Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil

Wayne ShorterSpeak No Evil Blue Note BST 84194 (1966)


You don’t have to know thing one about jazz to enjoy Speak No Evil. As party jazz or a stepping stone of mid-sixties post-bop (that leans ever so slightly towards the avant-garde), this album seems to appeal to everyone who hears it.

Wayne Shorter made a name for himself as a brilliant songwriter. Speak No Evil even features one of his most beloved standards, “Infant Eyes,” which is the song that often brings people to the album. The mistake some make is to only think of Shorter as a songwriter. His sax style was his own, with a smooth melodic style like Freddie Hubbard only much mellower. In 6/4 on “Wild Flower,” Shorter’s lines create graceful motions. Hubbard and Shorter mix vibrato perfectly with the dance-like melody.

The horns sound bright even though, when you get down to it, the harmonies are unusual. Take the swinging 32-bar number “Witch Hunt” or the robust blues ballad “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” Shorter makes each song a classy affair. The album is somewhat eclectic in the songwriting, but it floats so effortlessly off the disc that there is no trick to taking it in its entirely. “Speak No Evil” is among the more distinctive tunes. Its medium tempo falls perfectly between a casual lope and a driving jaunt. Shorter steps outside his usual self. He soloing is more textural. Against precisely executed dissonant intervals Shorter and the band make themselves right at home. Again, as interesting as the compositions and improvisation is, there is no need to understand any of it to enjoy it all. Wayne Shorter as a bandleader gave opportunities for each of the stars in his band to shine. There was a lot of shining to be done.

Herbie Hancock slides in and brings along much of the style of the Miles Davis Quintet.  He is relaxed enough that his piano performances jump out from the rhythm section without having to force it.

Of course, the entire band is brilliant. It’s that something extra a bandleader can’t plan for. The December 24, 1964 recording session had everyone stealing the show simultaneously.

Classic jazz doesn’t get any more classic than Speak No Evil. No matter how or what you like in music, you can find it all here. Dig it now rather than later.

Antipop Consortium – Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp

Antipop ConsortiumAntipop vs. Matthew Shipp Thirsty Ear THI57120.2 (2003)


As one of the smartest and most talented musical groups of their day, Antipop Consortium broke away from the self-imposed restraints of hip-hop on their last full-length album. Antipop made a stand for music as music, with no fixed forms or techniques. They explored something more jazz than hip-hop and more hip-hop than jazz, maybe best termed hiprovisation or something of that sort. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp may be highbrow, but, adopting Matthew Shipp‘s “jazz as boxing” concept, it is a well-executed confrontation of the forces shaping the future of hip-hop (and jazz). This fluid and engaging album is easy on the ears.

Antipop Consortium’s debut Tragic Epilogue showed a lot of promise that they have certainly made good on in following years. They did manage to incorporate electronic styling into hip-hop on their superb Arrhythmia. The British IDM (so-called “intelligent dance music”) scene seemed an ironic place for a new school (new wave?) hip-hop troupe like the Antipop Consortium to fight hip-hop’s stagnation, but it seems to have helped them incorporate improvisation into their vision of hip-hop. Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the final album from the Antipop trio of High Priest, Beans and M. Sayyid as they each pursue solo efforts. Apparently the group actually fell apart quite literally during the recording process, with Beans coming through to finish off the last tracks with Shipp after Sayyid and Priest departed. Though the breakup marks the end of a great group, they accomplished a lot in their brief existence.

Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp explores the interface between the toxic recontexualization of hip-hop and the individual expressionism afforded by improvisation. It is a program of continual redefinition for the individual performers as well as for the group dynamic. From hip-hop, they show a reorganization of musical elements lain out by circumstance. From improvisation, they develop transparency in the process. The developing interface allows spontaneous selection of what from the past might still be valid in the present.

The ambitions of this album get the better of Antipop at times. But these few errors are but part of a bigger success. Spontaneity breaks the typical rhythmic time constraints of hip-hop. Antipop’s control is not yet complete, but the day when the total clarity of vision they contemplate appears to be fast approaching. They propose new attacks and counterattacks with fluid succession, and their lackadaisical raps add a random factor that codifies the interface of hip-hop and jazz. Antipop’s mere presence on this interface is itself a statement of defiance and creation.

