Tag Archives: Jazz

Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life

As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz

Valerie WilmerAs Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (Allison and Busby 1977)


Val Wilmer is a journalist who photographed and wrote about the “new jazz” also known as “free jazz”, etc.  Her 1977 book As Serious As Your Life (revised and reprinted numerous times, with various alternate subtitles) remains one of the better-known histories of the musical movement.  Much of the book consists of chapter-length treatments of particular musicians, plus a few chapters on specific issues or theories.  The book captures the various attempts to forge and hold together a community of shared values mediated by this music.  While the biographical portraits sometimes verge on hagiography, the book as a whole benefits from well-researched quotes from performers themselves.  In fact, this book is an invaluable source of first-hand quotations from practitioners of this type of music during its heyday.  Figures like Bill Dixon, Clifford Thornton, and Rafael Garrett, for instance, offer extremely wise views on the music business and the practice of jazz.  And Wilmer deserves much credit for offering up a range of perspectives, often confused and contradictory, to allow readers to appreciate the multifaceted interests and objectives of those involved in the “new jazz” movement.

As the work of a journalist, though, this suffers from all the usual handicaps.  Among those is a certain theoretical weakness, drawing conclusions from unstated assumptions rather than providing any clear explanation of the analytical framework that led to those conclusions.  Well, at times it is perhaps less a weakness than a disingenuousness, what might be summed up as ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.  Actually, as will be seen, As Serious As Your Life might be seen as an early example of so-called “left neoliberalism” that first emerged in the 1970s.

Every chapter, and practically every page, documents some form of resentment and envy (although it should be noted that not all the subjects interviewed exhibit these qualities). This doesn’t seem to be precisely Wilmer’s intent. But this emerges from the book nonetheless.

In a September 1971 interview, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen remarked:

“If you achieve a certain independence in your work, you’re automatically attacked by all sides, last but not least by your own colleagues in the different countries.  It’s fairly difficult nowadays for composers in general, and in particular for younger composers, to get performances or teaching jobs.  And if someone like me has all his works regularly performed—very complicated works like Gruppen for three orchestras; Carré for four orchestras and choirs; or Mixtur, which requires a lot of electronic equipment, four sound engineers, another four persons playing the sine-wave generators, a lot of rehearsals—then there’s automatically a lot of jealousy.  And I can understand that feeling.  Then, there’s also another reaction coming from people who have a traditional musical education and are very much disturbed by what I do.”

Stockhausen uses the word “jealousy” here, but really he means “envy” in the sense of “resentment”.  He does posit a useful dichotomy of those who, as quasi-reactionary partisans oppose innovations or change, and those who nominally support a common project but raise objections based on envy or resentment.

Envy and resentment were pronounced factors in the “new jazz” movement, especially in relation to its limited commercial prospects.  Iain Anderson, in This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, noted:

“The narrowing audience for free improvisation illustrated experimental musicians’ growing difficulty in finding suitable venues and rewards consummate with their self-image as artists.  Many champions of free jazz began to view their lack of opportunity as a consequence of the music industry’s racial and economic structures, rather than the intrinsic value or resonance of their work.  These extra-musical developments soon interrupted and fractured the debate over modernist aesthetics, threatening the critical establishment’s prestige, credibility, and ability to mediate the position of jazz in American culture.”  (p. 75).

Wilmer is a “champion of free jazz” in this context.  Especially in her chapters that are topic-based essays not focused biography, she frames her narrative to bracket out these questions.  But Wilmer’s framing leaves her with little to support the idealized objectives of many free jazz practitioners (as quoted by Wilmer).  This shades into an endorsement of the “myth of meritocracy” that holds that all meritorious action should be (but isn’t) rewarded commensurately — and is an attempt to demystify the absence of a meritocracy.

To be more precise, Wilmer basically adopts the ideological position articulated by philosopher John Rawls, probably the leading 20th century philosopher of political liberalism.  Rawls insisted that envy and resentment were not intrinsic to the human condition, but were the byproduct of unjustifiable inequality.  But Rawls’ position has been criticized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in an interesting and relevant way.  Dupuy insists that there are symbolic procedures (hierarchy itself, demystification, contingency, and complexity) that make acceptance of unequal social conditions tolerable, that is, that give the appearance of critique but really form a protective buffer around individuals to allow hierarchy to function instead of being an actual challenge to it at its foundations.

