NPR logo

Ornette Coleman Returns With His Unmistakable Sound

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/387772281/387780501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Ornette Coleman Returns With His Unmistakable Sound

Music Reviews

Ornette Coleman Returns With His Unmistakable Sound

Ornette Coleman Returns With His Unmistakable Sound

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/387772281/387780501" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Jazz saxophonist Coleman, who is almost 85, rarely makes records any more. In New Vocabulary, he joins up trumpet and drums — and peppers his solos with his signature catchy and earthy pet phrases.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The great jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman is now 80 and rarely makes records anymore. His last album, "Sound Grammar," won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007. Now, with no fanfare, comes a new indie release recorded in 2009 that finds Coleman in unfamiliar company. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has the story and review.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly states that Ornette Coleman is 80. He is in fact 84.]

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY FOOD")

ORNETTE COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In a way, "New Vocabulary" is like no other Ornette Coleman record, with its singular lineup of alto saxophone, trumpet and drums, with the trumpeter doubling on electronics. In another way, it's like every Ornette record because his sound is unmistakable. As always, Coleman peppers his solos with pet phrases as catchy as a children's song or earthy as a field holler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY FOOD")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

WHITEHEAD: Ornette's early hero Charlie Parker had his favorite licks too, and his example taught Coleman to write tunes that sound like the way he plays. Then those written figures seep back into the improvising in an endless loop. Coleman's lines on "New Vocabulary" echo tunes from all over his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLEEDING")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

WHITEHEAD: This music has a back story. In 2008, Ornette Coleman had met trumpeter Jordan McLean of the Brooklyn Afro funk band Antibalas. They started jamming and they liked it even more when McLean brought along drummer Amir Ziv. Over a period months, their jams turned into rehearsals as pieces began to take shape out of their improvising. They recorded for three days in 2009, sometimes adding pianist Adam Holzman as a wild card. Then, McLean and Ziv did the editing and mixing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VALUE AND KNOWLEDGE")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

ADAM HOLZMAN: (Playing piano).

JORDAN MCLEAN: (Playing trumpet, electronics).

AMIR ZIV: (Playing drums).

WHITEHEAD: Ornette Coleman usually records with members of his own circle, in settings where he has greater control. "New Vocabulary" takes him into a different sonic space. It's very much a cooperative project, but McLean and Ziv are generous in setting Coleman up to do what he does best. They drape backdrops behind him, but also give him plenty to respond to. It's a tricky balance, to interact without interrupting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "H20")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

MCLEAN: (Playing trumpet, electronics).

ZIV: (Playing drums).

WHITEHEAD: I like this scrappy music quite a bit. Trumpeter McLean fine-tunes the textures, using electronics like a flexible paint brush. Drummer Ziv often goes easy on the cymbals for a dry, low-to-the-ground sound, leaving the higher ranges to the horns. Sometimes they're tight, but they can give each other so much room, they'll seem to operate independently without clashing. The music is open but keeps moving, and Ornette and company aren't afraid to cut things short - tracks average around three or four minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S HOTTER THAN THE SUN")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

MCLEAN: (Playing trumpet, electronics).

ZIV: (Playing drums).

WHITEHEAD: Fluid structures and quirky instrumentation give "New Vocabulary" an elusive, lightning-in-a-bottle quality. The trio feels less like a band than a temporary alliance. Jordan McLean and Amir Ziv still hang with Ornette Coleman sometimes, but nowadays, they're more apt to play pool. As always, when tangling with Ornette, they've got to bring their A-game.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUND CHEMISTRY")

COLEMAN: (Playing alto saxophone).

HOLZMAN: (Playing piano).

MCLEAN: (Playing trumpet, electronics).

ZIV: (Playing drums).

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Ornette Coleman's new album, "New Vocabulary." Coming up we remember singer Lesley Gore, who died Monday. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Correction Feb. 20, 2015

Previous audio and Web introductions to this story incorrectly said that Ornette Coleman was 80. He is in fact 84.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.