Sound Grammar Music Review by Aaron Hayes

"Sound Grammar"Ornette Coleman


The irony of Ornette Coleman's music, as with any relatively avant-garde style, is that it can no longer be considered 'new.' A number of decades have past since improvisation left the bounds of tonal progression and strict form. Yet the person on the street (well, depends on which street you live on) would still consider Coleman to be 'on the edge.' Not that 'free jazz' has any clear definition, though if I had to teach some of my 14 year old students what people mean by free jazz, his new Sound Grammar might serve as one of my examples, and it might be an example some of them would appreciate. This album stands in a puzzling moment, both as the product of the front guard and as an opus in a murky tradition of heavily improvisational jazz we can tentatively call 'free,' and so it is hard for us to know what to expect from it. What criteria shall it meet? While this is a great recording, it would not be honest to say that it is groundbreaking in any way, or that it pushes things in the same manner that this saxophonist has pushed things in the past. In fact, in many ways it steps back in time, so to speak, a filling out of what has gone before.

Still, the fact that this music remains paradoxically 'classic' avant-garde jazz in no way brings any unity to the musical sounds brought together in this recording. Perhaps so as to annoy the dictionary-minded, but more likely as a fulfillment of Coleman's aesthetic, this album has such a wide variety of styles it plays through that it resists even to be called 'free' as if this were clear in itself. The first track, "Jordan," begins with some well-executed grand pauses which no doubt required some thinking through and rehearsing – thus so much for the 'lack of structure' part of the definition. In "Matador," the head consists of a light Latin dance motive with a very clear tonal center. Even as it avoids satisfactory definition (every musician's dream) from a stylistic point of view, the unique ensemble and the interactions among the performers gives it the coherence to be placed within the interesting history of recent jazz.

Sound Grammar is a well-edited recording of a 2005 concert held in Ludwigshafen, Germany, performed by a quartet made up of Coleman (pulling out his trumpet and violin for us at times), his son Denardo Coleman on drums, and two acoustic bassists, Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen. "Sound Grammar" is also the name of the recording label which Coleman organized, and, it seems, a general statement of Coleman's philosophy/methodology of music. While most of the charts on the disk are new, a couple of his older ones have been pulled out for the occasion. Peruse \anchor(href=""){} for more details.

In contrast to most of the somewhat mundane jazz recordings which come out nowadays, \work{Sound Grammar} is well deserving of its Grammy nomination. The work is refreshing, not in its novelty so much as in its musical achievement. It is a quartet of amazing musicians who find some great moments and play very well together. With that said, there is still something lacking in this concert. It has nothing to do with finding something new to accomplish, or with the quality of the charts and the solos, or the compositional efforts. Instead, the music loses its depth at times, leaving us with just normal Night Club sounding lines. Maybe this is unfair, but we expect from the greats like Coleman a certain deepening as time goes on. It is not satisfying to listen to what was new and exciting in the 20th century, merely for the sake of modernity. Many of the solos on this album could have just as well appeared in the 1980's (certainly, a few of the charts in fact did: see his 1985 "Song X"). In "Call to Duty" especially, Coleman's playing makes us ask if he is really pushing his own envelope enough – again, not in terms of newness and excitement, but in terms of the depth which we might expect at this later moment of his career. To be sure, he answers with a great deal of depth at times; there are many passages of truly profound music. Yet these serve, in some regard, only to give contrast to times when the music does not reach to that deeper level.

Another real weakness in the album is the box it comes in. Normally, we could skip over this aspect, but one bit of it is a little concerning. The recording is packaged in a somewhat trite collection of thoughts and words concerning language. 'A' for effort, I suppose. But people have for some time now thought about the nature of music and its universal, language-like characteristics. Insofar as I understand the theme, Coleman is attempting to present in the music an element of accessibility which arises from music's widely shared grammar-like organization. From time to time, the music seems like it is attempting to consciously address this issue. "Sleep Talking" begins with the basses playing open, meditative, clearly Asian-influenced music. Coupled with the background thoughts of the liner notes, this chart's meditative opening makes me think, "Everybody in the world plays music which people from other cultures can appreciate, so it must be the universal language. Hurray!" Granted, there is much to be said on this issue – and for the record "Sleep Talking" has much to offer in incredible music. Still, the momentary hints toward the theme of "grammar" are a little out of taste. The thematization is a mockery of what Coleman has no doubt thought much about, thoughts that have more depth than is presented here. Most of the music is not directly affected by the philosophical babbling on the jacket, however. And so we need not take this too seriously, except in those parts of the music when it is addressed, for its own loss.

