Tag Archives: Jazz

Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens

English linguist Michael Halliday developed a theory called Systemic Functional Linguistics.  As one online encyclopedia states, quoting Halliday himself:

“For Halliday, language is a ‘meaning potential’; by extension, he defines linguistics as the study of ‘how people exchange meanings by ‘languaging””

Howard Mandel, in the liner notes to an Ornette CD, recounted how Ornette liked to tell a story about asking a grade school class what music was.  A little girl answered that it is when you put your feelings in sound.  Ornette liked that answer. It points toward the view of music as feeling/meaning potential.

A definition of Systemic Functional Linguistics summarizes the theory (in basically anti-Chomskyan “universal grammar” terms) by saying:

“it places the function of language as central (what language does, and how it does it), in preference to more structural approaches, which place the elements of language and their combinations as central.”

Discussing the significance of Halliday’s linguistic theory, the same online encyclopedia goes on to state:

“Halliday, in a sense, ‘liberated’ the dimension of choice from structure and made it the central organising dimension of this theory. In other words, where many approaches to linguistic description place structure and the syntagmatic axis in the foreground, Hallidean systemic functional theory adopts the paradigmatic axis as its point of departure”

Ornette’s “Harmolodics” musical theory was often expressed in terms of transposition or translation from underlying compositional ideas or feelings — this is a lot like the “paradigmatic axis” in linguistic theory.  “A paradigmatic relationship refers to the relationship between words that are the same parts of speech and which can be substituted for each other in the same position within a given sentence. A syntagmatic relationship refers to the relationship a word has with other words that surround it.”  Leo Selivan, “Two axes of word relationships.”  See also the graphic here.  In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, (“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), Coleman said:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

He continued, emphasizing how Harmolodics was about the exchange of meaning through a new musical language:

“In fact, the music that I’ve been writing for thirty years and that I call Harmolodics is like we’re manufacturing our own words, with a precise idea of what we want those words to mean to people.”

Harmolodics might be seen as evincing a super-Platonic “notion that empirical reality can ‘participate’ in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through” the spatio-temporal reality and appear in it, while recognizing that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.” This fits quite closely with Systemic Functional Language as being the exchange of potential ideas/meanings.  But rather rather than just multiple choice linguistics, Ornette permits just about any selection (transposition) within a compositions — and the syntax is flexible too, up to a point.

If Ornette’s Harmolodics seems imprecise, it is fair to ask whether demands for further precision are normative.  Halliday has indicated that “grammar is viewed as a resource rather than as a set of rules . . . .”  Ornette’s music tried to tear down walls and open doors, to make fuller use of the resources of music.  He always emphasized an expansion of meaningful expression, not a contraction or a limit on possible meanings.  In the Derrida interview, Coleman rhetorically restates the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity:

“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?”

When writing about Ornette’s music in the past, I have largely stuck with his own description of his music as being tied to the so called freedom movement or civil rights movement.  But I go further to claim that Ornette’s music represented an important adaptation of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to music, in the sense of being a meeting of theory and action — more than just technique but also more engaged and active than pure theory.  People like Mark Gridley have written about this sort of approach as a “misconception” (though not responding specifically to my Rousseau argument).  Of course, it is possible here to accuse Gridley of being the one who has misconceived the situation.  The underlying divergence results from Gridley viewing “free jazz” in the reductionist sense of being a technique, and he offers the revisionist definition of that technique as meaning, specifically (and only), totally “spontaneous” performance.  In contrast to Gridley’s view, which is academic pedantry mostly as a defense of the power of “jazz historians” and “jazz teachers” (of which he counts himself) against “journalists” to define the proper meaning of certain historical events and musicological developments — Gridley’s article reads almost like an example of religious dogmatism straight out of Pierre Bourdieu‘s Language and Symbolic Power!  Sure, Gridley has a point that “free jazz” relies on certain techniques that pre-date that term and the movement it describes, and certainly not all “free jazz” performers explicitly or consciously saw or described their music as part of a freedom/civil rights movement or any related, but Gridley’s views also seem drawn from simply a different kind of historical reductionism that refuses a sociological or social-political perspective on the question of the meaning of the music or of implicit, perhaps unconscious or disavowed perceptions of the artists. Frankly, Gridley’s discussion of Ornette Coleman runs counter to some of Coleman’s own descriptions of what his goals were, which alone is enough to throw Gridley’s conclusion into doubt.  (This is epitomized by Gridley’s quotation of Harold Batiste offered in a way all to congruent with common stylistic double standards, which recognize the accomplishments of “free jazz” players only to the extent that they can “prove” themselves in traditional settings, without expecting the same of “traditional” players).  Ornette has said, for instance:

“Emotion has always been far more interesting to me than technique . . . . *** There’s a social quality in music, and a relationship between music and society that’s always been important.”

