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Ornette Coleman interview: "What is sound?"

Jazz master Ornette Coleman schools the masses with Sound Grammar

Photograph: Jimmy Katz
Ornette Coleman

Music, the old saying goes, is a universal language. For saxophonist Ornette Coleman, that statement isn’t merely a tired adage; it’s both a fact of life and a call to action. Trying to unfold the details is not without a gentle irony: To spend an hour in conversation with the once-and-future jazz revolutionary—whose first new album in a decade, Sound Grammar, comes out this week—is to be plunged into a sometimes dizzying stream of musical theorems and philosophical asides. Seated on a sofa in his spacious, airy midtown loft one recent afternoon, the Texas-born icon, 76, turns the tables on his interrogator. “What is sound?” he queries.

Like a too eager novice attempting to earn a guru’s inscrutable smile, I overreach: Sound is what’s inside a person’s mind and heart made manifest, so that the rest of the world can perceive and partake of it.

“Okay, well, that’s not too bad,” Coleman responds generously. He illustrates what he’d had in mind with an elliptical anecdote. “You go to a psychiatrist and you say, 'I’m going crazy.’ He’d say, 'Sit there and tell me your problems,’ ” Coleman explains. But in his legendary 1973 encounter with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco, he’d witnessed an alternative approach. “There was a lady and she was just really gone. Then they started playing and she started smiling, and all of a sudden, she was back to normal. Ever since then, I’ve been aware that sound is the most healing quality of anything in human culture.”

Less than ten minutes of Coleman’s fabled Moroccan jam session have ever been issued. Perched on a nearby stool, James Jordan, the artist’s manager and cousin, reveals that those storied tapes are among the top priorities for release on Coleman’s own new label, also called Sound Grammar. Other vintage goodies may be in the offing as well, but the first order of business was to document Coleman’s current working quartet.

That group, which features bassists Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen and drummer Denardo Coleman, the leader’s son, has emerged as one of Coleman’s strongest units in the space of just a few years. On Sound Grammar, Falanga counters the leader’s always-generous melodies, bowing songful lines and fluttering trills. Cohen, meanwhile, keeps time with the woody thumps and thwacks of a player well versed in trad-jazz idioms, as well as the sharp reflexes honed as a longtime sideman to the mercurial John Zorn. Denardo, who has performed in his father’s bands since he was ten, powers the music’s inexorable flow.

When Coleman played Carnegie Hall during June’s JVC Jazz Festival, he somehow managed to integrate bass guitarist Al McDowell, formerly of his electric group Prime Time, into the quartet without unbalancing its potent chemistry. More surprising were the roars of approval in response to Coleman’s idiosyncratic, untutored violin playing, which sparked derision when he picked up the instrument in the late ’60s. What that audience was responding to, Coleman suggests, was a quality in his playing that transcended mere technique. “You see something that you know you can identify with, ’cause maybe you could do that,” he offers. “I personally prefer writing or playing something that also has a human meaning to it. I’m not just saying, 'Look what I can do.’ Maybe someone’s sad about something, and then he hears something that tells him it’s not all like that in the sound. That, to me, is really human. And all a human being can do is help his brother and sister.”

That attempt to forge an emotional connection with the listener is perhaps the noblest aspect of Coleman’s ongoing quest. It also extends to the artists with whom he collaborates, whether it be on New York’s most prestigious stage or in a dusty Moroccan village. “I would like to include every race that I know, to get in there and play with them,” he explains. “I could say, 'You could be in the key of Z, whatever key you want to be in. Don’t worry, you do it, and I’ll just see what I can do.’ ”

Sound Grammar comes out Tuesday 12.

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