The role of envy is pronounced in the politics of the far right wing.  Recall former 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plea to avoid the “bitter politics of envy” — Romney of course espousing this to suggest that the poor should accept their lower social status without objection.  Another prime example is novelist Ayn Rand‘s work.  Her pseudo-philosophical concept of “objectivism” is nothing more than the allowance of some people to assert their self-perception/self-identification as “fact” that must be accepted and acted upon by others (while dodging the question of which people get to do this and which don’t, and why).  Unlike the far right, who seek to maintain and promote inequality but eliminate objections to it, centrist liberals tend to assume that envy and resentment would go away in a “just” society (contrary to the view of psychoanalysis, which posits that envy is part of human psychology and therefore would not go away).  The problem here is that the dubious assumptions of Rawlsian liberals cause them to fail to meaningfully distance themselves from odious monsters like Rand.  At bottom both simply try to “wish” away envy and resentment.  As a result, the centrist liberals simply draw a line of exclusion in their hierarchy slightly differently than the right-wing reactionaries — but they still draw those lines and show no sign of trying to eliminate them in the future either.  We end up with merely a slightly different “management” of the collective feelings of guilt over the differences between particular groups.  In this way, the sentiments of black nationalism espoused in this book are often not so far off from the right-wing populism of, say, country musician Merle Haggard in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Rather than see black nationalism as merely one intermediate step in a larger effort, it is seen as an endpoint — despite the resentment-induced contradiction that if black nationalism is desirable then why not white nationalism, or, more humorously, this leads to the satirical song about male chauvinist resentment “What About Men?” from the TV show Portlandia.

Wilmer frequently frames the narrative of her book around a rather rigidly linear notion of (artistic) legitimacy.  (Following Dupuy, Wilmer here accepts hierarchy itself as an externally-imposed order independent of personal value).  She sees “free jazz” as unquestionably at the pinnacle of musical achievement and sophistication, at times indicating that it shares that position with Euro-classical music.  This leads, for instance, to complete derision of all forms of so-called jazz fusion, in ways that are often baffling.

Wilmer and some of her interviewees are right to point out that more marketing of the “free jazz” genre might have changed its prospects by creating demand and thereby leading to wider acceptance.  But those sorts of marketing decisions are basically political in nature.  Wilmer and some of her interviewees are hesitant to explicitly see them as such.  (Following Dupuy, there are numerous passages in Wilmer’s book that emphasize the contingency and complexity of the position of “free jazz” musicians as part of the accident of birth in an arbitrarily racist society with a complex and uncontrollable musical economy involving record labels, club owners, promoters, etc.).  All this reduces the “free jazz” movement to a kind of Ayn Rand-like universal (“just”?) capitalism, merely from an anti-racist entrepreneurial position.

So what is sorely lacking here is the recognition of something W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote long ago:

“[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”

“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926).  Wilmer and her interviewees frequently depoliticize their cultural interventions, and further tend to absolve many of the quoted speakers from having to reevaluate the self-serving and self-defeating aspects of their positions.  In this respect, Wilmer’s book takes a very different view than Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz / Black Power (1971), which saw the “free jazz” movement as intimately linked to militant black political action in decolonization and anti-capitalist movements.  Carles and Comolli, like Du Bois, viewed “free jazz” as unabashedly partisan, though Wilmer recounts and indeed promotes a concealment of that partisanship that is ultimately unconvincing and, frankly, often deceptive. As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek to know in what respect my race is superior or inferior to another race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.

“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master.

“I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors.

“There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.

***

“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.

“One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.

“I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world.

“My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.”

Wilmer is obviously writing from a very different perspective than Fanon.  But in this way, in hindsight at least, it can be seen how the free jazz movement fizzled and ultimately failed, by becoming an accomplice to the system it ostensibly fought against and surrendering the revolutionary premises that gave rise to it in the first instance — Anderson’s This Is Our Music is a very even-handed treatment of that transition.

As Serious As Your Life remains an invaluable resource and a book that anyone researching the “free jazz” genre will need to consult.  But, at the same time, readers should consider other relevant scholarship that throws the ideology of Wilmer’s book, and of the musicians she interviewed, into relief.