I disagree with Gridley at a pretty basic level as to what does or does not constitute “free jazz”.  But I do agree with him that “[f]ree jazz did not originate in a striving for racial freedom and equality during the 1960s.”  Rather, “free jazz” arose in the 1950s as an extension of revolutionary “Enlightenment” thought going back at least as far as Rousseau, in part, but not exclusively, accounting for the uniquely racialized and oppressive social circumstances at the time.  Reference here what art historian Linda Nochlin once said:

“art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

What does this digression about Gridley have to do with Systemic Functional Linguistics?  In much the same way that Halliday’s theory emphasizes paradigmatic choices conveying meaning, Ornette emphasized transposition of notes by individual players (as a way even to loosen syntax restrictions).  In contrast, other linguistic theories like “universal grammar” emphasize syntagmatic choices without as much concern for paradigmatic choices which are more structurally determined, which is fairly close to Gridley’s insistence that “free jazz” break established relationships of notes to those around them.  In a way, Ornette’s Harmolodics is defined in opposition to the sort of thinking underlying both chord-based musical theory and chomskyan universal/generative grammar.  Ornette’s concern with (essentially) the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis is partly an opposition to –or at least disinterest in — chomskyan ideas about learning (generating) grammar.  Ornette’s ideas start to look a lot closer to the “critical pedagogy” practices of Paulo Freire.  So, I think it is safe to conclude that Gridley rejects certain commentary about the music of Ornette Coleman on purely ideological grounds, attempting to undermine Ornette’s intentions by depoliticizing them in order to neutralize their revolutionary impact.

It would be wrong to insist that Ornette’s “Harmolodics” are a direct counterpart of Systemic Functional Linguistics — the two are most certainly different theories.  But, rather, there are aspects of linguistics that can help understand Harmolodics, including its importance and its theoretical gaps and limitations.  As a corollary, it is interesting to consider the history of linguistics, and the battles for recognition in that discipline, with those in music and in jazz specifically.  I think one of the most continually fascinating aspects of Ornette’s music is they way it retains some syntax as a way of preserving paradigmatic freedom — helping to at least lessen the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” and the “totally free piece, end of concert” problem (articulated by Paul Bley (in The Wire magazine, Sept. 2007) — and mediating compositional syntax and paradigmatic improvisation in a kind of co-equal and utopian “dual power” framework.

Ornette Coleman, Vanishing Mediator

I have written much about Ornette Coleman, his “Harmolodics” musical theory, and various commercial recordings he released over his storied career.  Reading Slavoj Žižek‘s Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through, some clarifications occurred to me that, I think, go a long way to explaining what separates Ornette’s most accomplished work from the rest (that rest still being impressive unto itself).

As I have quoted extensively in the past, Paul Bley‘s description of Ornette’s music and the role of composition (in an interview with Andy Hamilton in The Wire magazine, Sept. 2007) is one of the best available starting points:

“There was an article in Down Beat in something like 1954, in which I mentioned that jazz had reached a crisis and that AABA form had too many As, and not enough CDEFG.  So I began working with groups where we would play totally free, and that led to a kind of dead end, because ‘totally free’ didn’t necessarily allow you to continue.  A totally free piece is a totally free piece, end of concert. ***  [But Ornette] suggested ABCDEFGHIJK, in which repetition was anathema *** It wasn’t totally free because totally free was A forever, metamorphosing.  It was a form that took hold, because you could finally return to the written music, and the audience had something to hold on to.”

What if Bley’s description, with its emphasis on composition (often echoed by Ornette himself), is largely right but ever so slightly off the mark?  Lars Lih has written extensively about V.I. Lenin (born V.I. Ulyanov) and his political tactic of heroic leadership.  This entails setting a heroic example, not to impose upon or force others to act in a particular way, but to inspire them to act on their own in an effective way.  Žižek calls upon Lih’s interpretation, and expands upon it using terminology adapted from literary theorist Fredric Jameson and Lacanian psychoanalysis.  He says that Lenin acted as a “Master” or “vanishing mediator”.

“A true Master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not ‘You cannot!’ or ‘You have to…!’, but a releasing ‘You can! — what? Do the impossible — in other words, what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation.  *** A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we always already wanted without knowing it).  A Master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly — to gain this access we have to be pushed from outside, since our ‘animal state’ is one of inert hedonism . . . .  The underlying paradox here is that the more we live as ‘free individuals with no Master’, the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities — we have to be pushed or disturbed into freedom by a Master.”  (p. lxii).

