Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (2006)

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Photo by Jim Katz

by Mark Saleski

Sometimes, curiosity will get the best of me. A strange attraction to something new — a particular (and often peculiar) food, drink, author, musician — will emerge and the craving will not be denied. Mostly, this works out. I’ve got a large appetite for new experiences in these areas and my instincts rarely let me down.

Quite often I get asked how it is that I came to discover this or that musician. “Bern Nix? Never heard of him!” “Marc Ribot? Never heard of him either?” The truth is that many times these people are not nearly as obscure as you’d think. Usually, I discover them by either reading liner notes or doing a little research to uncover who the side musicians are on some recording that I’m fond of. Simple as that. Then I just roll the dice and look for records under those names. Do this for twenty years and your shelves will be groaning just like mine.

But James Joyce … now there is a big fat enigma. I’ve said many times that I’m very familiar with the first five or so pages of “Ulysses” because I’ve read them about ten times. That’s where the wall of “What the hell is he talking about?” is encountered. So a rational person might think that I’d lost my mind last Saturday when I walked into the bookshop and bought a copy of something even more ‘difficult’ — Finnegans Wake.

Is this book the world’s most famous literary practical joke? I doubt it. Joyce clearly knew what he was doing. Maybe the man just had too much knowledge in his head and this was a way of releasing the pressure. After reading the introduction, it’s at least reassuring to know that many people are content to open the book to a random spot to see what they can find. More fundamental than that: “One of the more interesting features of Finnegans Wake is that it even encourages the expansion of our understanding of what exactly it means — or can mean — to read.”

This is an attitude that I wish more people would bring to their listening experiences — especially in their willingness to “process” new and supposedly difficult music.

Yes, it’s OK to not “get” everything at first. It’s also just fine to settle on the portions of a composition that rub you the right way (even if there are only a handful of them over the course of an hour).

No, I’m not moving toward equating the music of Ornette Coleman with the odd intricacies of James Joyce. Though there are some parallels, particularly that both men liked to ignore the accepted “rules” of their crafts, what’s more important to me is the idea that people be more open to the experience. I’m not suggesting that anybody start off with Coleman’s version of “Finnegans,” which would have to be Free Jazz. No, this new live recording is the perfect place to begin the expansion of your musical horizons.

Ornette’s brand of jazz (“Harmolodics”) sidesteps the usual rules of jazz (melodies inside of chord-based harmonic structures) to give greater freedom to everyone in the band. A composition might start off with a nice, winding melody but then branch off to unknown territories as the musicians improvise on whatever aspects appeal at the moment. The drummer might follow the sax line, while the bassist keys off of just the drummer’s floor toms. You just never know where this is going to lead.

Sound Grammar is a live album recorded at a show in Italy in 2005. The sax/drums/two basses lineup allows for lots of space and group dynamics, but with the extra twist of the textures provided by the presence of both plucked and bowed bass. This set contains a fairly wide range of Ornette styles, from the more or less straightforward blues of “Turnaround,” to the slowly evolving sound suite of “Once Only,” to the full-on freakout of closing track “Song X.”

Aren’t you just a little bit curious?

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