Tag Archives: Ornette Coleman

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.

Ornette Coleman – The Music of Ornette Coleman

The Music of Ornette Coleman

Ornette ColemanThe Music of Ornette Coleman RCA Victor LM-2982 (1967)

Ornette frequently stated that he considered himself a composer who performed.  Among his greatest achievements in recording compositions for a Euro-classical ensemble is certainly The Music of Ornette Coleman (AKA Forms and Sounds). This live recording is much superior to the 1972 release of Skies of America, perhaps the best-known of Coleman’s “classical” compositions and recordings.  It builds on “Sadness” from his self-produced Town Hall, 1962 concert (and accompanying album).

The opening “Forms & Sounds” is an astounding piece — comparable in some regards to stuff like Stockhausen‘s “Zeitmaße” (1956) or “Kontra-Punkte” (1953).  It is performed entirely on wind instruments.  A density is achieved through having woodwinds players (The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet) perform almost independently, which is to say that the notes played by each of the performers seem built from independent lines and notations rather than through overarching themes or motives.  Passages with the woodwind players are interspersed with (and separated by) Coleman playing trumpet solo.  Much of what he does would be classified as “extended technique” in the Euro-classical realm.  His performances are stunning — as much or more captivating than what the whole woodwind quintet achieves (and they perform excellently, by the way).  What really distinguishes this from European avant-garde music (Stockhausen, etc.) is the way the music shifts back and forth between the chamber ensemble and Ornette playing solo, with Ornette’s own playing being organized differently than the ensemble parts, with the occasional R&B/blues riff and offhand jazz phrasing.  There are differences between the two types of playing, but they are complementary.  This juxtaposition of differences without the two ever really meeting, and without one dissolving into the other, is the innovative contribution Ornette makes.  Of course, the parts that resemble prior avant-garde music are simply excellently conceived and executed.

“Saints and Soldiers” is Ornette’s reflection on how the remains of both revered saints and lowly soldiers end up in jars after their deaths.  Strings (The Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia Quartet) are used instead of wind instruments — Ornette does not perform on the track.  It is yet another instance of Ornette’s politics influencing the way he writes music, with a dogged interest in radical egalitarianism showing through.  From a technical perspective, it is less innovative than “Forms & Sounds.”  In a way, this piece might be one of the first to highlight a question that would take on increasing relevance in Coleman’s music, especially in the 1970s and 80s with his fusion band Prime Time.  That question might be framed as one of federalismFredric Jameson wrote about Thomas More‘s book Utopia (1516):

“More’s solution — to make all the subdivisions of his utopia equal in all respects — is a mechanical one, which casts some doubt on the equally mechanical uniformity of its citizens.  Federalism is the central political problem of any utopia…”  Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016), p. 79.

This echoes a criticism that can be leveled at Ornette and his “Harmolodics” system of musical performance.  He organizes the music very mechanically sometimes.  Here on “Saints and Soldiers,” he locks some of the woodwind players into rather rigid roles to hold them all equal.  The piece, on the whole, is still moody and effective.

“Space Flight” is the closer, and the shortest piece on the album.  It is played very staccato, again all on strings.  It has a punchiness or fire not found on “Saints and Soldiers.”  While hinting at afro-futurism, this might be seen more generally as part of Ornette’s ongoing fascination with space exploration — he later composed for NASA — and technocracy — in a later interview he described techno futurist R. Buckminster Fuller as his number one hero.  The song makes a fitting closer to the album, looking forward to the “space age” with hope and determination.

Today Ornette’s recorded work from the later 1960s is less known than what came before or after, partly due to fewer reissues, but The Music of Ornette Coleman is a crucial recording in his catalog.  It presents a unique and important facet of his career.  Even if less widely available than many other Coleman recordings, this one is worth seeking out.

Various Artists – Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959

Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959

Various ArtistsLenox School of Jazz Concert 1959 Royal Jazz RJD 513 (1990)

There are a few jazz concerts that changed the world.  The “October Revolution in Jazz” series is often cited as one of them.  But that concert series from 1964 wouldn’t have occurred without a particular concert at the end of the Lenox School of Jazz summer jazz workshop in 1959.  Run by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman was brought in to an audience of East Coast (mostly New York City) jazz luminaries.  Ornette had the opportunity to present his music to the most influential performers in the jazz world.  It was this concert, more than any other factor (Cecil Taylor still being ignored and not finding gigs), that convinced the jazz world that something eventually called “free jazz” was a real possibility.

