Often considered the least of Ornette Coleman’s albums for Atlantic Records, those statements need to be put in some kind of context. Even if it is nominally true that this is the least of the Atlantic albums, it is merely the least of one of the most astounding and groundbreaking sets of recordings of the 20th Century. There is still plenty of amazing music to be found on Ornette on Tenor.
The tenor saxophone was Ornette’s primary instrument when he played in R&B and minstrel bands starting in the 1940s. The alto sax became his primary instrument as he committed himself to a solo career making his own music. Using the tenor again here allows Ornette to add some variety to his music, even as his phrasing and musical approach is no different than on alto — save for being a tad slower given the greater volume of breath needed on the tenor. He calls up a few R&B tricks from his past too, like kind of greasy glissando and honking effects, but there still is no mistaking him for any other performer.
“Eos,” and to some extent “Ecars,” which conclude the album, are lesser cuts (“Eos” was the first song recorded in these sessions). These are the only hindrances in an otherwise fantastic album.
Personnel discussions are always of relevance on Coleman recordings, because his musical vision (“harmolodics” he later termed it) was, in many ways, fragile. It depended on assembling a group of performers with shared visions. When he put together bands with performers who were more timid than he was, or just with different ideas, the results were mixed at best. Bassist Charlie Haden had left Coleman’s group, and his immediate replacement Scott LaFaro was later killed in a car accident a few months after these sessions. Jimmy Garrison came on after LaFaro and is featured on these recordings. He had a rocky relationship with Ornette, and frequently rejected Ornette’s musical ideas (he left to join John Coltrane‘s classic quartet, but returned later to record with Ornette in the late 1960s). Garrison is also a more conventional bassist than either Haden or LaFaro. The personal tension surrounding Garrison is evident in places, giving the music a husky aura that Ornette mostly seems to ignore. But even if Garrison holds back by sticking to static motifs rather than diving in headfirst past the point of no return, drummer Ed Blackwell is in peak form here, making the bass playing less critical. His rhythms are slippery and agile. Just when it seems like he’s playing a simple cymbal ride or a march-like beat, he proves otherwise. He never abandons a sense of meter, but he plays without that ever being a limitation. The horn payers, for their part, play with delightful contradiction, with happy-sounding melodies played with much dissonance and irreverence.
While this might be the album to turn to last among Ornette’s recordings for Atlantic (setting aside the many outtake collections, which are still pretty good), it is still well worth investigation for fans of the rest.
Following the success of his prior album, the excellent Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson returns with a more grandiose effort, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. His voice still sounds like Waylon Jennings, but the approach of this album ranges from country to southern rock to southern soul to chamber pop. The opening song has kind of spacey, vaguely psychedelic effects, but eventually launches into a full-throated soul song — very reminiscent of Willie Nelson‘s crossover success Shotgun Willie. By the third song, “Keep It Between the Lines,” with a full horn section (The Dap-Kings) and prominent slide guitar, he’s squarely in the progressive southern rock territory of “Spanish Moon” by Little Feat (from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now). Other songs recall later-period “roots rock” recordings by The Band. The closer “Call to Arms” is pretty rockin’ and concludes the album nicely. The lyrics remain a liability. They are mostly pretty clunky throughout, despite best intentions. And Simpson’s voice has a limited range. But the musical ideas here are fun and return to the concept of crossover country music that brings together groups of listeners that won’t normally interact, even if it does so in a retro way (it would have been more radical and daring to combine country music with contemporary hip-hop or smooth R&B than the kind of soul music that was popular four or five decades ago).
Typically Žižek writes long and short books, with the shorter ones restating concepts he had introduced in longer works. But The Fragile Absolute is a bit different in terms of being shorter but also developing (relatively) new concepts. His views on christian atheism are significant enough that this book was reprinted years later as part of the publisher’s “Essential Žižek” series. Yet for as important as the the core christian ideas are to the book, given its title, most of the first half or so scarcely mentions religion at all. And for that matter, Žižek doesn’t ever mention Thomas J.J. Altizer‘s “death of god” theory, or Ernst Bloch‘s Atheism in Christianity (1968), which seem to set forth a similar frame of discussion. Instead he starts with Alain Badiou‘s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism (1998). In short, Žižek’s thesis is that christianity offers a radical position that used “love” as a way toward universality. Using his typical Lacanian psychoanalytic techniques, and a heavy reliance on Hegelian philosophy, he explores how a sense of duty in the christian concept of love — specifically Pauline agape (love as charity) — can rupture the duality of law and transgression and the pagan notion of life cycles built around a global social hierarchy (of each person and thing in its “proper” place). In other words, he sees christianity as offering a significant step forward toward an egalitarian society by asserting that each individual has immediate access to (and the right to participate in) universality, without seeing it as “evil” when a person (or strata) no longer is satisfied with a position within an ordered social hierarchy (which inherently has masters who must be obeyed). Žižek’s key arguments are as profound as ever, yet those could have been distilled to more potent essay or article rather than a book that comes across as rambling in the first half.
