Saturday, December 20, 2014
Ornette Coleman and New Vocabulary: Old friend; fresh context
Update, 5/30/15: News of the lawsuit regarding this album has now spread far and wide. Read the story so far and make up your own mind.
Update, 12/30/14: Read an exclusive interview with Jordan McLean and Amir Ziv on the making of New Vocabulary here, via the Time Out New York blog.
Black Messiah isn't the only surprise release from a major figure in American music this month. Ornette Coleman has a new record out. Yes, Ornette Coleman.
No, it's not an Event Album like 2006's fantastic, Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar. New Vocabulary, apparently the self-titled debut by a group of the same name, is a low-to-no-fanfare release on NYC label System Dialing Records. It features OC in a trio with System Dialing principals Jordan McLean (trumpet, the same instrument he plays in Antibalas, and electronics) and Amir Ziv (drums), augmented on some tracks by pianist Adam Holzman, McLean and Ziv's bandmates in the group Droid. Just to be clear, the tracks aren't exactly new; everything on the album was recorded in July of 2009. But as far as I can tell, the album just came out. You can order it right now in a variety of physical and digital formats. Yes, right now. I won't be offended if you simply click over there and stop reading right this minute.
New Vocabulary made, and is making, me think. An unsolicited package containing LP and CD copies of the record showed up at the Time Out office yesterday, along with a press sheet featuring quotes from, among others, actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom are also thanked on the record. (No idea what the connection is there.) I'd heard nothing about it beforehand, and judging by the response when I mentioned the album on Twitter, no other writers in my circle had either.
That's kind of cool, no? Like if Bob Dylan randomly turned up as a sideman on some local alt-folk group's Bandcamp demo. This is an odd situation any way you slice it. For many years, I've heard rumors of Ornette jamming with younger musicians, but we don't typically get to hear the fruits of it. And how often is it that the maestro appears on albums not released under his own name? I can think of only a small handful of instances like this: Jackie McLean's New and Old Gospel (on which OC plays trumpet); For the Love of Ornette, an under-the-radar 2010 release by Jamaladeen Tacuma; guest appearances onstage with the Grateful Dead and on record with Lou Reed, as well as the Naked Lunch soundtrack. I'm sure there are other examples that I'm not aware of. But I know enough to know that the release of New Vocabulary is a pretty special occurrence.
For one, because Ornette appears on the entire album. This is no cameo situation; it's an honest-to-God group effort, and OC is a full-fledged member. From what I can tell, the album is entirely improvised. It sounds like a pretty casual affair—the result of a few days spent jamming in the studio. At the end of the ninth track, "The Idea Has No Destiny" (a title that sounds like it could be plausibly be Ornette-derived, as do some of the others: "Baby Food," "Sound Chemistry," "Wife Life"), we hear Ornette say, "You know that wasn't the plan; there was no plan there." It's a good summation of the feeling of New Vocabulary as a whole. There's a certain aimlessness to the recording, a sense of turning on the tape and seeing what happens. When I first played the record, I found myself wishing for a greater sense of structure or direction. Now, on my third or so listen through, I'm relishing the meandering, almost casual character of the project.
What New Vocabulary sounds like to me is a portrait of a guest artist stepping into an established group's insular world. McLean, Ziv and Holzman clearly have an established M.O. as collaborators. Having sampled a bit of Droid and checked out their contributions on New Vocabulary, it seems to me that they're working in sort of a contemporary dub framework, not specifically reggae-oriented, but simply in reference to a philosophy of music-making that values atmospherics, vibe and the malleability of sound as much as melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. They're clearly engaging with elements of electronica and a sort of murky, aqueous funk. You could broadly call New Vocabulary a free-jazz record, but rather than a post-Coltrane soundspace, this group operates in a post-Miles one—touching on the more otherwordly reaches of Davis's late-’60s/early-’70s period ("He Loved Him Madly" comes to mind). I love, for example, the noirish strut of "Value and Knowledge." (Now that I think about it, to throw out another reference point: the overall character of the sound isn't that different from recent albums by Chicago Underground Duo.) There are tracks here that have a bit of a recognizably Ornette-ish feel—some of Ziv's beats, as on "Alphabet," seem to channel Denardo Coleman's jittery, irrepressible grooves, for example; and on "H2O," the drummer gets pretty damn Blackwell-ian—but there's no sense that OC's collaborators on New Vocabulary are making any effort to accommodate him in any obvious way. They're not imitating any OC context that we know—the tracks with Holzman, such as ominous, slow-burning closer "Gold Is God's Sex," really hint at something new, and not just because hearing Ornette with piano has been a relatively rare occurrence—and for that, they deserve serious kudos. It must be pretty difficult to approach your instrument with Ornette Coleman in the room and just play as you normally would.
