for the show.)
“It was weeks, if not months, of just hanging out, socializing, jamming,” McLean says by phone from New York. “It was an evolution in the way of a friendship. For me, a totally surreal, intergenerational friendship with someone whose music I’d studied pretty closely for 20 years [and who] turned out to be one of the sweetest human beings you’d ever want to meet and talk to.”
The 40-year-old McLean says those early visits to Coleman’s home gave him deeper insight into the man and, just as importantly, the music he has made over the course of a nearly 60-year career.
“It really did shed a lot of light on his creativity,” McLean says. “Unless you spend some time hanging out with the guy, there’s not any way to really appreciate and understand what a good sense of humor he has and what a genuinely demure and clever and hospitable person he is.
“There’s so many layers to the way his mind works. There’s very, very conventional Southern hospitality in there, and the most far-reaching, esoteric way a human brain can work with Ornette.”
Other musicians would be around when McLean was visiting — “There would be people I’ve never seen before or since,” he says — but it wasn’t until McLean showed up with Amir Ziv, in the summer of 2009, that something clicked.
“Amir and I have been playing music together for many years,” McLean says. “I brought Amir by [Ornette’s home] and the chemistry was pretty instantaneous. We carved out the time to make enough return visits — that just seemed like the natural thing to do. The sound of the three of us had very organically come across, and [we wanted] to make a more lasting document of it.”
New Vocabulary snapped into focus quickly — the 12-track, 42-minute record was knocked out in three days in July 2009 — but would remain shelved until early December 2014, when it was released in digital and physical formats by System Dialing Records.
When asked about the five-year gap between recording and release, McLean says simply, “We wanted to do it right, and so many other factors are in play in our lives. It wasn’t possible until now. I’m a firm believer that something, especially music, is new until it comes out.”
Coleman was not available for an interview, so divining precisely what he saw in McLean and Ziv isn’t possible. Whatever it was, Coleman clearly seized upon what McLean describes as “a sound that is fundamentally compositional, but in practice, is improvisational,” as succinct a summary as any of the music Coleman has built his idiosyncratic career upon.
“I can tell you, it’s been really touching to hear such … positive critical and listener responses,” McLean says. “People are happy to hear the music, and happy to hear him, how he sounds at age 80, at the time — to hear such an intimate portrait of it.”
"Lightning in a bottle"
Click here to listen to Kevin Whitehead’s review of New Vocabulary on NPR’s Fresh Air.
"Free jazz never sounded better in 2015."
Ornette Coleman’s voice on the sax has become an invaluable component of American music and it’s with the passing of time that his output has slowed down considerably in the 21st century. With a work résumé that has created its own portal of culture since the 1950s, it’s fascinating to hear Ornette shine so vibrantly with the free jazz unit New Vocabulary and their brand new self-titled LP on System Dialing Records. Comprised of Jordan McLean on both trumpet and electronics, Amir Ziv behind the kit and Ornette Coleman on his alto sax, pianist Adam Holzman also contributes to a handful of pieces. There is a very cohesive connection within the groups improvisational state and the minimal configuration of layers allows for deep analysis in everything projecting from the speakers.
The mixing on the record is superb as well, adding a level of depth in each instrument that extends waves of energy and fire. The piano thunders, the drums smash away concrete, the horns and sax lines glare far into the horizon and the electronics weave through the maze like harmonies with an exotic glare. It’s stunning to hear avant-garde music captured at this standard in engineering with credits on that side going to Dietrich Schoenemann and Jonathan Jetter. System Dialing Records recognized the importance of how this album resonates in its true analog form and has offered the record on audiophile grade vinyl and an arrangement of hi-fidelity digital formats (M4A, WAV, FLAC, 192/24 Bit). One listen to the albums mixing depth and there’s no question that engineering of this order enhances the experience greatly.
Amir Ziv is an exceptional drummer, able to pop in and out of the pocket with a dynamic and fluid response system. His technical abilities are beyond and it’s incredible to hear such soul and dynamics in a player of such talent. Jordan McLean is of the same talent caliber, layering down the electronic elements that make the music stretch into the most abstract regions. Adam Holzman has a vortex like approach to his note schemes, adding the avant-garde expression in the acoustic realm while Ornette’s passionate blues and free jazz lines take center stage. There’s a beautiful darkness to the whole that is taken to apexes within every song by Ornette’s mantra’s and Jordan’s abstract trumpet around it. I was hesitant when diving into the record as you never know what you are going to get from a legend who is beyond the point of needing to prove anything. He’s always seemed like the type of artist that creates for much higher reasons of spiritual worth though and this has that resonance and importance written all over it. Free jazz never sounded better in 2015 and it feels good to get church service in with the New Vocabulary.