One extraordinary quality of Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is the spectacular lyricism. Antipop have that down. “Coda” goes: “You used to/ move like the breath of truth/ you used to . . . Your eyes/ just like mine . . . Suddenly, death/ something inside of me is gone/ Antigone how did we end up like this?”

Matthew Shipp’s crew brings an array of skills to bear. They send jabs and hooks at Antipop where the result can emerge from the flow of the fight. “Staph” makes full use of Guillermo E. Brown‘s powerful, shifting rhythmic sense to bolster Antipop’s lyrical platform. Brown’s lyrical and textural drumming colors the sound enough to keep the structure from ever sounding like a limitation. His style is certainly an outgrowth of the Max Roach school of thought. “A Knot In Your Bop” takes the rhythmic textures to their highest point of the album, as fuzzy rides on the cymbal contend with dark, pounding chords from the piano. Later, “Monstro City” puts the synchronous rhythms of Brown and bassist William Parker front-and-center to keep the album moving forward (at what seems to be 9/8 time).

“Staph” is a standout because Antipop never do too much. Their restraint is important. They know when to stop. As such, the album concludes with “Free Hop” reaffirming the Shipp crew’s input.

There is still plenty of room to diversify, which makes this a vital release in the continuing discovery of how man relates to his world. Antipop know that 4 = 4, but they also know that 3 x 3 – 5 = 4. Inputs from Shipp’s crew make the mathematics suitably meaningful, making the album a revelation.   Antipop understand the complexity of the equation and the alternative ways of reaching its incontrovertible balance. They can envision arriving at that equal sign by more significant than swift measures.

Miles Davis – Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess

Miles DavisPorgy and Bess Columbia CL 1274 (1959)


Bold and uncategorizable, outside the scope of translation, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is a visionary’s upheaval of the rule of the mundane and stagnant. Any cursory look to American music must include it. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ rendition is among the most enduring. For use as a film treatment’s soundtrack, Miles collaborated here with his alter ego Evans who conducts the orchestra, handles all arrangements, and contributes a song of his own. There are volumes written on Gershwin’s masterwork and this rendition (because this is an instrumental rendition, excluding all singing, it is fair to exclude Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s contributions to Porgy and Bess), but no outpouring of words captures the impulsiveness of the performance.

Many believe that 20th Century composition began shackled by Euro-classical conventions. The important things had already been done, leaving little of interest. The odds of success were certainly slimmer than before. This prompted many to follow the lead of Arnold Schönberg or those developing various just intonation and conceptual systems of music. However, George Gershwin–and subsequently others like Eric Dolphy–shows that it never had to be strictly about systems and rules but could be about divining the poetry of exceptional circumstance. If the vision fit in simple forms, so be it. Porgy and Bess conveys the common things of life in a most uncommon way.

Gershwin was a wild card among American composers. His firm belief in the value folk music opened untold avenues. He stirred up wonderful human traditions in colorful sounds. Steve Reich has said, “the human construct we call music is merely a convention–something we’ve all evolved together, and which rests on no final or ultimate laws. And it sails, in my mind, like a ship of light down an endlessly dark corridor, preserving itself as long as it can.” (“Steve Reich In Conversation with Jonathan Scott,” New York City 1985; from the liner notes to The Desert Music). Reich’s own views on music make plain Gershwin’s insight, even though, on the surface, Gershwin doesn’t appear particularly serious. He was popular after all. Well, Erik Satie wrote cabaret songs–great ones. Gershwin may not have fashioned his own language, but he found, as expressed in the heart of his works, unspoken beauties. His respect and humanity shine through every note. Academics are simply irrelevant.

As for the Miles/Evans recording, it is a success on every level. Miles plays a little trumpet and a little flugelhorn. His Harmon mute often appears to lend biting sincerity to his solos. His touch is soft and remarkably smooth. A particularly memorable rendition of “Summertime” is a favorite with Miles’ dry, swaggering sense of rhythm.

The centerpiece truly is “Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus)”. Gershwin, Evans, Miles and the orchestra all communicate as one. Miles’ horn raises a soaring angelic voice above the churning rumble swelling about him. Pleading and sincere, Miles plays his brightest. At the dénouement, he draws back into a husky state of exhaustion.

After such a vigorous song, the challenge to follow it is immense. Gershwin builds slowly with “Fishermen, Strawberry and Devil Crab.” The subtleties in the flow of Porgy and Bess seem effortless.