When I mentioned New Vocabulary on Twitter yesterday, someone asked me, "How does Ornette sound?" He sounds like Ornette! And he sounds fantastic. There are a few moments here where he plays signature licks that any OC fan will recognize immediately with a knowing grin. (Examples: 1:40 in "Bleeding," and :17 in "H2O.") But he's not just going on autopilot during this session; not at all. He's embracing the context fully. He doesn't want to dominate; he wants to participate. It says something about Ornette's composure and confidence as an improviser that he doesn't seem disoriented in the slightest by his bandmates', well, vocabulary. Toward the end of "What's Hotter Than the Sun," the track breaks down into a kind of pure ambiance, with McLean's ghostly, glitchy electronically treated trumpet echoing into the distance. And there's Ornette's alto, dancing away, broadcasting OC's signature rambling, lifeloving joy, but also engaging in real time with the starkly abstract character of the soundworld taking shape around him. You hear a similar phenomenon on "Baby Food," where McLean and Ziv work with pure rumbling, burbling texture, suggesting only the faintest hint of form. And there's Ornette, playing. Fearlessly, yes, but not obliviously.
It's an attitude and an approach that reminds me of this past summer's Prospect Park event. And Ornette's willingness to embrace the moment on New Vocabulary makes the album essential for any OC fan. Is it a great record? That seems to me to be entirely beside the point. What it is, is a document—a very honest, straightforward, unfussy document—of Ornette and these other musicians getting to know each other musically. It isn't technically an Ornette album, per se, any more than it's a Jordan McLean album, an Amir Ziv album or an Adam Holzman album. New Vocabulary is a hang, a jam, a session, a snapshot, a document. It has no agenda, no compositional objective, and therefore, as an album, it demonstrates all the pros and cons of most fully improvised recordings. But if you're in the mood for it and you put it on, you'll hear interaction, engagement, celebration and the establishment of a very genuine group dynamic.
Will there ever be another New Vocabulary record? Will this group ever perform live? Both seem unlikely, but you never know. In lieu of any sequels, I'm glad we have this album. The more I listen to it, the more I appreciate its humility. It has no pretension of brilliance, of instant-classic-hood, and I hope that writers/listeners don't jump to ascribe those qualities to it simply because a giant like Ornette is involved. It's enough that it exists. No, New Vocabulary might not belong on an Ornette Coleman discographical short list, but in terms of a document of what it's like to be in the room with OC as he is now (or close to now), it's essential.
Ornette's sound is absolutely intact, and just as importantly, his ears and reflexes are intact. He's engaging, working as one third (or fourth) of a collective, and nothing more. He steps forward; he recedes; he offers what he can, which is that inimitable sound. And that inimitable way of embracing an improvisational flow. On New Vocabulary, you hear him taking sonic events as they come rather than stepping out in front of the group. There's real profundity in that, especially coming from a veteran of OC's stature.
To listen to New Vocabulary is to visit with an old friend in a totally unfamiliar setting and to realize anew how much you'd missed their company, how life-affirming their presence is, how much beauty there is in the simple sound of their voice and the character of their conversation, the way they view and interact with the world. It's good to see you, Ornette; I've loved your work for years, but I've never thought of you in quite this way.