“The function of the Master here is to enact an authentic division — a division between those who want to hang on within the old parameters and those who recognize the necessity of change.”  (pp. lxiv-lxv).

In a similar vein, Ernest Mandel had written years earlier that thinking becomes effective when it

“learns to discover the mediations—the intermediate links—which articulate . . . contradictions, instead of juxtaposing them and ‘transcending’ them by virtue of this juxtaposition.”

Turning back to Ornette’s music, John Litweiler, in his nearly-definitive biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, makes some important observations about Ornette’s recordings with his Prime Time band in the late 1970s, when he began working with younger musicians steeped in rock traditions:

“The net effect of these recordings, then, is of an alto soloist of uncommon stamina accompanied by rhythm players who take their cues from him and whose strong-beat accenting affects his own rhythmic organization.”

Perhaps this hints at the failure of Ornette’s methods, while also hinting at their source of success elsewhere.  Howard Mandel has described Ornette’s “Harmolodics” musical theory as being about “dynamic tension”, where:

“each and every member of his ensembles is expected to be listening to each and every other member, to be ready to react to what any and everyone is doing melodically and harmonically (the two being horizontal and vertical expressions of the same pitched material) and rhythmically, while hewing one’s own path through a composition.”

Mandel’s description is astutely accurate, as far as it goes, but what is needed is something more that explains what Litweiler obliquely drives at: a concept that explains why some Harmolodic performances/recordings succeed more than others.  Mandel explains the strength of Ornette’s most effective work.  But it is also necessary to probe the weaknesses inherent in Ornette’s approach from the beginning.  It is here that the “vanishing mediator” (or leadership by heroic example) framework comes in, bolstered by Bley’s analysis.

The most successful Ornette performances begin with Ornette’s melodies.  They key to success is that the other performers must be ready to then step in and supply everything else themselves, taking on co-leadership of melodic content.  What is crucial is that Ornette was not going to supply the mechanics to his bandmates.  There were basically no harmonic limits imposed on them.  Performers were hanging on to the old parameters if they approached this in terms of “chord changes”!

When musicians “take cues” from Ornette’s performances or him from them, like on the lesser of the Prime Time band recordings, then his heroic leadership has failed to properly inspire his compatriots, because he has not yet “vanished”.  He is, in however much a muted way, still controlling what they do.  His bandmates are not acting out their own freedoms in the music, they are following Ornette’s (or vice-versa).  In a practical sense, in these performances, the band members are just reflecting each others’ statements back again, with a bit of a lag.

At other times, when the music is a chaotic jumble, some of these sorts of recordings turn into precisely what Bley called “A forever, metamorphosing.”  Even at its nadir, Ornette’s music hardly fit this description.  But looking at other instances of semi-widespread free jazz practice (and let’s be honest here that free jazz was never that widespread), this often might be called chaotic surrealism.  In other words, it is a crowd of musical performers each performing music arises from the unconscious minds.  Discussing Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon‘s respective theories of crowds, Jodi Dean noted that nothing new appears in crowds: “Rather, [in crowds,] the impulses repressed in the unconscious have simply become free to manifest themselves.”  When people talk about totally spontaneous free jazz, they usually refer music structured according to the unconscious, denying the structure of the unconscious (and privileging the conscious).  Which is not to say that music manifested from the unconscious is bad, but it should be identified for what it is, and it should not be projected onto what it is not.

Certain collaborations, as with The Master Musicians of Joujouka, offer little beyond this.  They get stuck in a simplistic juxtaposition, and a retreat into the past.

One episode in Ornette’s life that always struck me is that sometime in the 1950s, while he was living in Los Angeles, some communists tried to recruit Ornette to the party.  He rebuffed them, saying that while the communist party was officially anti-racist, he believed that the people trying to recruit him would have been racist if not for the constraints of the official party platform.  With that rejection of explicitly communist politics, which otherwise seem like a close fit for Ornette’s musical outlook, he turned more toward a de facto anarchist political position that often looks curious like the “totally free piece, end of concert” problem Bley pointed out.