Miles later recalled (in his autobiography Miles) the two of the most challenging songs he had played were “I Loves You, Porgy” here, and “KoKo” back with Charlie Parker (reputedly, Dizzy Gillespie took over on trumpet for at least part of that recording). “I Loves You Porgy” makes a touching expansion of the emotional range of the record.

Evans manages to maintain the intimacy of a small combo with the larger orchestra. He uses tubas, flutes, French horns, and clarinets to their full potential in the orchestra. Some of what Evans does is not so fluid though. The inclusion of an Evans original, “Gone,” is nothing short of shocking. Not to say it’s a bad tune, but its inclusion is a significant change–much more so than doing an instrumental rendition of an opera. The Gershwin score certainly isn’t rigid. At the outset the results are indeterminate. But placing “Gone” in the middle breaks up the flow of Porgy and Bess even in a non-vocal version. Still, this record is a wonderful meeting of talents to deliver a common vision.

Don’t call this jazz, opera, folk, pop or classical. Don’t call it anything. Just listen and let it melt boundaries.

Miles Davis – E.S.P.

E.S.P.

Miles DavisE.S.P. Columbia CS 9150 (1965)


In 1965, Miles Davis made a slight break from the East Coast hard-bop he pioneered over the past decade. E.S.P. was the first studio album from Miles’ second great quintet: Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Tony Williams (drums), and Ron Carter (bass). At every turn, the group breaks convention. E.S.P. is not as popular as other Davis albums, but it remains as great as any other recordings by any of Miles’ groups. It’s the intriguing launch point for what Miles did over the coming years.

Miles Davis never had to practice. He had the remarkable ability to immediately remember any music he heard (a phonographic memory?). His band did not feel quite the same way about skipping practice, but they certainly had to deal with it. The rhythm section was left hanging to fashion their own ideas about the music — even more so on their next album Miles Smiles. Miles always said he didn’t know what the fuck the band was doing “back there.” Well what they were doing back there was playing great jazz. Left without structure and guidance, the rhythm section found themselves experimenting with new forms and styles. E.S.P. is a great example of the jazz ideal of making it up as you go. Tony Williams (just nineteen!) showed early indications of fusion with some straight drumming on “Eighty-One” (“straight” means, for example, instead of accenting the 2nd & 4th backbeats in 4/4 time, all the beats are accented the same).

Herbie Hancock started to use “no left hand” as Miles instructed. The space and lighter voicing holds the horn solos. The piano sounds more like another horn. Wayne Shorter gracefully delivers melodic solos, while the trumpet coats the sax in sleek harmony. Miles’ magic mute appears for “Agitation” with attentive snaps in front of Ron Carter’s vamps. Miles then boldly lays down his vibrato-less blasts on “Iris.”

The sound is delicate and always compassionate. Tonality is hardly constant, slowly removing traditional bop structure. The songwriting encompasses contributions from most of the group, though Wayne Shorter would later take over most of the writing.

Miles Davis refused to let music evolve past him. He reaffirms his place as one of the great bandleaders and visionaries by assembling a remarkable band that delivers on every ounce of potential. E.S.P. was elegant 1960s jazz that needed not shy away from the free jazz movement.

Ornette Coleman – Chappaqua Suite

Chappaqua Suite

Ornette ColemanChappaqua Suite CBS 66203 (1967)


Somewhat of an oddity in the Ornette Coleman catalog, Chappaqua Suite is actually stronger than a lot of other mid/late 1960s Coleman recordings.  This was intended to be a film soundtrack, but was never actually used with the film.  It features orchestral backing in places.  Ornette is right out in front where he belongs, which avoids the problems of Skies of America where British musicians’ union rules unduly restricted his time in the spotlight.  His playing is good too, even if the sheer length of the performances occasionally wears him down a touch.  There are passages lifted from familiar tunes, though most of this seems new.  The reasons this remains an oddity are twofold.  This was originally a French-only release, which limited its exposure to much of Coleman’s fan base.  It also was a double-LP album mastered as four side-long pieces identified just as Parts I-IV, which, combined with Coleman’s typical and characteristic meanderings, makes this just too monolithic for some to digest.