The first track is Ornette’s “The Sphinx.”  The melody is perhaps reminiscent of Henry Mancini, but without the irony or kitsch.  That was the thing about Ornette.  He could merge the simple and complex seamlessly, just as he could high and low culture.  There are a lot of good performances here, from many different performers, many of whom are stars in their own right (or at least notable underground/fringe figures, like composition student Margo Guryan), but it is most likely that listeners will come to this seeking to hear Ornette’s performance.  Bear in mind this is a mere selection from the concert; not all the performances have survived in recorded form.  For listeners most concerned with the earliest recorded performances of Ornette Coleman, note that there are earlier recordings, including Complete Live at the Hillcrest Club (recorded in 1958) and his studio albums for Contemporary Records.  But the reason his studio albums for Atlantic Records gained notoriety is because of these concert performances.

Ornette Coleman – Ornette on Tenor

Ornette on Tenor

Ornette ColemanOrnette on Tenor Atlantic 394 (1962)

Often considered the least of Ornette Coleman’s albums for Atlantic Records, those statements need to be put in some kind of context.  Even if it is nominally true that this is the least of the Atlantic albums, it is merely the least of one of the most astounding and groundbreaking sets of recordings of the 20th Century.  There is still plenty of amazing music to be found on Ornette on Tenor.

The tenor saxophone was Ornette’s primary instrument when he played in R&B and minstrel bands starting in the 1940s.  The alto sax became his primary instrument as he committed himself to a solo career making his own music.  Using the tenor again here allows Ornette to add some variety to his music, even as his phrasing and musical approach is no different than on alto — save for being a tad slower given the greater volume of breath needed on the tenor.  He calls up a few R&B tricks from his past too, like kind of greasy glissando and honking effects, but there still is no mistaking him for any other performer.

“Eos,” and to some extent “Ecars,” which conclude the album, are lesser cuts (“Eos” was the first song recorded in these sessions).  These are the only hindrances in an otherwise fantastic album.

Personnel discussions are always of relevance on Coleman recordings, because his musical vision (“harmolodics” he later termed it) was, in many ways, fragile.  It depended on assembling a group of performers with shared visions.  When he put together bands with performers who were more timid than he was, or just with different ideas, the results were mixed at best.  Bassist Charlie Haden had left Coleman’s group, and his immediate replacement Scott LaFaro was later killed in a car accident a few months after these sessions.  Jimmy Garrison came on after LaFaro and is featured on these recordings.  He had a rocky relationship with Ornette, and frequently rejected Ornette’s musical ideas (he left to join John Coltrane‘s classic quartet, but returned later to record with Ornette in the late 1960s).  Garrison is also a more conventional bassist than either Haden or LaFaro.  The personal tension surrounding Garrison is evident in places, giving the music a husky aura that Ornette mostly seems to ignore.  But even if Garrison holds back by sticking to static motifs rather than diving in headfirst past the point of no return, drummer Ed Blackwell is in peak form here, making the bass playing less critical.  His rhythms are slippery and agile.  Just when it seems like he’s playing a simple cymbal ride or a march-like beat, he proves otherwise.  He never abandons a sense of meter, but he plays without that ever being a limitation.  The horn payers, for their part, play with delightful contradiction, with happy-sounding melodies played with much dissonance and irreverence.

While this might be the album to turn to last among Ornette’s recordings for Atlantic (setting aside the many outtake collections, which are still pretty good), it is still well worth investigation for fans of the rest.