One of the most pernicious “revisionist” takes on Ornette’s music (unfortunately, somewhat widespread today among younger listeners) is to re-normalize him into existing paradigms, by asserting that he merely played be-bop — albeit a quirky kind of be-bop/hard bop — in the early days, and there was nothing particularly revolutionary about his music.  This view is usually extended to say that Ornette did not play “free jazz” at all — overlooking the historical fact that the very term “free jazz” was developed to describe the music of Ornette and his contemporaries like Cecil Taylor!  Rather, these revisionists usually insist that “free jazz” consists more or less exclusively in unwritten, “spontaneous” music that is completely, molecularly structureless — what Bley referred to as a “totally free piece, end of concert.”  There are many problems with this view.  Aside from “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, and the limits of spontaneity imposed by the structure of the unconscious mind, this is classic revisionism in that it adopts the post-1968 view of a multicultural multitude acting purely and strictly horizontally (“democratically” is another term sometimes applied).  Of course the reason many take this view is the now widespread influence of a particular brand of university discourse drawn from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, among others.  But Jodi Dean, Žižek and a few others have critiqued this view as responsible in large measure for the collapse of the political left (especially after 1989/1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR).  Going back to the “be-bop” pigeonholing, I suggest imagining a classic Venn diagram formed by two circles.  In essence, the revisionists insist that to be “revolutionary” or constitute a “paradigm shift”, Ornette’s music must be mutually exclusive of what came before.  They insist that the Venn diagram must be depicted as two separate circles, not overlapping, one representing the past and the other a truly revolutionary music (or, perhaps, that of two circles with one completely inside the other, like a doughnut hole).  But this is a flawed argument of the “Beautiful Soul” variety (in the full Hegelian sense).  It amounts to nothing more than a perverse insistence on a kind of impossible purity, untainted by the real world — indeed, these arguments are adopted not because of their methodological rigor, but are typically devised after the fact to justify preferences for musicians other than Ornette, without exploring the real reasons those preferences were developed beforehand (perhaps, unconsciously).  But a paradigm shift can include a Venn diagram with two circles that overlap, with one circle effectively bridging the old with new territory.  This is what Ornette’s music was always about.  In the early days, his collaborators and bandmates came from be-bop traditions.  So be-bop remained part of the music.  But the music was not bound by the coordinates of be-bop.  That was the achievement.  It mediated the tension between be-bop and that which went beyond be-bop.

The other important point here, against the “revisionists” and also those who approach Ornette’s music from the standpoint of hyper-technical musical theory (usually by way of transcribing his recordings into Western notation, then analyzing those transcriptions), is that I see Ornette’s main contribution as philosophical and political. This very much fits Ornette’s own descriptions of “Harmolodics” and the purpose of his work as being about “freedom”.  He once wrote about his theory in a super-Platonic way 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 a July 1983 Down Beat article, he had previously defined it by calling it

“the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.”

In a snippet of an interview with Stephen Rush, he also responded to a question in which he equated Hamolodics to human equality:

“Stephen: ‘This constraint on civilization and the constraint on music is going to cause an end to jazz?’

“Ornette: ‘I know you’re right…. I know you’re right. And the reason why it is … sex, money, and race. In that order.'”

Ornette suggested a new meaning for why people make music and why they might do so.  For this argument to prevail, I insist that it is not necessary that Ornette, himself, went to the furthest reaches of what his theory suggested.  In other words, his performances and recordings need not adopt the most extreme meanings in order to have philosophically and politically opened space for new meanings, through music.

Contemporary notions of multitudes of singularities, fragmented pluralization, indeterminate forms, molecular spontaneous self-organization, a long tail of micro-initiatives, etc. tend to fit the sort of anarchistic tendencies in Ornette’s music.  But this actually arose more in the post-Science Fiction era.  One the one hand, after the cultural forces that peaked around 1968 (though the early 1970s, in the case of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense), it seems natural and uncontroversial that Ornette would be swayed somewhat by all that.  And, indeed, Litweiler’s biography reveals that during the this time Ornette became somewhat preoccupied with becoming rich (which he did accomplish).  But the crucial fault these anarchistic (and sometimes paleo-traditionalist) tendencies produce in Ornette’s music is that they rest on mere aggregation (hardly even juxtaposition), leaving no sense of tension, contrast, conflict.  The music becomes static, adapting itself to any situation (yes, a kind of achievement in itself), but incapable of inducing change, and, crucially, incapable of inspiring the listener.  Tension is simply preemptively resolved, and never apparent to the listener.  While these methods perhaps suggest a kind of utopian music practice useful for some kind of future utopia, in a pre-utopian present, this can lack appeal to listeners not involved in making the music.

Of course, a meta-criticism of the multitudinous individualism of Ornette’s Prime Time bands is that it is easy to overlook the “ferocity of commanded individuality” it entails (to adapt a statement by Jodi Dean).  When critics lament that Ornette’s bandmates don’t always bring enough to the table, perhaps a more precise criticism would be that Ornette’s music demands too much of them in the way of uniquely individualized contributions?  That is to say that the demands of the music are impractical, requiring unrealistically talented musicians to pull it off.  The result is sometimes that of a “crowd” of individualized music makers (again adapting a term from Dean), without the experience of a “band” of music makers with a collective purpose.  This, then, might be precisely the distinction between Ornette’s most vital music and his lesser works.  The most successful music shows some kind of collective purpose, made possible through the loose and open-ended structure of “Harmolodics” mediated by Ornette go into truly uncharted territory, rather than just “spontaneous” individual efforts that each reflect back something already known and already established as possible.  Ethan Iverson has also written (somewhat pessimistically) that:

“The use of Harmolodics can access a kind of emotion that is breathtakingly pure, as long as everyone makes the right decisions to serve the music. *** The successful application of Harmolodic theory almost certainly requires Ornette’s own participation as performer, and an improvising drummer besides.”