Ornette Coleman Quartet – Reunion 1990

Reunion 1990

Ornette Coleman QuartetReunion 1990 Domino
891203 (2010)


Recorded at an appearance in Italy in 1990 of the “reunited” Ornette Coleman Quartet, this bootleg has a number of things going for it in spite of the expected lo-fidelity sound.  For one, there are some original songs present that do not appear on any official albums, and this bootleg comes from period of years without any official recordings.  Second, some of the performances are quite good.  The first disc is relatively strong, though the second disc doesn’t really maintain the same level of performance.

Charlie Haden plays like a motherfucker here — this is one of his strongest recordings of the era.  Billy Higgins also turns in an above-average performance that surpasses any of his studio turns in Ornette’s band.  Ornette plays well as usual, though there is nothing particularly remarkable about his performance here.  On the other hand, Don Cherry turns in a substandard effort, and he more often detracts from the songs than contributes to them.

This bootleg is naturally only for Ornette fanatics.  But there are a enough highlights to recommend this to those fanatics.

What Is Harmolodics

What is “Harmolodics”? Well, it is the term that Ornette Coleman used to describe his concept for composing music.  He wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

One might still wonder what he really means by the term despite that “definition”.  Ornette’s guitarist Bern Nix equated “Harmolodics” to counterpoint.  Counterpoint is a concept established in European music.

Jean Philippe Rameau is recognized as the founder of tonal harmonic theory—the theory developed first to account for music of the eigteenth century, later extended to ninteenth-century repertories.  Musicians have been trained for the last two hundred years to perceive music in Rameau’s terms—as sequences of chords—and thus his formulations seem to us self-evident.  Before Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie [Treatise on Harmony] (1722), theories and pedagogical  methods dealt principally with two aspects of music: coherence over time (mode) and the channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices (counterpoint).”

Susan McClary, “Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound” in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature Volume 16) (1985).

Ornette’s music often expressed an extremely egalitarian relationship between polyphonic voices.  In other words, it indeed sounded like it shared many of the goals of counterpoint.  And yet, he had essentially no formal music training, in counterpoint or anything else.  So while he was concerned with a return to pre-Rameau concerns with “channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices” in general, he didn’t follow any of the specific rules of counterpoint.  The idea of keeping all elements precisely equal is a newer idea in counterpoint.  Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote “Kontra-Punkte” in 1953, which he described as keeping all the voices equal.  But Ornette’s approach was more concerned with establishing a melody that unified the performances of multiple musicians who had great freedom over other musical parameters like harmony.  Though very much like Stockhausen, he was very interested in giving musicians meaningful choices —“positive freedom”—not just eliminating a few explicit prohibitions while leaving in place engrained habits of thoughts.  Ornette once pondered in an interview:

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  This was is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  It also represented a rejection of hierarchical social formations in favor of a more Rousseauian conception with strong Anarchist tendencies along the lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  Put another way, the project that is and was “Harmolodics” can be compared with Paulo Freire‘s statement about “critical pedagogy”:

“Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”

As to the unconscious aspects of this, there is still the matter Stockhuasen noted:

“The famous anarchism is the ‘spiritual background’ which allows a place for everything and everybody without taking account of the fact that a certain object that you use, let’s say a triad, is not the same as any other sound object that’s less common or less simple.  There’s a natural differentiation among things, and if you just leave them the way they fall then they function the way they are, which means some of these elements immediately oppress and dominate others, even acoustically cover others.  What remains in your head after hearing such a piece are these few elements which are the most redundant.  If there’s no choice, then things create their own hierarchy.  If you don’t want to balance out something, you wind up with a nonintegrated situation.”

This is the problem of “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

The zen monk Ejo Takata had a keisaku (a wooden stick with a flat end used to strike meditating zen students lapsing in concentration) that was engraved on the striking end with characters that said, “I can’t teach you anything.  Learn by yourself—you know!”  I like to think that, on its face, “Harmolodics” involved some kind of similar urging to self-directed learning, rather than the passive acceptance of dictated demands.  Of course, Ornette would never hit people with sticks!  His approach was much more like that of “critical pedagogy”.  But one of the enigmas about him was that his compositions were profoundly violent, in their attacks on both the objective/symbolic violence and the systemic/structural violence of the hegemonic culture — just as violent as Gandhi.  On the other hand, “Harmolodics” also involved unstated influence, and one of the things that Ornette’s compositions accomplished was to establish a coherent framework for judgments as to value equivalencies of different musical elements.  This is very similar to the way the origins of financial accounting and monetary systems involved establishing a framework for equating the values of different commodities.  Here it is a matter of establishing value equivalencies for elements like melody, harmony and rhythm, and the various contributions of individual performers.  Ornette had a much looser and democratic way of approaching that question than most contemporaries.  Though there were still boundaries, mostly established through selection of performers (i.e., deciding who is included and who is excluded from the group), rehearsal format (i.e., the settling of pre-performance “debate”), and the like.