There is much confusion over what “free jazz” means and what Ornette Coleman’s album of the same name really means. There is a Paul Bley interview (The Wire, Sept. 2007) that I cite as much as possible that explains much about Ornette Coleman’s role in this debate. But let’s step back a bit further. If “free jazz” means totally spontaneous improvising, then it long predates Ornette or the 20th Century. Cavemen banging on logs with sticks were playing free jazz by that definition. Obviously, this is not what people really mean, or, if they do, their point is trivial. Rather, as Bley explains, Ornette’s approach was to tear down barriers and instead construct his own musical system instead. Basically, this is the sort of political project that goes back quite a ways, exemplified by Age of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose social contract theory posited that groups invested authority in themselves). There were also certainly other people working in this direction just within the realm of jazz music in the 1950s and even late 1940s (Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton), though Ornette did more than most to convey a sense of an identifiable and lasting new system of performance, rather than merely tearing down the old systems for a kind of one-off experiment. The importance of “free jazz” as a “genre” is that it is positioned within a very particular time, place and social structure, and gains meaning primarily in relation to those contextual reference points, including the history of atonal music in the Euro-classical tradition. This was near the end of the Jim Crow era, thinking well beyond its limits to questions of the ways people would relate to each other beyond such systems of institutionalized discrimination.
G.D.H. Cole wrote and introduction to The Social Contract and Discourses of Rousseau. In that introduction (pp. xxvii-xxxvi), he wrote about different types of social contract theories of politics, and contrasted the views of Thomas Hobbes with those of Rousseau.
“All Social Contract theories that are at all clearly defined fall under one or other of two heads. They represent society as based on an original contract, either between the people and the government, or between all the individuals composing the State. Historically, Social Contract theories tended to pass from the first to the second of these forms.
“Hobbes agreed that the original contract was one between all the individuals composing the State, and that the government was no party to it; but he regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it. He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up. As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill. It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.
“Not until we come to Rousseau is the second form of the contract theory developed into a thorough-going assertion of democratic rights.
“Philosophically, Rousseau’s doctrine finds its expression in the view that the State is based not on any original convention, not on any determinate power, but on the living and sustaining will of its members.
“Pure democracy, however, meaning the government of the State by all the people in every detail, is not, as Rousseau says, a possible human institution. All governments are really mixed in character; and what we call democratic governments are only comparatively democratic. Government will always be to some extent in the hands of selected persons. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is in Rousseau’s view absolute, unalienable, and indivisible.”
Perhaps that is a rather long explanation, but it makes for a useful analogy here. The features of bebop (and hard bop and cool jazz) resemble in certain respects a Hobbesist view. The players of that style/genre invest in a set of governing rules, and perhaps a set of pioneers who establish those rules (Charlie Parker, etc.); all those players then follow those rules and surrender their ability to change the rules. Maybe this is an oversimplification, but when Ornette Coleman came along he very clearly marked a transition toward a Rousseauian conception of jazz. Suddenly, all the players in a combo could have a say in making the rules. Sure, they ceded some organizational authority to Ornette as the bandleader and composer to put forward some elements of the music on their behalf, but there was no privilege in that that could not be withdrawn at any time (even during performance). The very structure of the music was always open to the will of all the band members (to a point at least; for a discussion of limits on that approach see Jo Freeman‘s classic essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” which is a more recent and nuanced version of a set of arguments that runs from Robert Michel‘s reactionary tract Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy).
Rousseau himself once wrote:
“In our day, now that more subtle study and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to a system, there prevails in modern manners a servile and deceptive conformity; so that one would think every mind had been cast in the same mold. Politeness requires this thing; decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, and these we must always follow, never the promptings of our own nature” A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750).