The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet – Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation

Free Jazz

The Ornette Coleman Double QuartetFree Jazz: A Collective Improvisation Atlantic SD-1364 (1961)

“It is an insight of speculative philosophy that Freedom is the sole truth of Spirit.” – Hegel, Reason in History

There is much confusion over what “free jazz” means and what Ornette Coleman’s album of the same name really means.  There is a Paul Bley interview (The Wire, Sept. 2007) that I cite as much as possible that explains much about Ornette Coleman’s role in this debate.  But let’s step back a bit further.  If “free jazz” means totally spontaneous improvising, then it long predates Ornette or the 20th Century.  Cavemen banging on logs with sticks were playing free jazz by that definition.  Obviously, this is not what people really mean, or, if they do, their point is trivial.  Rather, as Bley explains, Ornette’s approach was to tear down barriers and instead construct his own musical system instead.  Basically, this is the sort of political project that goes back quite a ways, exemplified by Age of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose social contract theory posited that groups invested authority in themselves).  There were also certainly other people working in this direction just within the realm of jazz music in the 1950s and even late 1940s (Cecil Taylor, Lennie Tristano, Stan Kenton), though Ornette did more than most to convey a sense of an identifiable and lasting new system of performance, rather than merely tearing down the old systems for a kind of one-off experiment.  The importance of “free jazz” as a “genre” is that it is positioned within a very particular time, place and social structure, and gains meaning primarily in relation to those contextual reference points.  This was near the end of the Jim Crow era, thinking well beyond its limits to questions of the ways people would relate to each other beyond such systems of institutionalized discrimination.

G.D.H. Cole wrote and introduction to The Social Contract and Discourses of Rousseau.  In that introduction (pp. xxvii-xxxvi), he wrote about different types of social contract theories of politics, and contrasted the views of Thomas Hobbes with those of Rousseau.

“All Social Contract theories that are at all clearly defined fall under one or other of two heads.  They represent society as based on an original contract, either between the people and the government, or between all the individuals composing the State.  Historically, Social Contract theories tended to pass from the first to the second of these forms.


“Hobbes agreed that the original contract was one between all the individuals composing the State, and that the government was no party to it; but he regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.


“Not until we come to Rousseau is the second form of the contract theory developed into a thorough-going assertion of democratic rights.


“Philosophically, Rousseau’s doctrine finds its expression in the view that the State is based not on any original convention, not on any determinate power, but on the living and sustaining will of its members.


“Pure democracy, however, meaning the government of the State by all the people in every detail, is not, as Rousseau says, a possible human institution.  All governments are really mixed in character; and what we call democratic governments are only comparatively democratic.  Government will always be to some extent in the hands of selected persons.  Sovereignty, on the other hand, is in Rousseau’s view absolute, unalienable, and indivisible.”

Perhaps that is a rather long explanation, but it makes for a useful analogy here.  The features of bebop (and hard bop and cool jazz) resemble in certain respects a Hobbesist view.  The players of that style/genre invest in a set of governing rules, and perhaps a set of pioneers who establish those rules (Charlie Parker, etc.); all those players then follow those rules and surrender their ability to change the rules.  Maybe this is an oversimplification, but when Ornette Coleman came along he very clearly marked a transition toward a Rousseauian conception of jazz.  Suddenly, all the players in a combo could have a say in making the rules.  Sure, they ceded some organizational authority to Ornette as the bandleader and composer to put forward some elements of the music on their behalf, but their was no privilege in that that could not be withdrawn at any time (even during performance).  The very structure of the music was always open to the will of all the band members (to a point at least; for a discussion of limits on that approach see Jo Freeman‘s classic essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”).

Rousseau himself once wrote:

“In our day, now that more subtle study and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to a system, there prevails in modern manners a servile and deceptive conformity; so that one would think every mind had been cast in the same mold. Politeness requires this thing; decorum that; ceremony has its forms, and fashion its laws, and these we must always follow, never the promptings of our own nature” A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750).

These “promptings of our own nature” are precisely what Ornette and his band offer up on this album.  And to do so requires an impolite, impertinent break from servile conformity.