See also “Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens”

The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

A guide by Syd Fablo, Bruno Bickleby, and Patrick.

Introduction

 

This is a guide to the music of Ornette Coleman.  Albums are listed chronologically by recording date, broken down into multiple periods of his life and career and supplemented with biographical information.  Outtake and various artists collections are shown indented and with smaller font and images.  Bootlegs are listed, indented, but images and details are provided for only a few selected bootlegs that are of particular significance.  Guest and sideman appearances are listed separately toward the end.  Book, film/video/TV, and web site resources about or featuring Ornette are listed at the end.  The authors also provide curators’ picks and some other items of interest at the end.  While there are some compilations and box sets of Ornette’s work available, note that (with one exception) most focus on only a narrow period of time or are explicitly record label specific — the most significant of the label-specific ones being Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  It is somewhat unfortunate that many of Coleman’s recordings are currently out of print.  Moreover, unlike the deluge of archival, outtake and bonus material issued for certain other famous musical contemporaries of Ornette, there has been comparatively little of such material by him officially released to date.


A Brief Biography

 

Birth Name: Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman

Born: March 19, 1930 (or possibly March 9, 1930), Fort Worth, TX.

Died: June 11, 2015, New York, NY.

Ornette received almost no formal musical training, and was a noted autodidact.  Reports of him being unable to read music are often exaggerated in order to present him as a kind of primitive musical savant, rather than as someone from humble roots who willfully bucked convention.  Though he began playing music professionally while still a teenager, it was not until he was in his late 20s that he recorded as a bandleader and he was almost 30 years old before he found success as a solo act — rather late by typical jazz standards.  His music was resisted and disliked by many, but he showed an uncommon amount of “grit” in sticking with it despite adversities and setbacks.  Listeners tend to have a “love him or hate him” sort of reaction.  Usually described as shy (i.e., introverted), he also struck many as an unusual guy for his mannerisms and outlook on life.  He eventually developed his own musical theory that he dubbed “Harmolodics”, which he insisted can be applied to how one conducts their own life and to other artistic forms.  Often he described himself as a composer who performs.  “Lonely Woman” was his first “Harmolodic” composition, and is perhaps his best-known song.  One-time collaborator Pat Metheny said about him, “Ornette is the rare example of a musician who has created his own world, his own reality, his own language – effective to the point where emulation and absorbtion [sic] of it is not only impossible, it is simply too daunting a task for most musicians to even consider.”  His career (and fortunes) ebbed and flowed, with periods of intense activities and long stretches of public inactivity.  He nonetheless came to be regarded as one of America’s greatest musical innovators.  He also had a considerable art collection, and partly due to those interest notable contemporary artworks were reproduced on many of his albums, on the cover, back and/or inserts.  At least after achieving career success, he was a dapper dresser, often wearing brightly colored custom made suits.  His sister Truvenza (Trudy) Coleman also had a musical career, though she did not work with her brother professionally.


Legend

🎷🎷🎷 = top-tier; an essential

🎷🎷 = second tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more

🎷 = third tier; a lesser release, for completists only



Continue reading The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

Bill Dixon Orchestra – Intents and Purposes

Intents and Purposes

The Bill Dixon OrchestraIntents and Purposes RCA Victor LSP-3844 (1967)


The 1960s represented a crucial period for jazz music, with its commercial appeal dropping precipitously, a host of radical new innovations developing, and recording technology reaching an important plateau of sorts.  It was an era producing many acclaimed albums, which the album format in general coming into its own during the decade.  But even among the many great jazz albums of the era, Intents and Purposes stands out.  Bill Dixon was one of the great jazz artists of the 20th century, though for a variety of reasons his name is not particularly well known and his relatively small catalog of recordings has not consistently remained in print.  That was somewhat the fate of Intents and Purposes.