"New Vocabulary possesses an old soul and more than a touch of genius."
Raul da Gama
There can be no more apposite a name for a recording starring Ornette Coleman thanNew Vocabulary. The collection of pieces featuring the alto saxophonist—and including trumpeter and electronics wizard, Jordan McLean and the extraordinary drummer Amir Ziv, as well as Pianist Adam Holzman (on three tracks)—is generally sharp and relatively brief. And it is often informed by Mr. Coleman’s glimmering cascades of notes and blistering arpeggios, sometimes agogic in nature. The way the album is structured with interlinking melodies, it seems like a ten-movement long song elegantly aphoristic in nature. No writing credits appear on the music that was sent to me so I assume that the album is a shared writing adventure—partly programmatic and largely improvised. The string of pearls begins with “Baby Food” opens the disc.
This leads into “Sound Chemistry” that dips into a harmolodic book of etudes which features a crisp, hard-hitting interpretation of the melody melded into a suaver dispatching of the melody. Mr. Coleman builds “Alphabet” from a sustained bass-line upwards and makes a compelling case as any for the composers’ other pieces; listen to Mr. Coleman’s marvellous differentiation between the broad glissandos and the steady staccato yammering of Mr. McLean’s lines which then enter into an interminable dance through “Bleeding” that follows. It is from here on that pieces assume a narrative-like character and piece together their storylines through a more incisive reading of the material, some measures played considerable faster than others.
Amir Ziv brings such feather lightness and rhythmic sparkle to “Wife Life” and “Gold Is God’s Sex” that it is easy to forget his idiomatic phrasing and accentuation of the folk-based melodies. Of the two, “Wife Life” is dry and wittier as opposed to that latter song for its deeper soulfulness. I also like “Value And Knowledge” which I fine painfully sparse and beautiful. Perhaps I respond to it thus because I am forever smitten by Mr. Coleman’s late pieces with their subtler dynamics. It also excites because its grey, austere nature is so different from what you might expect to hear from a piece containing words like “gold” and “sex” in it. This is the last and longest piece in the 10-part sequence and this kind of austerity smacks of Mr. Coleman’s later work. Its translucent flashes that are heard in the ascents of harmolodic flashes make for dynamic onrushing inner movements in the piece.
There is extremely detailed integrity in the music of New Vocabulary. Clipped phrasing and tumbling keening combine with astute voice-leading and lend interest and profile to the more narrative songs. Each boasts unusual dynamics and accurate articulation. Alto saxophone and trumpet becomes fuller-bodied with markedly more shapely delineation of harmolodic elements and rhythm. In faster, more skittish passages Mr. Coleman sounds exquisitely impish, yet full bodied and shapely. He lures Jordan McLean’s trumpet into double-helix-like, balletic manoeuvers. Each of the members of this spare ensemble maintains consistent contextual clarity once they get into the more chorale-like tunes. Brisk tempos and adventurous harmolodic patters ensue. Such gossamer-like musical filigrees are utterly disarming and cut to the quick yet retain resonance and definition. In short New Vocabulary possesses an old soul and more than a touch of genius.
"At no point does the music lose its focus."
New Vocabulary New Vocabulary
(2014, System Dialing Records)
A new album with Ornette Coleman is big news. Recorded in 2009, New Vocabulary is billed as a “collective collaboration” between three extraordinary artists (and one guest). The album consists of 12 individual tracks, but the music flows like an extended suite; each track feels like a movement in a larger work.
Joining Coleman are trumpeter Jordan McLean, who also provides electronic effects, and drummer / label co-founder / Upstate New Yorker Amir Ziv. Pianist Adam Holzman appears on “Sound Chemistry”, “Value and Knowledge” and “Gold is God’s Sex.” Ornette Coleman’s fire is undiminished by age. McLean’s trumpet arcs through the background as his electronics create a hazy atmosphere through which Coleman slices with his saxophone. Ziv gives the album its pulse while remaining rhythmically elastic.
When the three men simultaneously improvise, the effect is exhilerating. At no point does the music lose its focus. Coleman makes the center hold. When Adam Holzman’s piano is added, the music changes texture but remains fundamentally consistent with the album as a whole. It’s no accident that Holzman appears at what would be the closing tracks on each side of an LP. His presence augments the trio, helping them achieve apotheosis at the album’s midpoint and end. At the same time, the final track, “Gold Is God’s Sex,” ends with a literal unresolved note, suggesting that the music could loop back around, much like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. New Vocabulary is fascinating and adventurous and well worth the listen.
"Everyone should listen to this."
Bill T. Jones
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