Le Bon, whom Dean calls an “odious reactionary“, wrote in the late 1800s, before Lenin’s time as an international public figure, but used Robespierre as an example of monstrous leader who, hypnotized by the ideas of the political philosopher Rousseau, was led along with the rest of crowds of the French Revolution that attacked traditional social structures.  That view seems quite typical of latter-day (reactionary) detractors who despise the principle of free jazz, mostly for its lack of respect/adherence to traditional social structures and roles.  No doubt, there must have been racists who said similar things about Ornette.  But Le Bon’s description hardly seems to describe Ornette’s best music.  It describes, at most, a “crowd” as something different and less than what Ornette achieved via a “band”.  Lenin viewed Robespierre as an important historical precedent and a hero.  So, we can at least see some continuity here in comparing Ornette to Lenin (and Robespierre and Rousseau), as part of an overarching political project working against reactionaries like Le Bon.

In the 1950s, when Ornette struggled to find an outlet for his new kind of music, his approach was in part to struggle to assemble a band of sympathetic players.  As reviewer Patrick Brown astutely comments about the early album Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman!:

“As Ornette creeps toward the fulfillment of his destiny he gets his music more together than on his debut album, helped in no small part by Shelly Manne who sounds absolutely terrific here, and by an ever closer understanding with Don Cherry. Tunes are the sort of crazy, complex heads that he specializes in – impossible to predict what he’s got up his sleeve next – and soloing is budding into the maturity that really blooms (for me at least) on his next album [presumably The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was recorded next but was actually released prior to Tomorrow Is the Question], though he sounds quite in control here. I say this not so much to disrespect this, but as with many great jazz players whose music I come to late, hindsight lets me know where they’re going and I’m almost itching to hear them get there when I listen to something that sounds ‘wrong’ — in this case, I suspect that it’s the absence of Charlie Haden. Again, no disrespect is meant to the great Red Mitchell or Percy Heath, I just know how in tune with this group Haden will be and it creates a note of discord for me. Manne on the other hand sounds right at home – a shame he didn’t pack up and move to NYC with the others (and don’t read ill will toward Higgins or Blackwell into this). So it’s like this — Ornette knew very early on how he wanted his music to be made, and putting together the pieces of those who shared that vision took a few tries. Here, he’s almost at that point and at times this shines as brightly as anything from the Atlantic era. At other times I feel an undefinable something missing, something that takes it down a half notch for me. But it’s that close to being great, really, despite my seemingly disparaging review.”

Brown is basically making the point that Ornette’s music demanded certain kinds of players to be effective.  Iverson has also noted that “One of the earliest longer pieces about Ornette is in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. When you compare Ornette’s profile to those of [the other interviewees], it seems that he’s trying to go the extra mile to communicate the importance of his sidemen to Spellman.”  This hints at the proposition that Ornette’s success was, in part, forging a collective project in the form of a band (and, also, in the form of an audience; see The Battle of The Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and The New York Jazz Field).  In contrast, after he achieved success, and after 1968, he became more interested in breaking down those collective projects and instead fostering crowd-like gatherings of individuals.  This was a different project — though it could be said that Ornette still returned to his earlier project in different ways through the years, but his work was not exclusively in that realm.

As Ornette moved on to other pursuits, his role as a “vanishing mediator” (or perhaps, his compositions’ role as a “vanishing mediator”) faded and the torch was passed on to others.  Anthony Braxton deserves a special mention here, given his long commitment to developing new compositional forms that do the same sorts of things Ornette (and his compositions) did in urging fellow players to free up their performances.

While I have mostly focused on the performance aspect of Ornette’s music, and how he related to his bandmates, it almost goes without saying that Ornette also established an “authentic division” among listeners.  Frances Davis, writing a quarter-century after Coleman’s famous stand at the Five Spot club in New York City, said, “Coleman was either a visionary or a charlatan, and there was no middle ground between advocacy and disapproval.”  (intriguingly, this article was entitled, “Ornette’s Permanent Revolution,” which parallels the title of Leon Trotsky‘s book Permanent Revolution).