These “promptings of our own nature” are precisely what Ornette and his band offer up on this album. And to do so requires an impolite, impertinent break from servile conformity.
The music of Free Jazz features a “double quartet” (so named rather than just an octet because it was Ornette’s regular quartet plus other musicians, including a former drummer of his regular quartet, who doubled up on various instruments with the original quartet — some of the double quartet performers had recorded together the day before on John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music 1: Jazz Abstractions: Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall). They play themes and variations. In other words, a theme is stated, then variations on the theme are played. The variations are not limited by strict tonality or chord changes. The themes are sometimes described as “buzzing fanfares”. To some, this is odd, dense, difficult music. To others, this can be fun, enjoyable stuff. There are also opposing views about this being formless, messy, insignificant music, and even some say that the use of a theme/variation approach makes this not free jazz at all (a bit of hindsight thinking there). It is possible to ask about critics who think this is formless whether they are socially conservative or reactionary. Perhaps they don’t admit it, but do they pine for a sense of “order” or “sensible limits” that just so happen to depend on certain groups having power over others, that reject the idea that people can set rules for themselves and instead believe that only certain people (or even deities, if we include here the lunatic royalist/theocratic fringe) are capable of establishing rules that all others must obediently follow. If all this seems removed from the music of Free Jazz, it shouldn’t. Listeners do tend to split along these very lines, and therefore this is about something inherent in the music.
The album itself is just one long track (spanning two sides of the original LP). There was another song recorded, “First Take,” which was released on the archival collection Twins (1971) and then later appended to reissues of Free Jazz as a bonus track. John Coltrane was heavily influenced by Ornette — he took private tutoring from Ornette for a while. This album inspired Coltrane to record Ascension. So if this album is to your linking, perhaps that is another recording worthy of a listen.
Coleman plays well. His performance is somewhat typical of this period. Eric Dolphy appears on bass clarinet. If there is any other jazz musician that needs to be considered alongside Ornette it has to be Dolphy. A talented multi-instrumentalist, he played with a very “vocal” quality and often leaped between registers. His phrasing was more atonal than Ornette’s. The bass clarinet, with its woody sound, it a good compliment to Ornette’s brash and sour tone on alto sax, and it manages to cut through the sound of seven other players well. Dolphy was one of the few performers worthy of keeping up with Ornette in a setting like this. Yet he never hogs the spotlight. Ed Blackwell is a crucial piece of the puzzle too. Billy Higgins plays somewhat conventional cymbal rides, while Blackwell moves around his drum set, and plays his toms more frequently, adding hints lyricism to his drumming. Bands with two drummers often drift into a morass of indistinct bashing around, but here the two percussionists are able to both provide a sense of forward propulsion through a steady beat and range through rhythmic improvisations — many modern jazz groups in the coming years tended to choose only one or the other. They get some solo time near the end of the performance. Charlie Haden is the most prominent of the two bassist. Scott LaFaro is here too, and he would replace Haden in Ornette’s regular combo until his death in 1961. The bassist get some solo time as the horns drop out roughly two-thirds to three-quarters into the performance. The two trumpet players are Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard. They are very different players, with Hubbard playing more conventionally melodically. The contrasts that the brass players contribute is another key ingredient in making the music distinctive.
The original album jacket featured a painting (White Light) by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who painted using “loaded brushes” and drips. There is a story about Pollock (possibly true) that an unsympathetic critic came to see him paint at his studio. Fed up, Pollock flung a gob of paint across the room and precisely onto the doorknob, telling the visitor: there’s the door. He both rebuked the critic and demonstrated his precision (which the critic denied) with that single gesture. Ornette was less brash and far more soft-spoken. And yet, he faced many of the same criticisms as Pollock and used similar artistic techniques. Visiting a Pollock exhibit, Ornette once said,
“See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal. It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”
Sometimes unacknowledged is that Pollock was interests in jazz, especially be-bop. There was a definite affinity between his painting and jazz music. Ornette obviously saw parallels.