What is amazing about this is how Ornette saw a fairly conventional European orchestra as something that could be seamlessly integrated into his musical vision, without compromising anything.  It was this quality that made Ornette great.  Sure, he was the face of the movement to “break away” from the “rules” that governed jazz music.  But his real genius was found in his foresight to break the rules in order to go back the the source of the rules and work with the raw material.  He saw a European-style orchestra as something that could be used in a different cultural setting.  This is music that suggests that everybody can get along, and difference, rather than sameness, can be a central element of a musical vision.  One quality stands out.  This is music of confidence.  Every moment exudes belief it is just another step toward changing the world.  It seems to possess limitless energy toward that end.  It may be only one step in a long march.  But those first few steps are always the most challenging.

At Ornette’s revolution, all would be welcome, and there might even be dancing.  Well, there would be good music at least.  Dance at your own risk.

Ornette Coleman – Town Hall, 1962

Town Hall, 1962

Ornette ColemanTown Hall, 1962 ESP-Disk ESP 1006 (1965)


Town Hall, 1962 finds Ornette at the top of his game.  It was recorded only a few years out from his big breakthrough in 1959, but already his sound had expanded into new territories — very new territories.  The trio with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums was simply astounding.  Ornette was and is the kind of performer who simply has to do his own thing.  Aside from an accommodating nature as a composer, he has never been the kind of performer who can play according to any external constraints, meaning he never could never really be a sideman and even when he has tried that he has just tended to take over (such as with The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet or even Tales of Captain Black).  That makes Izenzon almost his polar opposite.  Izenson was a very gracious performer who was flexible (and willing) enough to play what the situation created by Ornette’s sax called for, at any instant.  The dichotomy between Ornette and Izenzon is really key in pulling off Ornette’s new ideas effectively, particularly where those ideas called for more liberal use of space, slower tempos and a more lamenting feel.  Moffett was a great drummer, and his bop-ish licks were really a good match to Ornette’s style.  That is a big plus because I can’t help but feel that when Denardo Coleman permanently took over in the drummer seat years later Ornette’s groups never quite came together the way they used to, with Moffett, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins.  “Dedication to Poets and Writers” is performed by a string quartet rather than the trio, and makes the likes of The Music of Ornette Coleman – Forms & Sounds and Skies of America seem integral to Ornette’s long-term musical vision rather than mere anomalies.

This album makes a good companion to the two Golden Circle Vols. 1 & 2 discs on Blue Note Records with the same Izenzon/Moffett trio.  Ornette feels a bit more focused and intense here, as nimble as he ever was in his playing, pushing himself all the time, and that probably makes this the best offering of the bunch.  Though it is worth mentioning that Town Hall has none of the sunniness in the Golden Circle albums, which might make it less appealing to some listeners.

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Ornette ColemanScience Fiction Columbia KC 31061 (1972)


Science Fiction might be Ornette Coleman’s last really great album.  It is a doozy.

In some respects, this is one of the last original statements of the musical approach Ornette had taken starting in the late 1950s.  Many of these songs open with a “head” with two performers playing a composed line in dissonant unison.  Then the songs open up with the performers playing in less coordinated ways.  But that approach only accounts for a portion of the album, mostly in the middle part.

The opener “What Reason Could I Give?” is something different from the traditional Coleman song structure.  Instead of a more structured head that gives way to less structured collective improvisation, the entire song is organized around unison playing.  Every one of the performers, with some slight exception for the two drummers who must accept the more limited tonal palettes of drum kits in exchange for unobtrusively skittering rhythmic attacks, seems to be guided by a close and commonly structured composition that tries to balance the tone, volume and overall intensity of performance.  A singer (Asha Puthli) provides an inherent focal point because of the lyrics, though really they are not “in front” of the other performers in any real way.  This type of song structure seems like a more fully realized version of things Ornette had hinted at in the late 1960s, when he started working with Dewey Redman, but never really mastered.  This song is fluid, engaging…convincing.  And the balance never falters.

An open secret to Ornette’s music is the way he integrates composition and improvisation.  Performers are not simply cut loose to play whatever they want.  Ornette was a composer above all.  Yet his way of composing presented the opportunity for his compositions to seem to dissolve away amid the improvisation.  Paradoxically, the only way the improvisation can structure itself to overcome the compositional elements is through the compositions themselves.