Recorded with a large group orchestra, the music is able to realize a wide range of textures and produce rather large swings in dynamics.  The pieces tend to, strangely enough, include many highly conventional elements of jazz and classical music.  There are clear melodic statements, tightly choreographed harmonies, and even syncopated rhythms.  But what makes the album so unique is that those conventional elements are a rather small part of the music as a whole.  Dixon places an unusually large emphasis on timbre/texture, space, and compositional movement.  There are frequently almost independent statements, such as a passage with a simultaneous trumpet improvisation, string harmonies, a pizzicato bassline, and skittering percussion, each of which might have stood on its own.  The way Dixon puts these elements together largely eliminates distinctions between foreground and background.  Filmmaker Robert Bresson famously said that while most people considered film the combination of theater and photography, he saw it as the combination of painting and music.  With Dixon, he seems to make music that combines philosophy and (wordless) poetry.

It has been noted that Dixon drew substantial influence from the work of Ornette Coleman, whose unique style of composition and performance utilized motive structures (as described by Gunther Schuller in the liner notes to Ornette!).  Dixon offers his own take on Coleman’s motivic development.  It is fair — and perhaps appropriate — to call Intents and Purposes “harmolodic” music, after Coleman’s portmanteau term for his own artistic theory.  Though Coleman tended to always emphasize elements of juxtaposition, while Dixon emphasizes synthesis a bit more.  That is evident in how he merges foreground and background, eliminating soloist/accompaniment distinctions.  There are also some resemblances here to “third stream” music, such as the collaborative album Jazz Abstractions.  Of course, The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra grew out of Dixon’s earlier, less documented efforts and is certainly one of the closest counterparts to this music — compare their self-titled album from the following year.

There is a very non-competitive aspect to this music.  It asserts itself through a kind of self-actualization, but resists easy comparisons and the sort of jockeying for recognition and prestige that characterizes most other music. That sort of an outlook describes most of Dixon’s career, in which he spent comparatively more time as an educator, recording infrequently and often merely privately.

More than half a century later, this album still sounds unique and impressive.  That is to say it hasn’t aged a day.  But that shouldn’t surprise, because while this certainly is a part of the social fabric of its time, it was always a work of unique self-expression that showed no deference to commercial trends or fads.

Pat Metheny & Ornette Coleman – Song X

Song X

Pat Metheny / Ornette ColemanSong X Geffen GHS 24096 (1986)


Song X paired Ornette Coleman with the relatively popular guitarist Pat Metheny, augmented by the multifaceted drummer Jack DeJohnette and Coleman’s frequent collaborators Denardo Coleman and Charlie Haden.  Metheny’s music –primarily from his band the Pat Metheny Group — is sometimes derisively referred to as “fuzak”, meaning a kind of jazz/rock fusion that is so dull and unengaging that it resembles “Musak” brand piped-in background music.  But whatever might be said about his solo recordings, he really rises to the challenge of playing with Ornette here.  For his part, Ornette returns to a style of playing and writing that hadn’t been heard much since the 1960s.  These songs have clear melodic content, not just repeatable riffs like with his Prime Time band, and the guitar and saxophone play together in harmony.  DeJohnette is great.  It is somewhat a shame that this is the only recording of Ornette playing with him.  While the cliched 1980s production values are a bit unfortunate, they don’t detract too much from what are otherwise uniformly good performances. I think that is really the key to this album’s success.  It doesn’t devote its energies to inventing some kind of “new style” or musical theory.  It instead presents excellent new compositions that expand upon the old styles/theories and the musicians all play to the best of their abilities.  Anthony Braxton came up with a useful three-part taxonomy for musicians and their work, which was not meant to favor any particular category or categories: restructuralists (i.e., innovators and game-changers), stylists (i.e., expanding on an established framework with a uniquely identifiable perspective), and traditionalists (i.e., preserving and faithfully recreating the language and techniques of the past).  Song X represents these musicians performing as “stylists”, even as Ornette had elsewhere established himself as a “restructuralist”.  Metheny and Coleman supposedly butted heads when recording the album, in a friendly, constructive way.  It seems that friction prevented either of them from coasting on a past reputation, and works in favor of the resulting album.

