CD review

Miguel Zenón – ‘Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman’

Miguel Zenón – Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman
(Miel Music. Digital release. Review by Jon Turney)

Ornette Coleman said he thought of himself as a composer first, a player second. And, at a level only matched by Monk, the catalogue he left offers rich possibilities for all comers.

Full of wonderful melody, the Coleman book is also a series of invitations to play in his style. There’s a thing to take on. He had a distinctive sound, was an inspired improviser, and kept brilliant company. And he created music designed above all to give the players maximal flexibility, avoiding chordal comping from piano or guitar, buoyed by a shared fluidity in rhythm.

Miguel Zenón’s quartet delight in those demands. Of course they do. Sixty years after the first furore, there are generations of improvisers for whom Coleman’s music has simply always been there. In the notes, he recalls he was mesmerised when he first heard Coleman as a teenager in Puerto Rico. His bandmates – tenor saxophonist Ariel Bringuez from Cuba, Argentinian bassist Demian Cabaud, and Catalan drummer Jordi Rossy – complete a quartet of Spanish-speaking Coleman aficionados. When the leader invited them to join him for a night at the Bird’s Eye jazz club in Basel (an excellent venue, incidentally – go visit when we can do things like that again) an all-Ornette programme quickly emerged.

Good decision: the results are the best possible tribute to their inspiration. They take familiar tunes from the earlier phases of Ornette’s career (up to the 1971 sessions) and inspire one another to play the hell out of them. The two horns and rhythm line-up matches the classic Coleman quartets, but Zenón and Bringuez refresh the sound by playing intertwined lines on most of the tunes. The latter sometimes calls to mind Sonny Rollins when he was dealing with Coleman’s approach most directly – as preserved on the Village Gate recordings with Don Cherry from 1962 – but emphatically doesn’t fall into the aimless fill-ins that Sonny was reduced to at times when motivic inspiration deserted him. Zenón, on alto, stands up well to the comparison with the originator the ear can’t help making. Plenty of nods to Ornette demonstrate that emulating the master without imitating him is a huge challenge, but he rises to it with aplomb. There aren’t too many obviously derived licks, and he uses more bop patterns, but the spirit that animates these tunes – now brisk and bouncy, now yearning, and all points in between – is conjured successfully as few others could.

The horns are compelling, but their work would fall flat without the responsive rhythm team. Rossy has the necessary flexibility, bringing a sound that is more Billy Higgins than Ed Blackwell, and Cabaud’s bass masters the Haden-esque trick of constantly manoeuvring so that the horn lines somehow remain anchored, but sound untethered.

Clearly a great evening for band and audience alike, and the hour’s worth preserved here is a fine testament to the lasting value of Ornette’s achievement, and its power to evoke melodically rich and emotionally charged music from his successors. Ornette would have been 91 earlier this month. Here’s a handsome gift to us all to mark the occasion.

At Bird’s Eye in Basel. L-R: Demain Cabaud, Ariel Bringuez, Jordi Rossy, Miguel Zenón. Photo credit: Ariel Bringuez

Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. jonturney.co.uk.  Twitter: @jonWturney 

LINK: Law Years: The Music of Ornette Coleman on Bandcamp (Release 12 March 2021)

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