So, starting with “Civilization Day,” Ornette is back to a kind of bop group combo formation that opens the song with a form of unison playing that leaves specific spaces in place.  After the initial statement of the songs theme, the drums drop out, and then solos are traded.  The bass (Charlie Haden) is very insistent throughout.  It provides the strong urging of a regular beat that undercuts what would otherwise be an oppressive intensity from the wailing of the wind instruments.  The next song “Street Woman” sort of combines the approaches of the first two.  The bass takes more liberal departures from a steady beat, both in a rubbery statement in the head (plus a similar closing to the song), and in a prominent mid-song solo.

The title track launches straight into no-holds-barred skronking from basically the entire group, but then is overlaid with a heavily echo-processed spoken vocal recitation that is delivered as broken, almost independent declarations, bolstered by the sound of a baby crying.  While the sudden presence of the vocals threatens to subordinate the skronking to a secondary role of just background noise, the disassociated nature of the spoken pieces, broken up further by the baby crying, deny those vocals the chance to take on the central focus of the song.  Ornette uses misdirection.  He structures the song to return to the premise built up by the first tracks just when the song seems to reject that premise.  Its is a brilliant move.

“Rock the Clock” again opens right into a bunch of skronking from the wind instruments, but with Ornette on violin playing scratchy, abrasive and high-pitched bowed sounds, then an electric bass gives the song a touch of the sound of the jazz-rock fusion movement — very funky.  Between the bass and the violin, two extremes sit together, taking opposite approaches (pulsed beats on bass, extended tones on violin)  yet kind of create a meaning through their juxtaposition.  This proves to be a great performance of a song that would become standard in the Coleman repertoire.

“All My Life” basically establishes the template for what Ornette would do with his Prime Time band in years to come.  Puthli returns on vocals.  However, this formulation lacks the immediacy of the opener “What Reason Could I Give?”  Each performer seems to hold in place so as not to disturb the others.  All together, nothing moves forward.  It is as if the compositional framework amounts to no more than a very constrained set of rules governing how each performer must relate to the others (as to tone, volume and overall intensity).  The content each performer delivers seems to get reduced to fluff — sort of like a theorist coming up with a complex mathematical equation to model some principle but working it through with only “easy” and unrealistic numbers to make the formula easier to compute.  But “Law Years” ups the ante.  It has a catchy hook, ending with a staccato “bah-doo-bah-da-doo-dah,” first introduced on Charlie Haden’s bass, that seems to stop short of a full resolution, like a person walking then suddenly stopping only to lean forward, through momentum, almost forcing this person to keep walking.  The drums and bass pummel the listener with a drive that is unrelenting.  It adds to the immediacy of the solos.  The title “Law Years”, a kind of pun intimating “lawyers”, is sort of an aggressive challenge cloaked in a nostalgic look back at a bygone time of order.  It is an expression of anti-legalism.  Yet it is delivered through performances not too far off from what Ornette’s groups had been doing for a decade.  This was just a more aggressive and militant expression of it.

The closer (“The Jungle Is a Skyscraper”) is sort of a throwaway, not really up to the rest of the album.  It frequently verges on indistinct soloing without the conceptual force of the best songs before it.  Ed Blackwell gets to pummel the drums a bit.  But a lengthy drum solo doesn’t quite seem like the best way to cap an album like Science Fiction.

Ornette Coleman – Change of the Century

Change of the Century

Ornette ColemanChange of the Century Atlantic SD 1327 (1960)


The Shape of Jazz to Come gets more fanfare, but Change of the Century is just as classic. It’s got too many catchy songs to say otherwise. “Ramblin’” and “Una Muy Bonita” have Ornette Coleman at his most lyrical. Coleman and his group are confident. The feeling that they could do anything proves true.

Much of the album leans toward bop, but when Coleman includes “Bird Food” you know the influence is intentional. There is more to music that pre-set harmonies and predictable song structure (A-A-B-A fits better into a Fred Flintstone catchphrase than into this album). The Coleman Quartet lets out some things that wouldn’t suit the confines of traditional jazz. Comfort is not the point. These things were inexpressible unless Coleman could break free.

The oft-made comparison to Jackson Pollock’s painting style is still worth repeating. These motherfuckers had the gravy. Insides-out. Calling them “sloppy” technicians is missing the point. Change of the Century fails by conventional standards because conventional standards had failed the group. So if you can get past blaming who for what, this is a hip slice of music.