This is probably my favorite of Ornette’s 1980s albums.  I can’t say I’m familiar enough with Metheny to offer a similar comparative view, though this is certainly much better than his prior solo effort Rejoicing (which featured Haden and Billy Higgins, both of whom played with Ornette in the past).  Most listeners will want to seek out the expanded Twentieth Anniversary Edition of the album, which adds some very decent bonus tracks.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Museum: Hidden Man

Sound Museum: Hidden Man

Ornette ColemanSound Museum: Hidden Man Harmolodic  314 531 914-2 (1996)


Sound Museum: Hidden Man (a companion album to Sound Museum: Three Women) is appropriately titled.  Like a museum, this is sort of a curated look back at what Ornette had accomplished in his career through the mid-1990s.  And yet it also offers a slightly different perspective on his past accomplishments.  He is recording with a pianist (Geri Allen) in the most substantial way since the late 1950s.  Bassist Charnett Moffett, son of Ornette’s former drummer Charles Moffett, adds understated yet substantial coloring.  But what strikes me most about this music is the way Ornette’s trumpet playing resembles that of Bill Dixon so much.  That aspect was detectable going back to The Empty Foxhole.  Here it is unmistakable — compare Dixon’s Son of Sisyphus (1990), for instance.  There is a lightness to this music, full of space, with a conversational tone to it much like the style Dixon pioneered.  While Hidden Man might not be the most immediately striking album Ornette released over his long career, it is perhaps better than anything he released until his death in 2015.

Ornette Coleman – The Empty Foxhole

The Empty Foxhole

Ornette ColemanThe Empty Foxhole Blue Note
BLP 4246 (2966)


For better or worse, The Empty Foxhole represented Ornette Coleman trying to break from his earlier styles of writing and performing and develop new innovations.  This was a looser, more free-form style that tended toward the chaotic.  Infamously, his untrained ten-year-old son Denardo plays drums.  There are a few hints of the “slice of life” melodicism from the later years of Ornette’s mid-60s Izenzon/Moffett trio.  Yet Ornette branches away from even that, particularly when he plays violin and trumpet.  Ornette recorded this after returning from extended European touring.  In Europe, the foundations for late-60s leftist uprisings were being lain, such as with the publication of Roland BarthesCriticism and Truth, and it seems that Ornette taps into some of that here.  The album title seems to reference the Vietnam War, from a vaguely dissident/pacifist perspective.

To a point at least, I happen to like this album, which tends to be much derided by listeners.  Sure, Denardo’s drumming is inept and is a distraction.  But the overall looseness of these performances is purposefully reigned in somewhat in a way that many other late-60s Coleman recordings are not.  It must be said that while Ornette was one of a very tiny handful of iconoclastic jazz innovators of the 1950s, a decade later many others had taken up the cause and it was now necessary to judge Ornette’s recordings against those of others.  There is a quality to The Empty Foxhole that reminds me of a miniaturized version of Marzette WattsMarzette & Company, or even Don Cherry‘s Eternal Rhythm, though I like the later Watts and Cherry albums much more.  So, while I admire this album, and it certainly marked an important shift in Ornette’s music from a historical perspective, it isn’t one of his essential albums by any means.

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time – Virgin Beauty

Virgin Beauty

Ornette Coleman and Prime TimeVirgin Beauty Portrait RK 44301 (1988)


On September 18, 1987, Ornette, his son Denardo, and fellow musical pioneer Cecil Taylor attended a Grateful Dead concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden at the invitation of the Dead’s bassist Phil Lesh.  Seeing the audience’s enthusiasm for a jam band’s music inspired Coleman to record Virgin Beauty, which not only presented his band Prime Time in a more commercial-friendly setting but also featured the Dead’s guitarist Jerry Garcia as a guest performer on three tracks.  Coleman would later perform live with the Dead at a 1993 concert too.

The sound of Virgin Beauty was kind of like Prime Time “lite”, with airy, synthetic production values drawn from contemporary pop music.  Ornette was trying to reach out to a wider audience here.  Having Garcia present was, in a way, as much or more about cross-promotion as it was about Garcia’s purely musical contributions. Those ploys worked.  This was Ornette’s best-selling album to date.

