Arts & Culture

Ornette Coleman finding a ‘New Vocabulary’

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman Big Hassle

Even as he nears 85 years of age, there remains an unshakable method to Ornette Coleman’s particular brand of madness.

The Fort Worth-born jazz legend never approaches anything in life from a conventional angle, electing to take his time and peel away the layers at his own pace.

Either get on board and acquiesce to his process, or stand aside, mystified by the seeming inability to really connect with the mind behind harmolodics.

For Jordan McLean, composer, arranger and trumpeter for Brooklyn-based Afrobeat band Antibalas, a chance meeting with Coleman would, unexpectedly, yield the saxophone-wielding iconoclast’s first studio recording in nearly 20 years.

McLean, along with his longtime collaborator, drummer Amir Ziv, helps form the core of New Vocabulary, released with little fanfare in December on McLean and Ziv’s label, System Dialing Records.

It’s a remarkably vibrant, concise recording, featuring sparkling interplay between McLean’s trumpet, Ziv’s drums and Coleman’s horn.

The trio of musicians, occasionally augmented by pianist Adam Holzman, function as if they’ve been playing together for years.

That sense of connection was fostered not through intensive studio sessions, forging familiarity in the crucible of creativity, but rather over many months of conversations and jam sessions at Coleman’s Manhattan apartment.

McLean and Coleman first crossed paths when Coleman attended a performance of Fela! during its off-Broadway run in 2008. (McLean was the associate music director for the show.)

“It was weeks, if not months, of just hanging out, socializing, jamming,” McLean says by phone from New York. “It was an evolution in the way of a friendship. For me, a totally surreal, intergenerational friendship with someone whose music I’d studied pretty closely for 20 years [and who] turned out to be one of the sweetest human beings you’d ever want to meet and talk to.”

Multi-layered man

The 40-year-old McLean says those early visits to Coleman’s home gave him deeper insight into the man and, just as importantly, the music he has made over the course of a nearly 60-year career.

“It really did shed a lot of light on his creativity,” McLean says. “Unless you spend some time hanging out with the guy, there’s not any way to really appreciate and understand what a good sense of humor he has and what a genuinely demure and clever and hospitable person he is.

“There’s so many layers to the way his mind works. There’s very, very conventional Southern hospitality in there, and the most far-reaching, esoteric way a human brain can work with Ornette.”

Other musicians would be around when McLean was visiting — “There would be people I’ve never seen before or since,” he says — but it wasn’t until McLean showed up with Amir Ziv, in the summer of 2009, that something clicked.

“Amir and I have been playing music together for many years,” McLean says. “I brought Amir by [Ornette’s home] and the chemistry was pretty instantaneous. We carved out the time to make enough return visits — that just seemed like the natural thing to do. The sound of the three of us had very organically come across, and [we wanted] to make a more lasting document of it.”

Delayed release

New Vocabulary snapped into focus quickly — the 12-track, 42-minute record was knocked out in three days in July 2009 — but would remain shelved until early December 2014, when it was released in digital and physical formats by System Dialing Records.

When asked about the five-year gap between recording and release, McLean says simply, “We wanted to do it right, and so many other factors are in play in our lives. It wasn’t possible until now. I’m a firm believer that something, especially music, is new until it comes out.”

Coleman was not available for an interview, so divining precisely what he saw in McLean and Ziv isn’t possible. Whatever it was, Coleman clearly seized upon what McLean describes as “a sound that is fundamentally compositional, but in practice, is improvisational,” as succinct a summary as any of the music Coleman has built his idiosyncratic career upon.

“I can tell you, it’s been really touching to hear such ... positive critical and listener responses,” McLean says. “People are happy to hear the music, and happy to hear him, how he sounds at age 80, at the time — to hear such an intimate portrait of it.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713

Twitter: @prestonjones

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