Charlie Haden turns in a brilliant performance here. Apart from the tremendous songs, he makes the album unforgettable. Haden needs to be particularly pointed out. He earned that honor, no jive.

Ornette Coleman was as monumental a force as there was in Twentieth Century music. His albums don’t come better than Change of the Century. This makes a cornerstone of any record collection.

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime Time – In All Languages

In All Languages

Ornette: The Original Quartet & Prime TimeIn All Languages Caravan of Dreams Productions CDP85008 (1987)


The landmark contribution Ornette Coleman made to jazz was in disengaging improvisation from a verse/chorus format built around repeating harmonic structures, and turning it into something that seems to continuously move forward, as Paul Bley explained in a September 2007 interview with Andy Hamilton in The Wire magazine.  Bley said,

“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.”

It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think the Second Viennese School and Anton Webern) than dixieland, swing, bop, or any other movements within jazz or blues.  It also echoes Jacques Attali‘s notion of “composing” as a historical phase in the development of the political economny of music that breaks from “repetition”.  Ornette told interviewer Howard Mandel (The Wire, June 1987),

“I always tell everybody I’m a composer who performs.”

Coleman 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.”

The term “harmolodics” has caused much consternation, because Ornette has never fully defined it — though he has long claimed to be working on a book (yet unpublished) that will explain the theory in detail.  Some aver that “harmolodics” is a made-up term that has no meaning in music theory; it’s just a term Ornette arbitrarily uses to describe his music after the fact.  This view tends to find support in the many vague descriptions Coleman has given over the years, like one to John Szwed (The Village Voice, July 22, 1997), where Coleman stated that “harmolodics allow[s] a person to use a multiplicity of elements to express more than one dimension at one time,” adding that “harmolodics means the loss of a style in music.”  Yet in an interview he gave Andy Hamilton (The Wire, July 2005) Ornette stated:

“The sound of the piano is not the note of the piano.  The note of the saxophone is different to the sound of the saxophone.  The note you hear is not the sound of the instrument.  It’s the idea of the notes that you hear being applied to the instrument.  To this very day, I’ve been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments [per Hamilton, these are “typified by clarinet (Bb); flute, oboe and all stringed instruments (C); alto sax (Eb); and French horn (F)”].  I call that harmolodics.  So when I found that out, I started analyzing what people call melody for ideas.  But melody and ideas are not confined to any instrument . . . , you don’t have to transpose ideas.  ***  Harmolodics is where all ideas — all relationships and harmony — are equally in unison.”

Hamilton summarizes this approach in music, which is expressed by Coleman in his later years in the context of transposition and non-hierarchical inter-performer dynamics, as an “extreme sensitivity to nuances of timbre . . . ” and where “the quality of a musical interval is more important than the relation of the interval to any possible key centre . . . .”  In short, that could be described as merely the rejection of pre-determined temperament, which has been accomplished long before Coleman arrived.  But Hamilton’s rather technical interpretation still doesn’t positively and objectively define the boundaries of what Coleman actually does with his music, at least not in a way that allows other to make “Harmolodic” music without reference to a Coleman recording or performance.  It merely points out some things the music is not.  The jury may still be out on what Harmolodics really means, and it is even possible that the strength of Harmolodics is that it can’t be explained, but suffice it to say that Ornette Coleman consistently uses the term to describe his musical outlook — one he has developed to shake off the arbitrary confines of 20th Century Western musical forms and notation.

In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, Coleman explained his goals in music:

“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.”

This is important in suggesting that Coleman’s Harmolodics may be as much a political statement that is applied to music as any sort of concrete artistic practice.  He continued,

“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.”

Coleman then questions his interviewer,

“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).  That quote is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  This also ties in to something sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written about with respect to autodidacts (people who teach themselves things), who are typically shunned and rejected by people trained in “legitimate” modes of discourse that are associated with dominant groups and institutions.  This is because autodidactism is commonly (implicitly) perceived as a threat to those dominant groups and institutions — threatening their ability to reproduce themselves and regulate the status of members of those groups.  John Litweiler‘s bio Ornette Coleman a Harmolodic Life (1992) recounts stories of Ornette feeling ill when he realized how much his own methods differed from accepted norms when studying with Gunther Schuller and of the numerous physical beatings Ornette suffered at the hands of those threatened by his new techniques when starting out as a musician.