And yet this differs from earlier Prime Time recordings in significant ways.  The harder funk and R&B (and disco) elements are long gone, though there is kind of a “world music” vibe.  On the whole, this exhibits less density and more dynamic range than earlier Prime Time recordings.  There also is more truly independent soloing from the band than with earlier incarnations of Prime Time.  Ornette always claimed that the band’s format allowed each performer to to what he wants, though in practice that usually still meant the other (generally much younger) band members still took cues from Ornette and accommodated themselves to the way he played.  All that is much less apparent on Virgin Beauty, where there is a real independence evidence on many tracks.  Multiple performers simultaneously soloing wasn’t new to Coleman’s music of course.  Old jazz did this too — take for example Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers“Jungle Blues” (1927).  But Ornette did free up that approach from adherence to strict harmonic chord changes.  With Prime Time, he also updated it for the “rock” era.  In some respects, the approach on Virgin Beauty represented a re-integration of a pre-Prime Time approach into the repeating riff format of early Prime Time performances.

My problem with the album is that only some tracks are really any good, and quite a few are rather mediocre and immediately forgettable.  I would like this much more if everything lived up to “Desert Players,” “3 Wishes,” and “Healing the Feeling.”  The opener “3 Wishes” features Garcia on guitar, and the drums, processed with gated compression as was the (cliched) style for pop music at the time, use an effective quasi-blast beat riff — a similar drum riff is used on “Desert Players.”  The guitar is pretty good throughout, though the production values are the biggest detraction for me, and it sometimes feels like too much work to filter out the good performances from the cheesy studio production effects.  Though, in its own way, the experiments with pop music production values on this album laid the groundwork for subsequent efforts like Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit and Colin Stetson‘s New History Warfare, Volume 2: Judges.

Ornette Coleman & Prime Time – Tone Dialing

Tone Dialing

Ornette Coleman & Prime TimeTone Dialing Harmolodic 314 527 483-2 (1995)


Tone Dialing was the final Ornette Coleman album credited to his band Prime Time.  That was just as well.  This has some things going for it, and it is pleasant enough, but few would name it as their favorite Ornette album and it makes a few missteps. Even though Virgin Beauty had already presented a more conservative and scaled-back version of Prime Time’s music, and it can be argued that the entire ethic of Prime Time was a rhythmic simplification of Ornette’s music, Tone Dialing more than any other of his albums really feels like Ornette is overtly chasing current fads.  Mostly that comes in the form of some attempts at jazz/hip-hop fusion (“Street Blues,” “Search for Life,” “Sound Is Everywhere”).  There were many such attempts in the 1990s (Buckshot Lefonque, etc.), and most are cringe-inducing in hindsight.  Ornette’s attempts may not rank among his finest moments on record, but “Search for Life” has a kind of beat generation vibe that actually works well.  The funk/R&B and sufi trance sound of early Prime Time is mostly absent here.  Instead, some songs mine territory a bit more like Song X.  So there is a new version of “Kathelin Gray” with piano-effect keyboard playing that is okay, and the new song “Family Reunion” is one of the better things here.  The title track fits that category too.  There is a genteel sound to much of this, perhaps because most of the band members were now classically trained.  On the other hand, “Bach Prelude” (a performance of J.S. Bach‘s Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1) might be the single worst track in Ornette’s entire discography.  It is not nearly as clever or significant for Ornette to play a Euro-classical piece in his own way as he apparently thought it was — there is an awful David Fricke Rolling Stone review of the album in which basically everything he says about the album is precisely wrong, including praise for the Bach number and criticism of “Search for Life.”  There are a few songs with various elements of global folk music mixed in (“Guadalupe,” “Miguel’s Fortune,” “Badal”).  Listeners may not know what to do with those.  They aren’t bad, but they aren’t really highlights either.  The album’s production values leave something to be desired too, with synths and trebly guitar sounds, and a thin and hollow sound overall.  This album is so all over the place that it is quite hard to make sense of of it as a whole.  That may be part of Ornette’s intent, though it makes this a strange listen.  Its most annoying aspect is that it sometimes seems to utilize disparate musical contexts as a substitute for interesting musical statements within those contexts.  It is as if Ornette is making the argument that he is no longer an outsider threatening the status quo, but instead someone connected enough to all sorts of currents running through the global music scene that he should be seen as part of the mainstream.  That isn’t as compelling a premise as the freedom-motivated premise of his early work.  I happen to like this more than most people, but — unlike most other Ornette recordings — primarily as background music.