The music of Free Jazz features a “double quartet” (so named rather than just an octet because it was Ornette’s regular quartet plus other musicians, including a former drummer of his regular quartet, who doubled up on various instruments with the original quartet — some of the double quartet performers had recorded together the day before on John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music 1: Jazz Abstractions: Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall).  They play themes and variations.  In other words, a theme is stated, then variations on the theme are played.  The variations are not limited by strict tonality or chord changes.  The themes are sometimes described as “buzzing fanfares”.  To some, this is odd, dense, difficult music.  To others, this can be fun, enjoyable stuff.  There are also opposing views about this being formless, messy, insignificant music, and even some say that the use of a theme/variation approach makes this not free jazz at all (a bit of hindsight thinking there).  It is possible to ask about critics who think this is formless whether they are socially conservative or reactionary.  Perhaps they don’t admit it, but do they pine for a sense of “order” or “sensible limits” that just so happen to depend on certain groups having power over others, that reject the idea that people can set rules for themselves and instead believe that only certain people (or even deities, if we include here the lunatic royalist/theocratic fringe) are capable of establishing rules that all others must obediently follow.  If all this seems removed from the music of Free Jazz, it shouldn’t.  Listeners do tend to split along these very lines, and therefore this is about something inherent in the music.

The album itself is just one long track (spanning two sides of the original LP).  There was another song recorded, “First Take,” which was released on the archival collection Twins (1971) and then later appended to reissues of Free Jazz as a bonus track.  John Coltrane was heavily influenced by Ornette — he took private tutoring from Ornette for a while.  This album inspired Coltrane to record Ascension.  So if this album is to your linking, perhaps that is another recording worthy of a listen.

Coleman plays well.  His performance is somewhat typical of this period.  Eric Dolphy appears on bass clarinet.  If there is any other jazz musician that needs to be considered alongside Ornette it has to be Dolphy.  A talented multi-instrumentalist, he played with a very “vocal” quality and often leaped between registers.  His phrasing was more atonal than Ornette’s.  The bass clarinet, with its woody sound, it a good compliment to Ornette’s brash and sour tone on alto sax, and it manages to cut through the sound of seven other players well.  Dolphy was one of the few performers worthy of keeping up with Ornette in a setting like this.  Yet he never hogs the spotlight.  Ed Blackwell is a crucial piece of the puzzle too.  Billy Higgins plays somewhat conventional cymbal rides, while Blackwell moves around his drum set, and plays his toms more frequently, adding hints lyricism to his drumming.  Bands with two drummers often drift into a morass of indistinct bashing around, but here the two percussionists are able to both provide a sense of forward propulsion through a steady beat and range through rhythmic improvisations — many modern jazz groups in the coming years tended to choose only one or the other.  They get some solo time near the end of the performance.  Charlie Haden is the most prominent of the two bassist.  Scott LaFaro is here too, and he would replace Haden in Ornette’s regular combo until his death in 1961.  The bassist get some solo time as the horns drop out roughly two-thirds to three-quarters into the performance.  The two trumpet players are Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard.  They are very different players, with Hubbard playing more conventionally melodically.  The contrasts that the brass players contribute is another key ingredient in making the music distinctive.

The original album jacket featured a painting (White Light) by abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, who painted using “loaded brushes” and drips.  There is a story about Pollock (possibly true) that an unsympathetic critic came to see him paint at his studio.  Fed up, Pollock flung a gob of paint across the room and precisely onto the doorknob, telling the visitor: there’s the door.  He both rebuked the critic and demonstrated his precision (which the critic denied) with that single gesture.  Ornette was less brash and far more soft-spoken.  And yet, he faced many of the same criticisms as Pollock and used similar artistic techniques.  Visiting a Pollock exhibit, Ornette once said,

“See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.  It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

Listeners who say Ornette was not really playing “free jazz” because others had less structure miss something.  Being more chaotic, with less delegation of organization, is merely a matter of degree.  The fundamental character of self-determination, along the lines of Rousseau, is the major break that Ornette Coleman represented within music (and jazz music especially).  And more so, Rousseau rejected the idea of total direct democracy as impractical, and Ornette likewise tended to reject the idea of complete unstructured, chaotic total improvisation.  The music does reject a center, tonal or social, and for that reason is anti-essentialist (there is no “essence” or “core” of the music or its performers).  Instead the music focuses on what the performers do.

