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Tribute Album 'Law Years' Captures Ornette Coleman's Happy Bounce

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died in 2015, had a knack for writing catchy melodies in his own distinctive voice. One critic said they can sound happy, sad and hectic all at once. Saxophonist Miguel Zenon loves Coleman's music and put together a quartet to play some. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says they nailed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON, JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "GIGGIN' (LIVE)")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon on Ornette Coleman's tune "Giggin'" from the album "Law Years: The Music Of Ornette Coleman." It's a digital release on Zenon's Miel music label, recorded live in a Swiss club in 2019. The band is a one-time quartet of Spanish speakers with Catalonian drummer Jorge "Jordi" Rossy, Argentine bassist Demian Cabaud, who lives in Portugal, and a Cuban tenor saxophonist based in Madrid, Ariel Bringuez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON FEAT. JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "THE TRIBES OF NEW YORK (LIVE)"

WHITEHEAD: The music is so focused, it's hard to believe these four had never played as a band before their pre-concert sound check, but they're all obviously familiar with Ornette's music, and they aim for an Ornette-y (ph) feel - the happy balance of a Coleman rhythm section in particular. It's another language they all speak. Miguel Zenon evokes Ornette's joyful yelps and ways of teasing a phrase, tempered with his own gleaming tone and hyperspeed leaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON FEAT. JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "TOY DANCE/STREET WOMAN (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: The quartet can slow it down, too. Ornette had his heartachey (ph) ballads alongside the yipping hoedowns. On "Broken Shadows," Miguel Zenon gives his romantic side free rein on alto as tenor sax softly moans the melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON FEAT. JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "BROKEN SHADOWS (LIVE)")

WHITEHEAD: The saxophonists improvise together, too. Ornette tunes with their clear and catchy melodic shapes lend themselves to free paraphrase. Two horns bouncing off a tune and each other spark some ecstatic counterpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON FEAT. JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "DEE DEE (LIVE)"

WHITEHEAD: Miguel Zenon and Ariel Bringuez on Ornette Coleman's "Dee Dee" powered by that springy rhythm team with Demian Cabaud on bass. Ornette's great drummer Edward Blackwell might make a point of playing the melody. Ditto this band's Jordi Rossy, who used to drum for Brad Mehldau and now mostly plays piano. Back on drums, he punctuates those shapely phrases. The infectious groove, bass and drums catch on "Law Years: The Music Of Ornette Coleman" makes me wish more bands caught that happy Ornette bounce, even when they're playing tunes by somebody else.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIGUEL ZENON FEAT. JORDI ROSSY, ARIEL BRINGUEZ AND DEMIAN CABAUD'S "THE TRIBES OF NEW YORK (LIVE)")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Law Years: The Music Of Ornette Coleman" by saxophonist Miguel Zenon.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Courtney B. Vance, who plays Aretha Franklin's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, in the National Geographic drama series about Aretha's life. Vance was in the recent HBO series "Lovecraft Country." He won an Emmy for his portrayal of Johnnie Cochran, O.J. Simpson's lead attorney, in the series "The People V. O.J. Simpson." Vance got his start on Broadway in the original cast of August Wilson's play "Fences." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.