Listeners who say Ornette was not really playing “free jazz” because others had less structure miss something. Being more chaotic, with less delegation of organization, is merely a matter of degree. The fundamental character of self-determination, along the lines of Rousseau, is the major break that Ornette Coleman represented within music (and jazz music especially). And more so, Rousseau rejected the idea of total direct democracy as impractical, and Ornette likewise tended to reject the idea of complete unstructured, chaotic total improvisation. The music does reject a center, tonal or social, and for that reason is anti-essentialist (there is no “essence” or “core” of the music or its performers). Instead the music focuses on what the performers do.
There is another criticism of all “free jazz” that it is elitist. This is a thorny issue. On the one hand, it was music that was never widely popular, and its main audiences tended to be educated, well-off urbanites. But, on the other hand, given how this music fits so well with the sorts of political theories that have been considered dangerous to social and political elites since the beginning (Rousseau had to flee his home under threat of death due to his writings; The Communist Manifesto is just a refinement of Rousseau’s concepts), this would seem like the very opposite of elitist music. Could it be that those who see this as elitist music simply assume that ordinary people are incapable of changing their views, to adapt to a new kind of music, which is almost like saying they are inherently conservative? Or like saying they are inherently stupid?
Free Jazz is one of those albums that some listeners will immediately like, even just upon hearing about the concept and the title. This is the sort of music that has the capacity to change a listener’s entire conception of what is possible in music. On the other hand, there are and will continue to be detractors. But even those who don’t immediately like this, or consider listening to it to be hard work, should at least give it a try, if for no other reason that to gain some exposure to the pioneering conception of music that gave rise to it in the first place — a musical education without something like Free Jazz will necessarily be incomplete.
Link to an article by Sharon Smith:
Bonus links: “The Rising American Student Movement Is Part of a Battle for the Soul of Higher Education” and “What’s Wrong With Identity Politics (and Intersectionality Theory)? A Response to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (And Its Critics)” and “Identity Politics vs Class Politics” and “Identity Politics Can Only Get Us So Far” and “Set Theory of the Left” and “To Be or Not To Be Woke: The Follies of Political Correctness” and “Capitalism and Race Redux” (“Identity politics is an argument for social reconciliation without a redistribution of power.”) and “Too Much of Not Enough: An Interview with Alenka Zupančič” and The Trouble With Diversity Review
“What matters is not so much the color of your skin as the power you serve and the millions you betray.”
“If we pay close attention to contemporary debates within the frame of cultural identity politics we see that the quest for recognition almost universally means recognition from the very hegemonically powerful positions they rightly argue oppress them. In many cases, a short circuit occurs in which the recognition of the marginalized by the hegemonically powerful not only becomes more important than addressing the injustice as such, but indeed replaces structurally tackling that injustice as such. Victims of severe systematic violence and injustice are bribed into persuading the powerful to recognize their existence, to demand the hegemonic discourse speak of them in a particular way, or else, more often in sexual political struggles, to maintain a reverential attitude toward their experiences of injustice. What’s wrong with this? Nothing; unless this politics replaces a politics of actually changing the structural conditions which led to these injustices as such. Recognition of identity and individual experience is offered as a fetishistic disavowal in a maneuver to permanently forestall the possibility of a political act.
“Political Correctness is far from being too radical – it is rather precisely the mechanism today to avoid the radical change which is necessary.
PCs function is predicated on the necessity that there be always an ‘other’, not here the marginalized individual whose rights are to be protected, but the ‘uneducated’ offender. The offender must be civilized, brought into the discourse and assigned their hierarchal place within it or else be ostracized. In this way the discourse thrives and propagates. The only way to ‘beat’ it, is to join it. It tolerates no outside except for the structurally necessary place of the not-yet educated, the under-educated, or that of the un-educatable offender.
“the primary result of identity politics today . . . is in order to maintain a privatization of political affect, which ultimately amounts to a neutralization of politics as such.”
Christopher William Wolter, “Against the Neoliberal Blackmail: Identity Fetishism and the Privatization of Affect”
“This is yet another case of what Robert Pfaller called ‘interpassivity’: I delegate the passive experience of a hurt sensitivity onto a naive other, thereby enacting the other’s infantilization. That is why we should ask ourselves if political correctness is really something that belongs to the Left—is it not a strategy of defense against radical Leftist demands, a way to neutralize antagonisms instead of openly confronting them? Many of the oppressed feel clearly how the PC strategy often just adds insult to injury: while oppression remains, they—the oppressed—now even have to be grateful for the way liberals try to protect them.” (Incontinence of the Void, pp. 157-158)