Part of the purpose of this essay is to offer sympathetic criticism about the limits of Ornette’s musical vision, which, in my opinion, represents one of the most important of the 20th Century!  His later years could have been more productive, perhaps, had he made more effort to document his “Harmolodics” musical theory (the term was first publicly mentioned in conjunction with Skies of America) to found a musical “school” that would institutionalize his program (akin to a political party).  Many fans and critics who lament that Ornette never did this (despite his own statements that he was working on a book about Harmolodics) is that they wanted to join.  This is sort of the hard part, precisely what Jodi Dean’s book Crowds and Party deals with.  Ornette’s repeated equating of “Harmolodics” with a concept of “unison” very much maps onto Dean’s description of a “party” beyond that of a “crowd”.  However, the rather isolated musical interventions Ornette staged in his later career often lacked the social purpose of his early attempts to pursue an agenda of “freedom”, those later activities sometimes reduced to the far less compelling goal of amassing a personal fortune.  Maybe most importantly, Dean’s book, a reflection on the shortcomings of the anarchist underpinnings of events like Occupy Wall Street, is that Ornette’s loosely structured later bands were more like “crowds” that came together briefly, stated multitudinous demands, then dissolved, with little or no sustaining permanence.  The refusal to stick with the slow and methodical building of permanent institutions (Dean’s emphasis in on a political party), is emblematic of the the individualist turn during the neoliberal era (see Jefferson Cowie‘s Stayin’ Alive), and also consistent with political failings of anarchistic political action over the same period.  And central to that failure of institutional permanence is Ornette stepping away from being a “vanishing mediator”, and side-stepping efforts to concretely establish what “unison” means within “Harmolodics”.  It was when he pushed his bandmates into a larger cause, then “vanished” to allow them to pursue the project of their own volition, that you end up with works like his Earth-shattering recordings for Atlantic Records.  This is not to say that Ornette always appears on his recordings in a way that directly reveals his role as a vanishing mediator, but that the most successful performances arose out of situations in which efforts along those lines had taken place, whether through extended practice sessions, careful selection of band members having certain predispositions, or both, which established what sort of “unison” they were working towards.  Those practice session techniques weren’t institutionalized or emphasized by Ornette publicly, but they mattered.  I suppose my constructive criticisms might be best viewed with reference to Lenin’s mountaineering analogy “On Ascending A High Mountain” from his 1924 article “Notes of a Publicist,” which asserted the need to return to the starting point and begin again in order to reach the highest summit — something that other appreciations of Ornette’s music recognize.  I think it is necessary to work through Ornette’s music theories, take them back to the beginning, and then push them ahead even further.

Charlie Haden – Liberation Music Orchestra

Liberation Music Orchestra

Charlie HadenLiberation Music Orchestra Impulse! AS-9183 (1970)


Made as a kind of tribute to the Republican (anti-fascist) side of the Spanish Civil War, Liberation Music Orchestra is political music in the same spirit as Paul Robeson‘s Songs of Free Men or the poetry of Pablo Neruda, like España en el corazón [Spain in Our Hearts] (1938) — even if Haden sticks mostly to a tone of determined hopefulness rather than the harrowing sadness of, say, Neruda’s devastating “I’m Explaining a Few Things.”  The music itself falls on the line between folk-inspired composition and free jazz — reference points are The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and, of course, efforts by orchestra members like Don Cherry‘s Symphony for Improvisers, Carla Bley‘s Escalator Over the Hill, and Gato Barbieri‘s “Chapter” albums.  Bley provides arrangements.

Some of this constitutes dissonant free-form improvisation.  Frankly, though, this hardly represents the finest efforts along those lines from this talented group of performers.  It is actually the composed songs with arrangements by Bley that impress the most.  There is always a looseness and warmth, with many of the group passages having a Salvation Army band quality (like Dylan‘s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”).  The use of “sampled” pre-recorded vocals and flamenco-style acoustic guitar are rather unique aspects of this music.

There is a reading of Hanns Eisler and Bertold Brecht‘s “Einheitsfrontlied [Song of the United Front],” without Brecht’s lyrics.  Eisler was a student of Arnold Schönberg, but turned to popular music.  He and Brecht were German communists who wrote the song 1934 at the request of Erwin Piscator, to be used to rally the political left to fight back against Hitler and the Nazis.  The song later became associated with the Spanish Republicans.

The album is about more than just the Spanish Civil War.  Haden wrote “Song for Che” about the recently executed (as an injured, unarmed prisoner of war) Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, whom Jean-Paul Sartre famously described as “not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age.”  There is also a recording of Ornette Coleman‘s “War Orphans,” which fits the theme but is not specifically linked to the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War was kind of a sensitive topic in the United States for a long time.  Americans volunteered to fight with the republicans, in what were called the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.  Composer Conlon Nancarrow was among them, but he later moved to Mexico because of domestic hostilities to Spanish Republican sympathizers.  Then there is the term “premature anti-fascist”, coined to demonize because the U.S. government and U.S. businesses tended to align themselves with fascists — though FDR later regretted his decision not to intervene on behalf of the Spanish Republicans.  But by the end of the 1960s, there was much hope that the tide was turning.  It never did, and prospects only grew dimmer in subsequent years.