Harmolodics may, possibly, be explained in terms of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan‘s theories regarding three orders of The Real, The Imaginary and The Symbolic, inasmuch as Ornette attempted to avoid the burdens of conformist and limiting social norms through a passion for The Real.   The Real in this instance is the elusive core of the ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. that is the subject that the musical discourse is about, ultimately a lack constituted by those ideas, thoughts, feelings.  The Symbolic is the musical expression as such, the written or performed notes and sounds.  The Imaginary is the ideology — Harmolodics — that mediates between The Real and The Symbolic, a kind of fantasy or dream that subjectivizes material experience.  In this formulation, Harmolodics may be something of an attempt to break free of socially-imposed limits on the structuring of human thought by pre-existing musical notation and structures in the Symbolic order (what Lacan called “the Big Other”, a sort of colonization of thought that creates but also limits the scope of desire), and find more space that overcomes a lack of free, diverse and unique expression, through new fantasies (Imaginary constructs) that facilitate a connection between the symbolic musical notes and sounds (which create a desire to express something through them) and a kind of unattainably direct reality, what he various refers to as “thoughts” or “ideas” or “emotions”.  Harmolodics would therefore be a kind of myth of freedom.  It was radical because it challenged the idea that the existing system of Western music created a justified order, or provided freedom already.  Ornette never completely breaks from the socially constructed symbols of musical form.  He is still trying to express something through musical sound, just like the pre-existing musical order professes to do.  He did try, however, to use music to express something real outside musical symbolism, and yet impossible to express directly.  In this way, 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.” (to quote Slavoj Žižek, Less Than Nothing 2012).  So, in some sense, Harmolodics allows Ornette to revisit all sorts of common topics with a fresh perspective, or, as the case may be, from multiple perspectives.  A kind of constellation of symbolic representations can thereby imply the inexpressible ideas or feelings that emerge at the breakdown of those musical symbolizations.  This may be why the apparently contradictory nature of Ornette’s Harmolodics is actually its greatest strength.  For Ornette, the dream (Harmolodics) embedded in his new musical forms was a means to inscribe ideas, thoughts and emotions with more democratic, egalitarian, and, self-determined contingencies into music.  In this way Harmolodics gives the appearance of being just another musical theory, just another purely technical program for putting together sounds in a “musical” way, which masks the political objectives bound up in it.  Going back to Paul Bley’s characterization, about making repetition anathema, this is the way a black man who lived through Jim Crow America could envision expression in a different sort of society, a free one, by imagining the possibility of change and reconstructing musical forms to suit those possibilities.  This was a rejection of those symbolic limitations of musical forms or styles that deny change, rather than a perpetuation of the inherent stasis of something like European contrapuntal music (a symbolic order), for instance, or even the tonal centers of be-bop jazz or the formalized rhythm of swing jazz.  These ambitions or dreams are not immediately realized through music, but they make it possible to conceptualize a movement in that direction.  All this pushes toward fulfilling the lack of freedom and free expression.  What Bley describes as “totally free” is usually anything but that, and instead music that falls back on disavowed or unacknowledged mental hangups and limitations.  Ornette jumps right past that problem by putting forward Harmolodics as a guiding principle that both establishes a set of rules and laws for musical performance and at the same time suggests transgressing those very rules and laws.  There is an endless back-and-forth baked into Harmolodics in this way.

At its best, Ornette’s music addresses a lack of freedom in a way that does not simply revel in a completely anarchic morass that pretends to be the complete fulfillment of freedom, as if all limits on freedom are simply instantaneously shed and overcome.  Instead it makes constant recourse to melody, syncopation, and other compositional details that provide a kind of guidance, fractured by techniques that in fact often go beyond socially accepted stylistic forms, complete with squawks, conflicting solos, and irregular beats.  This might be what Ornette means when he talks about the melody not being the lead, because in the ideology of Harmolodics the melody is just a symbolization, a kind of secondary aspect tied to mere technique, and not the “note” or the idea that is what is inscribed into the music through melody, and other techniques like harmony, etc.  In its most utopian aspect, the tension between out of reach democratic egalitarianism and the limitations of socially accepted music forms in a racist, restrictive society is mediated by the dream of passing boundaries and evolving in a way that does not simply reproduce the existing music forms, and by extension, the limited kinds of ideas, thoughts and feelings they tend to engender.  Freedom, in this conception, is therefore not a state, a condition that finally overcomes constraints preventing its realization, but rather a process, already graspable, that can never be fully resolved.  The only thing to do is patient, simple work along these lines.

