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A new Ornette Coleman album?! Our exclusive Q&A

Written by
Hank Shteamer

Update (May 28, 2015): System Dialing Records has issued a response denying Ornette Coleman's allegations:

"New Vocabulary is a collaborative, joint work by professional musicians Jordan Mclean, Amir Ziv, and Ornette Coleman, made with the willing involvement of each artist. The album is the end result of multiple deliberate and dedicated recording sessions done with the willing participation and consent of Mr. Coleman and the other performers. Any suggestion to the contrary is unfounded and we deny any allegations of wrongdoing. For any further comment, we refer you to our attorney Justin S. Stern at Frigon Maher & Stern LLP."

Update (May 27, 2015): Ornette Coleman has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that System Dialing Records released the music heard on New Vocabulary without his knowledge or consent.


A couple weeks back, an unassuming-looking LP showed up at the Time Out New York office. The cover featured a simple black-and-gold design and the title New Vocabulary. When I flipped the album over, my intrigue level shot way up. One of the participants was none other than Ornette Coleman, the 84-year-old alto-saxophonist, jazz innovator, pan-cultural NYC-via–Fort Worth icon and star/honoree of a blockbuster Celebrate Brooklyn! tribute show this past June. (Turns out D'Angelo wasn't the only major artist planning a surprise holiday-season album drop.) Though the record is brand new, the music that appears on it—teaming Coleman with trumpeter Jordan McLean, also of Antibalas and the Fela! musical, drummer Amir Ziv and pianist Adam Holzman—dates from 2009. Still, given that Coleman issues albums infrequently and typically with great fanfare (his last record was 2006's Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar), any freshly released material under his name deserves a serious look.

Novelty factor aside, it turns out that New Vocabulary is a real treat, a chance to hear Coleman's signature alto swoop and dance in an unfamiliar context, a freeform musical zone informed by funk, dub and electronica. After I blogged about the album, McLean and Ziv—co-owners of System Dialing Records, which released New Vocabulary—reached out to say thanks and offered to provide background info on this surprise release. Here, we present McLean and Ziv's first Q&A on the experience of working with Ornette Coleman on New Vocabulary. (You'll also read about why the album's thank-you list includes actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard.)

How did you get to know Ornette?
OC (as we call him) was in attendance at a performance of the Off Broadway production of Fela! (for which Jordan McLean was trumpeter and associate music director). After the show he invited Jordan to come by his place sometime. Over the course of weeks, the bricks of friendship were laid through music and conversation. Amir Ziv joined the hang soon after and the cycle continued. 

How this particular project came about?
Through time spent in one another's good company. We played with OC in his home a handful of times while there were various other guests and musicians present. Shortly after, OC started asking us to stay on and not leave while whoever else was there would conclude their visit. Once the place was cleared, we would get back to playing. When these trio sessions started happening, the music got intense and focused quickly, in conjunction with our conversations about the music and life going to the next level as well. What started as what you might call a "jam" turned into full-fledged rehearsals.  

What were your goals for the sessions, and how did they actually progress? Was everything fully improvised, or was there discussion re: structure, time frame, mood, etc.? Did you have any touchstones for how you wanted the New Vocabulary album to sound (or not sound)?
Touchstones, no. Just a continuation of the good-humored closeness we were experiencing in the time spent listening to and discoursing with OC. Our goals for the session were to capture the sound of the band and of the possibilities inherent in the kind of communication we developed. We worked for long periods of time on specific modes of sonic communication, on particular types of intensity and variations of sonic counterpoints. The process was back and forth, playing and talking. Sometimes the various musical ideas instantaneously clicked, in which case over the course of days, weeks, months we would build on them. At other times, things would not magically jell together, in which case we would stop playing and discuss deeply related cosmic topics, and then try those ideas again—sometimes they would fall into their natural compositional place, and if not, at that point we would usually discard those ideas and not return to them.

When our dedicated trio rehearsals got on their way and we were in a groove, we started recording them on MiniDiscs. We would then sit together, all of us, and listen back. This really helped highlight what pieces and parts all of us were excited about and what parts would ultimately be destined for the scrap heap. On the more technical side, at the time we were in the process of configuring new studio components, able to record digitally at extremely high sample rates. OC was very interested in these new sounds and recording possibilities, which ultimately led to what types of gear were used to record the album. After our tracking days (which at this point included [pianist] Adam Holzman), we went through the process of mixing the songs and going back with them to OC again to listen together. This went on until all thumbs were up.

What can you tell us about working with Ornette? The way he fits into the context of the group is really impressive. What did it feel like to improvise with such a legendary figure (whose work I'm sure you all knew extremely well)?
We were so at ease making music with him because he can set a person free ("of the tonic?" he would ask) just by being himself, and with the generous nature of his whole being. He would often call us "twins" (a word he will use to relate to something one might say, or a trait you might have in common). 

The term "improvise" becomes a bit confusing here, because even though we never played the same idea exactly the same twice, the pieces on this album have all been worked on for months prior to the final tracking, so while one set of ears might hear it as all purely improvised, another set might hear it as through-composed. 

Are you still in touch with Ornette? Are future recordings or performances by this group a possibility?
Though it can be a challenge to stay connected, every time we do see one another, it is a fast dialing into the frequencies we share. As for the future, the idea has no destiny.

I noticed that Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal contributed to the press release and are thanked on the LP. I'm curious about their involvement—are they just friends of yours/Ornette's, or did they have some hands-on role in New Vocabulary?
We have been friends with them for years and they love Ornette's music (DROID [which features McLean, Ziv and Holzman] was probably Peter's favorite band for a while there). Thanking them and including their thoughts on the music in our press release is recognition of the moral support they have loaned us through everything. This is the case with all of the other folks mentioned in our thank yous and who have contributed various press quotes. None of them is more or less important than the other.

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