“Circus ’68 ’69” is Haden’s own composition, inspired by an incident at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, unfortunately typical of post-WWII Democratic Party politics.  As Haden described in the liner notes:

“After the minority plank on Vietnam was defeated in a vote taken on the convention floor, the California and New York delegations spontaneously began singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in protest.  Unable to gain control of the floor, the rostrum instructed the convention orchestra to drown out the singing.  ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ could then be heard trying to stifle ‘We Shall Overcome.’  To me, this told the story, in music, of what was happening in the country politically.”

Haden’s orchestra is split in two, somewhat like Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Gruppen & Carré, with each half operating separately from (and against) the other.  Though it says a lot about Haden’s own sympathies that “Circus ’68 ’69” is followed by a warm reading of “We Shall Overcome,” which concludes the album.

This is something very likable about Liberation Music Orchestra.  It serves its purpose of linking the political struggles of the late 1960s United States to the Spanish Civil War, and beyond.  Even if the freely improvised parts are less engaging, the best qualities of the music shine brightly through all the rest.  This is an album worth returning to often.

Herbie Hencock – Sextant

Sextant

Herbie HencockSextant Columbia KC 32212 (1973)


To my mind, this is Hancock’s finest long player.  It’s the last album from his Mwandishi Sextet.  Most impressive was that this was the first for his new major-label contract on Columbia.  Different times…  Like the last two sextet albums, this is less concerned with melody and conventional song structure, but now things are getting funkier.  Influences from what Miles Davis was up to around this time are pronounced.  This is up there with the very best that the fusion era had to offer.

Jemeel Moondoc Quintet – Nostalgia in Times Square

Nostalgia in Times Square

Jemeel Moondoc QuintetNostalgia in Times Square Soul Note SN 1141 (1986)


In the 1980s there was an unmistakable “conservative” trend in jazz.  At its worst, this involved musicians picking some arbitrary point in time and disregarding all of jazz history beyond that point (Amish-style).  But not all music of this nature was so reactionary.  David Murray‘s Ming is often cited as the foundational document for another approach, one that took elements of the past and built upon them without being beholden to them.  Another example would be James Newton‘s The African Flower (The Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn), with a bit more restrained tone.  Jemeel Moondoc’s Nostalgia in Times Square fits into this continuum.  Moondoc was a veteran of Cecil Taylor‘s student bands in the 1970s, and had jumped over to New York City where he enmeshed himself in the loft jazz scene there.  He has a pretty clear tone and identifiable voice.  It’s lyrical and precise, with an undercurrent of ironic humor.  The whole album takes off from older jazz styles, kind of a swinging hard bop form, but adds to that more modern solos.  Each soloist is free to deploy unusual squeaks, intervals and harmonies, but the music generally is anchored in a more defined rhythm and flirts with a somewhat conventional melodic and harmonic base much more than the free music of the preceding two decades.  Moondoc has a great band.  Bassist William Parker would return to the same framework two decades later with albums like Sound Unity and Petit oiseau.  If this album has a flaw it’s that it occasionally feels a little rough around the edges, like the band could have used some more time to play together before recording, as sometimes soloists seem to clash in ways not fully intended.  But that’s a petty concern with what is generally a very good album.

Directions in Music by Miles Davis – Filles de Kilimanjaro

Filles de Kilimanjaro

Directions in Music by Miles DavisFilles de Kilimanjaro Columbia CS 9750 (1969)


A huge leap forward in the evolution of what became known as jazz “fusion”.  Really one of the finer albums of Miles Davis’ long and storied career.  What made Filles de Kilimanjaro such an advance over Miles in the Sky was the way it subdued and extended the song structures while at the same time elevating the throb of the bass and the kick of the drumming, those seemingly contradictory impulses held together by punchier bursts of horn and keyboard playing that drifted somewhat away from the spotlight and integrated themselves into the songs.  The vamps drive the songs but also leave room for modulation and shifts into improvisational flourishes.  The bass, drums and keyboards trade off each other (see “Tout de suite”) to create tension and forward momentum.  The wind instruments aren’t presented as prominent soloists like in the past, but more as the equals of the rhythm section, which gets to rise to the forefront on a shared basis rather than being relegated to a merely supportive role. This may resemble traditional jazz more than the next few albums, like In a Silent Way and the epochal Bitches Brew, etc, etc.  There is still a clear purpose and distinctive sound achieved that refuses to step back from an increasingly militant — yet hopefully positive — mindset.  Most significantly, this album decisively tipped the balance away from traditional jazz and toward fusion.  This one is just (barely) a half step behind the very best of Davis’ records, which is saying a lot when it comes to arguably the single greatest recording artist of the 20th Century.  This also makes a pretty good entry point to the fusion era.