There is another criticism of all “free jazz” that it is elitist.  This is a thorny issue.  On the one hand, it was music that was never widely popular, and its main audiences tended to be educated, well-off urbanites.  But, on the other hand, given how this music fits so well with the sorts of political theories that have been considered dangerous to social and political elites since the beginning (Rousseau had to flee his home under threat of death due to his writings; The Communist Manifesto is just a refinement of Rousseau’s concepts), this would seem like the very opposite of elitist music.  Could it be that those who see this as elitist music simply assume that ordinary people are incapable of changing their views, to adapt to a new kind of music, which is almost like saying they are inherently conservative?  Or like saying they are inherently stupid?

Free Jazz is one of those albums that some listeners will immediately like, even just upon hearing about the concept and the title.  This is the sort of music that has the capacity to change a listener’s entire conception of what is possible in music.  On the other hand, there are and will continue to be detractors.  But even those who don’t immediately like this, or consider listening to it to be hard work, should at least give it a try, if for no other reason that to gain some exposure to the pioneering conception of music that gave rise to it in the first place — a musical education without something like Free Jazz will necessarily be incomplete.

Ornette Coleman – Skies of America

Skies of America

Ornette ColemanSkies of America Columbia KC 31562 (1972)

Skies of America is one of the most perplexing — and frustrating — albums in the Ornette Coleman discography.  For one, it was recorded with significant technical and logistical restrictions: the performance would not fit on a single LP and had to be edited for release; it was recorded in the UK and local musicians union rules prohibited Ornette’s desired staging (which would have included his regular band alongside a full symphony orchestra); and rehearsal time for the symphony was limited to the point of inadequacy.

This album was an unmistakable signpost that Ornette was having what can only be described as delusions of grandeur.  The humility that was always one of the most attractive features of his music was receding.  In his early career he sought to find any avenues to pursue his music, first by finding musicians who would play with him, then to having paying gigs and some recognition by other musicians.  Those things seemed like enough for him for a while, though he was notoriously fickle about compensation and sought to  sidestep the music industry through self-staged performances like the famous Town Hall 1962 concert.  Now he seemed to be seeking external validation and acceptance by the musical establishment, the general public and the bourgeois.  These weren’t exactly humble goals.  By the end of the 1970s he seemed genuinely convinced (according to his mangers at the time) that he should achieve popular fame to equal that of any pop superstar, and also that he should earn millions of dollars (as he noted in interviews).  If these things don’t seem to bear directly on the music, a quick comparison of his recordings from a decade earlier reveal significant departures, and these are plausible explanations for them.

The music itself is what is typically called “third stream” music: a synthesis of jazz and classical music, usually in the form of completely notated, scored music that resembles the improvisations of jazz.  Ornette has mostly written music for a full symphony that sounds a bit like what his small jazz combos played, with him soloing in brief passages.  Yet a nagging issue with the score is the orchestration.  It makes scant use of the possibilities of a full orchestra.  Mostly the players play homophonically, with the entire orchestra moving in unison (for what it is worth, conductor John Giordano re-orchestrated the entire piece in the mid-1980s, with Ornette’s assistance, and that version was performed multiple times).  This brings up a number of contradictions.  Ornette often spoke about “unison” as a principle of his music, but in the jazz context that meant having independently improvising players choosing to work cooperatively, whereas in the symphonic context it meant merely a kind of dictatorial power over the score that the entirely symphony plays.  Also, using a full symphony seemed decadent, and the same results could seemingly be achieved using a smaller chamber group.  For instance, Ornette had composed other (and underappreciated) pieces for smaller chamber groups, like “Sadness” (on Town Hall, 1962) and “Forms and Sounds” (on The Music of Ornette Coleman).  In some ways, these things seemed less like musical achievements than social grandstanding, with Ornette putting a feather in his cap to say that he had commanded the sorts of resources necessary to have a full symphony perform a composition. Moreover, the insertion of Ornette playing jazz saxophone solos on a few songs seems to add little to the piece, other than to insert Ornette as a distinct and individual personality into proceedings that are otherwise dominated by the collective sound of the orchestra — though “The Men Who Live in the White House” does point to his light, airy later-career performance style.  The syncopation added by the symphonic percussionists at times also seems a bit clumsy.

In all, this is a problematic recording to say the least.  The underlying compositions do have merit, which does shine through.  However, the way it was realized and recorded leaves much to be desired.  In hindsight, this was a sign that the 1970s were going to be rocky when it came to Ornette Coleman recordings.

