At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Ornette Coleman was 75 years old when he recorded Sound Grammar, on a concert stage in Germany in 2005. He’d been a major figure in modern jazz for the better part of a half-century, one of the small handful of people to actually alter the trajectory of the art form.
But he had also settled into a stage of relative quiet: welcoming friends to his loft in Manhattan’s garment district, for free-ranging and discursive conversation; playing music in his home studio, with an unpredictable assortment of musicians; mobilizing for the occasional concert, each one hailed as a major event. When Sound Grammar appeared in 2006, it was his first sanctioned release in a decade.
Coleman is best known, of course, for his role in liberating form: his album Free Jazz was one early rallying cry, and so was The Shape of Jazz to Come, recorded almost exactly 60 years ago (May 22, 1959). His concept of Harmolodics is more arcane, though hardly less intuitive. And while it found dual expression in his symphony, Skies of America, and his visionary funk band, Prime Time, the Harmolodic ideal is no less important to the music on Sound Grammar.
As part of the album rollout, Coleman did a smattering of interviews. I was fortunate enough to conduct one of them, for a cover story in JazzTimes. We talked on a couch in his loft for a couple of hours, and I returned on a different day to observe 90 minutes of rehearsal. As on Sound Grammar, the ensemble consisted of two bassists, with Ornette’s son Denardo on drums. (Greg Cohen was out of town, so the bassists were Al MacDowell and Tony Falanga, both Harmolodic adepts. I had seen both of them with Coleman in concert, with and without Cohen.)
Settle in with Sound Grammar, and it’s impossible not to be struck by the bristling curiosity of Coleman’s voice on alto saxophone, and the extreme flow state of his band. There’s a fondly retrospective air to the album, given the inclusion of songs like “Sleep Talking” and “Turnaround” — but in no way is this an exercise in nostalgia. In that sense it reminds me of what Wayne Shorter was up to in the same era, with the quartet that made Footprints Live! (featured at an earlier point of the 129 Essential Albums timeline).
In retrospect, it’s also hard not to think about the valedictory quality of this album. I came up in our conversations for the JazzTimes piece, and here is how I wrote about it:
There’s a fundamental tension between the surge of progress and the onward march of time. Tomorrow may be the question, but as each one arrives, you add to a stockpile of yesterdays. Though never a backward-glancing type, Coleman has been revisiting certain themes in concert-“Lonely Woman,” his best-loved composition, has become a standard encore-and describing his own work in more holistic terms, as an oeuvre.
And during my first visit to his home, he riffs extensively on the topic of death, unprovoked. At one point, when I make a point about the practical application of Sound Grammar, he responds with a quip: “When you said ‘application,’ you know what I thought of? Life insurance.” We both laugh, but then he rolls with the idea. “Let’s face it: can’t nobody be responsible when you’re gonna live and when you’re gonna die.”
“I was in Central Park yesterday listening to some people,” he says moments later, referring to a SummerStage concert featuring Asha Puthli, the classically trained Indian vocalist who appeared on his 1971 Columbia album Science Fiction, and Dewey Redman, the tenor saxophonist who made for an exceptional improvisational foil on the same recording. “It was beautiful. It sounded good.” Three weeks later, Redman would be gone, felled by liver failure at age 75.
Sound Grammar won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music, making Coleman the first jazz artist since Wynton Marsalis to receive the honor. It became another honor in a lifetime full of them, ratifying Ornette’s stature as an American modern of the highest order, alongside the likes of William Faulkner and Jasper Johns.
When Coleman died at 85, a decade after recording Sound Grammar, Ben Ratliff’s exemplary obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold. “He was seen as a native avant-gardist,” Ratliff wrote, “personifying the American independent will as much as any artist of the last century.” Because of the power of his example and the consistency of his vision, Coleman’s legacy should endure well into this century, and beyond.