Miles Davis – Miles in the Sky

Miles in the Sky

Miles DavisMiles in the Sky Columbia CS 9628 (1968)


Miles in the Sky gives the impression that it is pandering to psychedelic pop/rock audiences, or that it is just a tentative and transitional effort nestled between more effective recordings of markedly different styles.  But such appearances are deceiving.  Miles Davis and his “second great quintet” were clearly expanding their horizons, and certainly were incorporating more elements of rock (and soul jazz).  Yet the results, however mellow the mood tends to be, are effective.  The album is often categorized as the worst of the Miles Davis Quintet’s late-1960s albums.  And it probably is.  But that says very little, because that band was releasing one classic after another.  This is still a very fine album.  And if nothing else, this might be drummer Tony Williams‘ best performance on record (perhaps rivaled only by his efforts on Sorcerer).  The entire album is a showcase for his relentlessly creative drumming, which never seems to stagnate or rest on repetitive structures yet somehow always seems engaging and connected to the flow of each song.  Keyboardist Herbie Hancock is clearly enthusiastic about the push toward rock music, though saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while his playing is good, seems the most hesitant about shifting away from the style he used in prior years.

Miles Davis – Nefertiti

Nefertiti

Miles DavisNefertiti Columbia CS 9594 (1968)


The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet.  With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns.  Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential.  Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes.  Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section.  There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized.  Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal –if still varied — role.  It’s a magnificent recording.  I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering.  To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.

Miles Davis – Milestones……

Milestones......

Miles DavisMilestones…… Columbia CL 1193 (1958)


This is an album I never quite understood, at least until recently.  Future Davis sideman Tony Williams loved it; I think he said it was a favorite.  Others love it too.  But why?  For the most part, it’s fairly straightforward hard bop. I guess, in retrospect, the late 1950s weren’t exactly a fertile time for jazz music (other than for the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, that is, none of whom achieved any meaningful commercial success).  It was generally a low point.  Sure, there were some good albums that appeared at that time, but most players were still milking either hard bop or cool styles for all they were worth.  The free players who hit big in the sixties either hadn’t fully developed their styles yet, or, more importantly, hadn’t found many recording or performance opportunities yet. Coltrane is here.  Yet Coltrane was a good but unremarkable player in Davis’ first great quintet.  He is starting to show signs of what he achieved on early albums like Giant Steps, but it was a few years after Milestones that Coltrane really became Coltrane.

What occurred to me recently was that this album represents and complacency and bourgeois aspirations of Miles and his associates.  While the rollicking “Two Bass Hit” features a fun and playful riff, most of the material here relies on up-tempo rhythms to mask simplistic and thin ideas.  Above all this music presents itself as the pinnacle of something — rather than, as history would later prove it to be, an anachronistic holdover from the be-bop era, sustained only by the suppression of the likes of Ornette Coleman.  Put another way, this music presents a linear view of history as a linear march of progress in a particular direction, and obscures how it really is music that participates in a system of institutional/tribal power hierarchies.  When Miles landed at Columbia Records, he was merely promoted within a fixed universe of possibilities.  To put this criticism in a more substantive context, this is music still clinging to the model of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, in which a black man like Miles was trying to prove himself to be talented, within an established institutional framework (similar to the “Talented Tenth” theory), whereas in the future, after the legal end of the Jim Crow era in America, there would be a great recognition that individual accomplishment within the existing system wasn’t enough — the whole system needed to be changed.  Of course, eventually Miles got bored with this, and his boredom led to much better things that did challenge the whole system.

Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight

'Round About Midnight

Miles Davis‘Round About Midnight  Columbia CL 949 (1957)


Miles’ first album for Columbia Records is a winner.  While not quite as inspired as his last recordings for Prestige, which included the excellent Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Workin’ discs and for contractual reasons were released only later, this is a mere step behind them, and benefits from more high fidelity recording technology.  The great advantage of the Prestige sessions is that they sound like those of a band that has nothing to lose and everything to gain from superb, heartfelt performances that follow their own muse.  By contrast, ‘Round About Midnight sound more like the work of a talented band seeking to prove that the performers are worthy of the “big time”, so they show more deference.  Anyway, this remains a very worthy collection of hard bop jazz — and album jacket covers hardly get cooler than this one.