In Goethe‘s Faust, a professor makes a wager with Mephistopheles that he can live without christian morality and not regret it.  As Faust is dying and poised to lose the wager, he wishes he could live to keep trying.  At that point angels come to save him, saying, “He who strives and ever strives, him we can redeem.”  (Goethe, Faust: The Second Part of the Tragedy). Ornette’s wager is that he can live without European musical forms and symbolization, and the narrow range of thought and emotion they embody, and not regret it.  He can’t fully succeed.  Like Bley said, Ornette’s music is not totally free.  But he strives and ever strives.  And above all, he strives to eliminate the mental hangups that that suggest limits on musical practice that were never there.  This is what made Ornette among the most important figures in modern jazz.  But there is the caveat that his Harmolodics is a kind of empty theory, that doesn’t have any particular subject.  The democratic ends he tries to express in his compositions are just one possibility, and in a society that is already free his music could be used to move toward oppression.  Well, it could also end up wallowing in nothing more than entirely circular quagmires of supposedly self-evident emotional truths, even if no more than empty narcissistic, hedonistic, self-indulgent platitudes.  In other words, it could end up reverting to the endless metamorphosing that Paul Bley described, albeit shifted to endlessly cycle over egotistical personal experience.

The album In All Languages was a double LP, with one disc featuring Prime Time and the other Ornette’s reunited 1960s Quartet.  Many of the same songs were recorded with both groups, including probably the most notable new song “Latin Genetics.”  Listening to both versions allows comparison and contrast, particularly with respect to the different rhythmic textures and phrasings.  It would be hard to call this one of Ornette’s best album-length efforts.  The sterility of the recording sounds oppressively dated just a few decades out.  But the in making an effort to tie together the “classic” style of his 60s Quartet with the very different approach of Prime Time in one work, it highlights how Ornette’s early work looked forward towards something that was just beginning — a something slightly vague and unspecified — while Prime Time was something of a declaration of victory — perhaps a bit premature — that the democratic future of music had been achieved.

Directions in Music By Miles Davis – Bitches Brew

Bitches Brew

Directions in Music By Miles DavisBitches Brew Columbia PG 26 (1970)


There is no question that Bitches Brew is a milestone of that beast known as “jazz fusion”.  What continues to astound is how odd it really was.  This was heralded for it efforts to introduce rock influences to jazz music.  But this sounds like no rock record of its age, or any other.  Miles went on to record far more “rock” sounding albums, like A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  This things was something else entirely.  It presents a modulating soundscape with hardly any points of reference.  No matter what angle you approach this from, its massive sound just overtakes your any contextual references brought to the table.  You can hear Miles play trumpet, but amidst the washes of keyboard, guitar, horns, bass and drums, the whinnies and blurts coming out of Miles’ horn sound other-worldly.  The sheer number of players that are heard and the amount of raw material spliced together to form the the finished product was something new for a “jazz” album.  What it ensures is that the textures continually shift.  I somewhat rarely throw this on my stereo, but when I do I’m always surprised.  There seems to always be another layer to the music waiting to be discovered.  The density of the vision is great, because you can pick out any song, jump in at just about any point, and find one of those perfect notes.  Those are the notes that feel like the culmination of the massive sonic fabric that surrounds them.  And to think that “fusion” was a fairly new concept when this album came together, it’s a remarkable thing indeed that the creativity and power of the album is at a maximum throughout.  Don’t bother looking for missteps.  For the most part, this album defined the 1970s in jazz.  That might have been for the better early on, even if it was for the worse after around 1975 when Miles went into temporary retirement.  There probably is no other artist or group that reached the heights Miles did with this form.  Sure, others made major contributions and achieved great things.  But Miles was able to take the basic idea here and take it many different directions over the years with countless lineups.  You’ll probably either hate this, or love it to the point of addiction to the relentless, harrowing journey Miles will take you on through the rest of his activities in the 70s.