For a moment in the mid-1990s, it looked as though Ornette Coleman, one of the visionaries of jazz, was entering a period of heightened activity-- no less than four albums were released in about 18 months and through his then-record label Harmolodic's partnership with Verve. Add to this several key reissues and it looked like a renaissance for Coleman-- but corporate mergers changed all this and the emphasis in jazz shifted from exploratory to "safe" and the seeming golden days of free jazz reissues and new Ornette Coleman albums came to a grinding halt.
A decade later, Coleman seems significantly more active, with a new band playing sporadic shows, including the one captured on "Sound Grammar", taken from a late 2005 show in Germany. For a luminary such as Coleman to release something new would alone be cause for celebration-- for that album to be fantastic (as this one is) makes it really special.
In case you're unfamiliar with Coleman-- Ornette Coleman, a Texas born alto saxophonist, stumbled upon something really new in jazz. A system by which the key and changes of the music become significantly less important, instead the moment of the music is what matters. This music, termed free jazz by the press and Harmolodics by Coleman, has propelled a career spanning nearly 50 years now, from the early classic quartet recordings to the electric free funk Coleman would later explore. His music is not for everyone-- it's lack of reliance of regular pattern can leave one hanging and his alto playing can often be rather angular, but Coleman in his own way is a natural extension of Charlie Parker and is being recognized for his accomplishments.
This particular recording features Coleman on alto, trumpet and violin (although he barely plays the latter two), his son Denardo on drums, and a pair of bassists-- Tony Falanga (who I'm unfortunately fairly unfamiliar with) and Greg Cohen (best known as the anchor for John Zorn's Masada). Ornette tends to blow over the top of the band, with Falanga running arco counter and Denardo and Cohen supplying both a rhythmic pulse and a free association with the melody voices. At times, one is reminded as much of Coleman's older material as Albert Ayler's bands with cello or violin, albeit with a somewhat "cleaner" sound. Coleman resurrects three classics for the performance-- "Song X" from the album of the same name from 1985, "Sleep Talking" from 1979's "Of Human Feelings", and "Turnaround" drawn from 1959's "Tomorrow is the Question". The remaining five pieces are new.
Like Coleman's best recordings, this one has that endless sense of ecstatic freedom to it-- racing figures ("Jordan"), deep grooves ("Call to Duty") and a bizarrely angular lyricism ("Waiting For You") filter throughout. The quartet's performance is tightly in sync-- it's hard to point out any one performer, although as a fan of Greg Cohen's, I can't help but marvel at his ability to lock in sync with a drummer while constantly being ready to respond to the solo voice-- his performances with Denardo are nothing short of staggering. Likewise Falanga has such an odd focus for a bassist in jazz, his arco performances throughout can be frantic and explosive ("Turnaround") or delicate and gentle (check his theme statement on "Once Only"). Coleman for his part sounds pretty much the same as he always does-- unique, visionary, and ahead of his time, even fifty years later.
This is an album that's going to appeal to fans, but like Coleman's best work, it's as welcome an introduction to his music as anything else. If you're new to him, this is a great start, but don't shy away from "The Shape of Jazz to Come" or "Dancing In Your Head" if you enjoy this. If you're an old hat, this one's right up your alley. Highly recommended.