The release of this album was rather curious.  First pressings were sent to reviewers and critics with a puzzle that when assembled spelled out the message, “remove the caste system from sound.”  Coleman’s quest for purely egalitarian music has always been admirable.  But in terms of how he went about that, from at least the mid-1970, there was an element of self-serving bias and self-indulgence.  In a dissertation, Nathan Frink wrote about what seemed to be Ornette’s objectives:

“He, the composer, is the only one who can determine how the instrumentation of his ensemble should function, what pieces they can play, and how those instruments should sound. In other words, artistic choices should be left in the hands of the artist and not the expectations of the audience (or anyone else for that matter). When talking about Tone Dialing in particular, it seemed that Coleman was especially interested in targeting the critics in terms of how and why they controlled information and formed cultural taste.”

In a way, although there are some similarities here to Theodor Adorno‘s critique of the “culture industry,” this seems less like an egalitarian vision of music and more like the worldview of the main character in the far right-wing libertarian novelist Ayn Rand‘s The Fountainhead, who maligns a critic because he deems himself to be great and therefore anyone who disagrees is necessarily wrong — his self-assessment is unreviewable and incontestable, despite the obvious self-serving bias at work.  In other words, it sounds a bit like an endorsement of a regressive “social darwinist” worldview, with Ornette wanting an “equal opportunity” to be seen as better than others, which he has already presupposed.  It is curious, and really somewhat hypocritical, in that Ornette wants to to eliminate one kind of inequality in order to advance another kind of “celebrity culture” inequality, with him unsurprisingly ending up as a celebrity.  He has slid somewhat from the anarchistic underpinnings of his early work to libertarianism.  Anyway, in the real world, artists do what they do in large part because of audiences and critics, who legitimize and consecrate the artist’s activities.  If the artist does not desire such social validations, the artist can create in private.  Though, on the other hand, the idea that all assertions of power should be accepted does have a radical edge to it, assuming it is extended universally to all people and not just to made available to a small group of people selected based on pre-determined criteria bracketed out of the discussion.

Frink also discussed the Bach piece on Tone Dialing, asserting, “Simply by placing the Bach piece in a different sonic context, Coleman had completely changed its character.”  I must question this statement.  The assertion reminds me of an important hypothetical given by the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the book Language & Symbolic Power.  Bourdieu discusses the christening of a new ship, in which a town mayor was to read a speech and break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s hull.  What if, before the planned event, a random person sneaks up and reads script for the mayor’s speech and breaks the champagne bottle on the ship’s hull?  Is the ship christened, or does the other person lack the symbolic authority to do so?  It is easy to detect in Ornette’s worldview a tendency to completely reject symbolic power and authority, like that of the mayor in this hypothetical example.  Certainly, he seems to agree, in the context of dismissing critics, with Bourdieu’s statements that “[t]he strategy of condescension consists in deriving profit from the objective relations of power . . .”  and against the “illusion of linguistic communism” (the myth that that everyone shares the wealth of their language equally, without regard for the economic and social conditions of the acquisition of “legitimate” competence).  But he does so in kind of a naively utopian way (what some call the “anarchist delusion”), by expecting the symbolic power of certain groups to “legitimate” activities to simply disappear.  This is basically the issue discussed in Lenin‘s The State and Revolution in which a very coherent argument is made that (state and class) power can’t just wither away, but must first be smashed on behalf of the oppressed, and only after a long time and much enlightenment of the general population can class and state powers wither away.  Like most anarchists, and also a few libertarians, Ornette attempts an end run around the underlying political deadlocks.

These are nonetheless complex matters.  I’m reminded here of a comment that Caetano Veloso made in his memoir Tropical Truth.  As his music was growing increasingly experimental in the early-to-mid-1970s, he came to the conclusion that he had a duty to make music with wider popular appeal.  This seems like a worthy notion.  And yet, Veloso’s music from that point on was far less memorable.  I grapple with the same sort of dilemmas when listening to Ornette’s later Prime Time recordings.  Ornette was clearly reaching out to popular audiences, but did he abandon a connection to significance in the process?

Tone Dialing has some interesting qualities, but on the whole it is something of a bottom-tier Ornette album.