Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar)

Ornette Coleman

Released September 12, 2006

Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group 2007

DownBeat Album of the Year Critics Poll

Pulitzer Prize for Music 2007



Music, the old saying goes, is a universal language. For saxophonist Ornette Coleman, that statement isn’t merely a tired adage; it’s both a fact of life and a call to action. Trying to unfold the details is not without a gentle irony: To spend an hour in conversation with the once-and-future jazz revolutionary—whose first new album in a decade, Sound Grammar, comes out this week—is to be plunged into a sometimes dizzying stream of musical theorems and philosophical asides. Seated on a sofa in his spacious, airy midtown loft one recent afternoon, the Texas-born icon, 76, turns the tables on his interrogator. “What is sound?” he queries.

Like a too eager novice attempting to earn a guru’s inscrutable smile, I overreach: Sound is what’s inside a person’s mind and heart made manifest, so that the rest of the world can perceive and partake of it.

“Okay, well, that’s not too bad,” Coleman responds generously. He illustrates what he’d had in mind with an elliptical anecdote. “You go to a psychiatrist and you say, ‘I’m going crazy.’ He’d say, ‘Sit there and tell me your problems,’ ” Coleman explains. But in his legendary 1973 encounter with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco, he’d witnessed an alternative approach. “There was a lady and she was just really gone. Then they started playing and she started smiling, and all of a sudden, she was back to normal. Ever since then, I’ve been aware that sound is the most healing quality of anything in human culture.”

Less than ten minutes of Coleman’s fabled Moroccan jam session have ever been issued. Perched on a nearby stool, James Jordan, the artist’s manager and cousin, reveals that those storied tapes are among the top priorities for release on Coleman’s own new label, also called Sound Grammar. Other vintage goodies may be in the offing as well, but the first order of business was to document Coleman’s current working quartet.

That group, which features bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen and drummer Denardo Coleman, the leader’s son, has emerged as one of Coleman’s strongest units in the space of just a few years. On Sound Grammar, Falanga counters the leader’s always-generous melodies, bowing songful lines and fluttering trills. Cohen, meanwhile, keeps time with the woody thumps and thwacks of a player well versed in trad-jazz idioms, as well as the sharp reflexes honed as a longtime sideman to the mercurial John Zorn. Denardo, who has performed in his father’s bands since he was ten, powers the music’s inexorable flow.

When Coleman played Carnegie Hall during June’s JVC Jazz Festival, he somehow managed to integrate bass guitarist Al McDowell, formerly of his electric group Prime Time, into the quartet without unbalancing its potent chemistry. More surprising were the roars of approval in response to Coleman’s idiosyncratic, untutored violin playing, which sparked derision when he picked up the instrument in the late ’60s. What that audience was responding to, Coleman suggests, was a quality in his playing that transcended mere technique. “You see something that you know you can identify with, ’cause maybe you could do that,” he offers. “I personally prefer writing or playing something that also has a human meaning to it. I’m not just saying, ‘Look what I can do.’ Maybe someone’s sad about something, and then he hears something that tells him it’s not all like that in the sound. That, to me, is really human. And all a human being can do is help his brother and sister.” That attempt to forge an emotional connection with the listener is perhaps the noblest aspect of Coleman’s ongoing quest. It also extends to the artists with whom he collaborates, whether it be on New York’s most prestigious stage or in a dusty Moroccan village. “I would like to include every race that I know, to get in there and play with them,” he explains. “I could say, ‘You could be in the key of Z, whatever key you want to be in. Don’t worry, you do it, and I’ll just see what I can do.’”

Steve Smith (TimeOut)

Track Listing:

1. Intro (Ornette Coleman) 1:15

2. Jordan (Ornette Coleman) 6:32

3. Sleep Talking (Ornette Coleman) 8:55

4. Turnaround (Ornette Coleman) 4:07

5. Matador (Ornette Coleman) 5:57

6. Waiting for You (Ornette Coleman) 6:50

7. Call to Duty (Ornette Coleman) 5:34

8. Once Only (Ornette Coleman) 9:41

9. Song X (Ornette Coleman) 10:22


Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone, violin, trumpet

Denardo Coleman: drums

Gregory Cohen: bass

Tony Falanga: bass

Recorded on 14 October 2005 in Ludwigshafen, Germany

Executive-Producer: Michaela Deiss, Ornette Coleman

Producer: James Jordan

Recording engineer: Chris Agovino

Mixing: Greg Mann

Mastering: Ted Jensen

Graphic Design: Dominic Tackenberg


In the beginning of free jazz, there was Ornette Coleman. Actually, the alto saxophonist was the beginning of free jazz. His 1959 Atlantic recording The Shape of Jazz to Come followed on the heels of a couple of innovative smaller label outings that didn’t make a splash at the time. Many musicians have followed Coleman down the path of freedom, but none have equaled him.
Sound Grammar is his first CD release in ten years. His last studio efforts, the simultaneously released Sound Museum and Four Women (Verve, ’96), featuring overlapping tracks, were, to my ears, the high points of an already legendary career. He’s surpassed even those stellar outings with this release.
Over a nearly forty-year career, Coleman has recorded with various configurations, from duos all the way to symphony orchestras. Sound Grammar, a live set recorded in Germany in October 2005, features a quartet with his son Denardo on drums and two bassists—Gregory Cohen (picking); and Tony Falanga (bowing). The two-bass dynamic creates a texture that feels viscous and frictional at the same time, a perfect backdrop for the saxophonist’s piercingly resonant tone, which finds the “sound of expressed reality.”

On listening to past recordings, Sound Grammar comes closest in tone to Coleman’s two masterful volumes of At the “Golden Circle” Stockholm. Those 1966 Blue Note trio recordings were also live dates, placing the leader alongside drummer Charles Moffett and bassist David Izenzon. The “Golden Circle” sound glowed with the rare energy and electricity of an artist in full swing, a true American original, unfettered by expectations or outside influences. Remarkably, Sound Grammar surpasses those youthful efforts. The intensity level of his earlier work is undiminished on Sound Grammar; the band is “as one,” and Ornette blows with a transcendent luminescent soulfullness.

The disc features six vibrant new tunes, along with interpretations of “Song X” (from his 1985 album of the same name with Pat Metheny) and “Turnaround” (from the classic 1959 album Tomorrow is the Question). Hit the play button. Ornette wails. It’s an unmistakable sound: every human joy and heartache—and every emotion in between—blowing out of an alto saxophone.

Dan McClenaghan (AllAboutJazz)