My own view of the album tends to vary widely depending on when I hear the album.  I can listen to it and think that Ornette is a complete dilettante, and another time listen to it and think it is inspired if still hampered in how it was recorded.  My feelings are mixed.

Ornette Coleman – Dancing in Your Head

Dancing in Your Head

Ornette ColemanDancing in Your Head Horizon 21 / A&M SP-722 (1977)

Here’s an album that finds Ornette Coleman, in many ways, reversing his musical approach.  Perhaps that’s unfair, or not strictly accurate.  This album points to the limits and hypocrisies embedded in Ornette’s musical approach all along, or how his musical approach could falter.

Howard Mandel wrote in his book Miles, Ornette, Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz:

“Creating harmolodic music involves, for Ornette, restructuring the interplay of aspects of organized sound that in jazz and other genres produce a dynamic tension.  Musicians may seize any tone as a harmonic resolution, freed from the tyranny of fixed chord sequences and their closely related substitutions, the requirement of adhering to  a schedule for passing through whatever chords and substitutions are prescribed to accompany given melodies.  Ornette desires lightning rhythmic response to the structural realignments that can be inferred from melodic variation.  This means 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.

This is a fairly astute description of Ornette’s music, at least into the early 1970s.  But Max Harrison wrote in A Jazz Retrospect about Ornette’s symphonic piece “Forms and Sounds” that “[w]hatever indeterminate procedures are written into the Sounds and forms [sic] score do not work, and he does not appear to have grasped that the demands and consequences peculiar to this kind of activity do not parallel those implicit in a jazz solo’s indeterminacy . . . .”  This is essentially a criticism that Ornette’s theories are incomplete, and they do not account for or explain the implicit assumptions of the particular musical habits he and his (small) band members had internalized.  This became apparent in the 70s when Ornette’s Prime Time band tended to draw its members from the ranks of a variety of post-rock-and-roll scenes, rather than from the fairly homogeneous bebop backgrounds of his earliest groups.  Harrison goes on to say that the “Forms and Sounds” recording “drifts on steadily, departing from nowhere and arriving nowhere: when there is no change of emphasis there is no scope for expression.”  This is much like saying the “dynamic tension” is missing.  Even if that commentary is perhaps overly harsh (if not completely wrongheaded) with regard to “Forms and Sounds,” it is the sort of criticism that could well be leveled at Dancing in Your Head.

An analogy that might be made here is to the philosophical debate over so-called positive and negative freedoms.  Under common definitions, negative freedom tends to mean “the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints” while positive freedom tends to mean “the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.”  While Ornette often claimed to be opening up possibilities in his music, to free the performers to play as they chose, this sometimes seemed confined to negative freedom, in that Ornette did not externally impose restrictions on others in the band but he also did not urge any fundamental insights.  Did the other musicians use that negative freedom to pursue any fundamental purpose that is of any interest to listeners?  Did Ornette need to pursue positive freedom in order to make his groups’ music interesting, and was that aspect missing from his theoretical explanations of how his music operates?  These are significant questions when looking at the substance of Ornette’s music.

Ornette had made music before based on a freedom principle and an egalitarian attitude toward improvisation.  Though into the 1970s there was more aggression in his music, and he sometimes seemed a bit jaded and humorless. The egalitarian impulses are also subdued, and, at times, also his humility.  Ornette assembled his Prime Time band using many musicians considerably younger than him, and often without any jazz pedigree.  This tended to mean the musicians were extremely deferential to him.  Ornette was kind of like the group’s master, or guru, and everybody else followed him.  John Litweiler, in his useful and informative biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, makes some important observations about these recordings (and those of the follow-up Body Meta):

“Although Ornette’s own phrasing is considerably more symmetrical than in the past, with a great many sequences and repeated licks — he gravitates naturally to three-note phrases that accent strong beats, and to longer phrases that begin and end on downbeats — his improvising is by far the most varied, mobile and melodic of the group.  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.”

