By Martin Johnson Jan. 7, 2015
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.