But these are small criticisms, and they are criticisms which are perhaps inevitable when it comes to the contemporary consumption and production of jazz. Inherent in the jazz recording is the formaldehyde-like smell of preserving something which seems to want never to be heard again. Was every note meant to stand up to all these historical comparisons with Coleman's past career? Would it survive without some intellectual theme to unify it? No doubt this would have been an amazing performance to have experienced. Live is really the only way to properly feel the depth of this sort of improvisation. Of course, we all appreciate that jazz has been recorded for most of its explicit history. But the music on \work{Sound Grammar}, if any jazz does this, sort of groans as it is resurrected each time I turn it on. If this music had its way, only those sitting in the audience that night would have experienced its sounds, its explosions of musical energy set off by the interactions among the players. In this sense, I do not hear Coleman's lack of depth so much as the fatigue of a musical moment which knows it will never be given its proper rest. And, all those musico-linguistic reflections just serve to universalize the meaning of the music so as to make it look like some timeless classic, justifying the preservationist cardboard surrounding the plastic compact disk.

The music, however, understands its fate. The solos take up their historical roles, to be transcribed by students, critiqued by critics, and compared historically to what came before and what will come. The pieces, as musical unities, look back to the past few years of jazz and fill them out with a few more charts to be added to the canon, a few more exemplary solos, and a few new ideas which will be copied, worked with and integrated into the music of those who follow. In this spirit, a few particulars should be pointed out.

The most creative element worth a general note is the use of both Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga on bass. If you did not notice the liner notes showing this unique doubling beforehand, and if you did not catch this group play over the last couple years, by the middle of the first chart, "Jordan," you had to look. To be honest, I did not study the notes on my first listen through, and was unable to immediately name what I heard. I thought, momentarily, suspending my education in music, that Coleman was playing the saxophone and the violin at the same time. Could he do that? As the bass line continued walking below, something else was creeping up into the upper atmosphere of the chart. Only when it became so contrapuntally complicated that it had to be two performers, did I, coming to my senses, conclude it was another voice. I had to look to find out what the sounds were coming from, though. "Turnaround" especially contains extensive dialogue between saxophone and crazy-bass, although really throughout the album, the group maximized the textural and melodic possibilities which became available in this ensemble.

Surprising in this recording is the beauty of the lyricism found in many of the slower charts. Having melodic material which is somewhat soothing or subdued, with sharply contrasting sections of more caustic material seems to be a trend with some recent artists. It is not so much that jazz has mellowed out after its Coltrane withdrawals. More than that, Coleman has been able to develop that very subtle dimension in music, the interesting combination of tone color, melody, and harmony which define a number of micro-styles within a single improvisation. The solos change moods in a minute what classical music took 100 years to accomplish, and back again. "Sleep Talking," "Waiting for You," and "Once Only" are compositions which find a new and much needed balance between 'pleasant' sounding, consonant material (lines probably very accessible to those not quite fully appreciative of this area of music) on one hand, and on the other, the very pressing and stressful tonalities, tone color, and rhythmic variation which marks Coleman's sound. "Once Only" captures well the notion of balance, playing the very fast bass line under the slow melodic duet of bass and saxophone.

Sound Grammar contains some great genius at play. The playground has not changed much, it seems, but those who remain inside have found some new games. No longer committed to the hard-edged sounds of the past century exclusively, Coleman opens up his palette now with this unique ensemble, and it was a good thing, in the end, that it was recorded.