Ornette Coleman has long been a puzzle to casual jazz fans, his name as baffling as his music, which seems to go everywhere and nowhere. If jazz is the "sound of surprise," as Whitney Balliett once wrote, then Ornette, at first hearing, is the sound of shock and awe. Yet few jazz musicians reward attention more richly. Even now, at age 76, nearly a half century after bursting onto the scene, he's blowing his alto saxophone as vitally, imaginatively, and beautifully as ever. His new quartet album, Sound Grammar (on his own label of the same name), may be the best jazz disc of the year—and ranks among the top half-dozen Ornette Coleman albums, period.
The key to figuring out Ornette is that he's, above all, a musician of melody. This may seem a strange claim, given his renown as the father of "free jazz," a term that evokes the opposite of melody. But Ornette's style of "freedom" lies not so much in what the musicians play as in their relationship to one another. Coleman made up his own odd word for his music: "harmolodic," roughly defined as music where harmony, motion (or rhythm), and melody play equal roles. No part is subordinate to the others. All the players feel free to improvise whenever they want.