Ornette Coleman Lawsuit Against Antibalas' Jordan McLean: Both Sides Weigh In

Jazz musician Ornette Coleman
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Jazz musician Ornette Coleman is pictured before receiving his honorary doctor of music degree at the University of Michigan commencement ceremony in Ann Arbor, Saturday, May 1, 2010.

Music industry lawsuits don't usually raise any eyebrows, but this week saw an unexpected pair headed to court: Legendary free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Jordan McLean of Brooklyn Afrobeat outfit (and former house band for Fela!) Antibalas.

The fight is over an album released on McLean's label System Dialing called New Vocabulary. Antibalas' website refers to it as "a new album by Ornette Coleman, featuring performances by McLean, drummer Amir Ziv and keyboardist Adam Holzman."

The lawsuit, however, alleges the recordings were never intended for commercial release -- and states that Coleman already denied McLean permission to release them.

Back in 2009, Coleman invited McLean and Ziv to his house after the former requested a meeting. They talked about music and even played together. According to the lawsuit, "Years after making the recordings of Coleman's teaching sessions, McLean asked if he could release them. Coleman denied the request both directly and through his attorney and asked that the material be turned over to him. McLean instead released the recordings, forcing Coleman to seek legal recourse."

The lawsuit was filed on Coleman's behalf by his son, Denardo Coleman, who is serving as the 85-year-old musician's legal guardian. 

When contacted for comment, McLean denied any wrongdoing, saying New Vocabulary is a "collaborative, joint work made with the willing involvement of each artist." According to the Antibalas trumpeter, "The album is the end result of multiple deliberate and dedicated recording sessions done with the willing participation and consent of Mr. Coleman and the other performers. Any suggestion to the contrary is unfounded."

But the prosecution is doing more than suggesting Coleman didn't give his consent – they're outright stating it, saying a request to release this material was flatly turned down before it came out.

Brian Caplan, the attorney working on Coleman's behalf, tells Billboard there was "never an understanding" the 2009 recordings would turn into an album. "This was a jam session among a legend where he was permitting individuals to play with him not under the auspices of creating a record," Caplan says.

As for Coleman's undisputed albums, the jazz legend's last release was 2006's Pulitzer-winning album Sound Grammar. The saxophonist's The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1960) are regarded as two of the most influential jazz recordings of all time.