Litweiler continues by saying that the other players use Ornette’s lines for inspiration, and the influence of rock on their playing makes them “less rhythmically free than Ornette’s early players, and their roles are in a sense more restricted.”  This is not at all like what Mandel described — every other musician may need to listen, especially to Ornette, but Ornette wasn’t listening and reacting to the others much, aside from a very generalized shift in his rhythmic phrasing.

On Dancing in Your Head, performances by the electric jazz combo Prime Time are paired with one track of Ornette (and the critic Robert Palmer) playing with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka.  While Ornette saw this meeting of western jazz with the ancient sufi trance music of the Master Musicians as transcending parochial boundaries, and returning to an engagement with dancing audiences largely absent from the cerebral and sedentary audiences for avant garde jazz, there is an unacknowledged flaw in seeing this as transcendent, revolutionary music.  Really the relationship of other musicians deferring to Ornette is simply reversed from that of Prime Time, with him now deferring to the Master Musicians.  More troubling is the way that such deference potentially implies a silly longing for a return to “traditional values.”  The Master Musicians are exclusively male, and membership is hereditary.  They represent, in some ways, a pre-modern, aristocratic/feudal/guild approach to music-making.  So is this musical expression dependent upon hierarchies, like the traditional ones that have oppressed women (etc.) for millennia?  And hadn’t Ornette’s own bands largely lacked female membership (other than a few isolated exceptions)?  And hasn’t Ornette made various homophobic comments in the press through the years?  Doesn’t Ornette’s passion for musical freedom ring a bit hollow from this perspective?

For the most part, this music simply modulates over and over on the same basic theme, locked into a fairly static rhythm.  This is precisely the opposite of the quasi-serialism embedded in Ornette’s music for so long.  On the one hand, Ornette deserves to be commended for not limiting his music, and expanding the possibilities of what it could encompass.  On the other hand, this also lacks the qualities that made Ornette a name anyone paid attention to.  It seems almost contrarian.

When it came to synthesizing aspects of music from around the world, Ornette was a few steps behind his former musical associates like Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell.  And yet, “Midnight Sunrise” with the Master Musicians is the best thing here.  That is partly because the Master Musicians are always great, independent of what Ornette contributes.  But for his part Ornette manages to perform in a way that is reminiscent of his usual highly personal style yet not completely overwhelming, like his playing often can be.  “Midnight Sunrise” is as deferential a performance as anything in Ornette’s career.  Still, “Midnight Sunrise” makes up only a fraction of the album, while an entire album like it would have perhaps opened up a space for further development of a deeper rapport between Ornette and the Master Musicians, and offered more give and take — maybe even overcoming the leader/follower dynamic.

Dancing in Your Head is another polarizing recording — some even take a masochistic view of it praising how “annoying” it is.  Although this album tends to be one of the most highly regarded Prime Time albums, Of Human Feelings deserves to be reconsidered as possibly a superior (if still slightly flawed) version of the bulk of this music.

Ornette Coleman – To Whom Who Keeps a Record

To Whom Who Keeps a Record

Ornette ColemanTo Whom Who Keeps a Record Atlantic P-10085A (1975)

An “odds and sods” type collection of old/outtake material recorded for Atlantic Records from sessions in October 1959 and July 1960 that wasn’t already purged from the vaults on The Art of the Improvisers and Twins.  Some blistering moments are to be found, and most musicians would die for rejects this good, but by and large the performances are flawed.  For instance, the opener “Music Always” features a listless bebop ride by drummer Billy Higgins that is stiff and leaden.  Yet “To Us” and “P.S. Unless One Has (Blues Connotation No. 2)” are high-quality cuts, the latter falling only slightly shy of the issued take of “Blues Connotation” on This Is Our Music.  Fans will enjoy this in spite of its uneven qualities (all the songs are included on the box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing), but there are much better Coleman albums to explore.

The Ornette Coleman Quartet – This Is Our Music

This Is Our Music

The Ornette Coleman QuartetThis Is Our Music Atlantic 1353 (1961)

The biography of Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s and early 1960s is fascinating.  He recorded all his early studio albums in Los Angeles, and This Is Our Music came from his first sessions in New York City in later summer of 1960.  A lot had happened since he departed L.A. for good.  For one, he had finally, after many years, secured a running stand of gigs performing live (at The Five Spot Cafe) in 1959, and had become a polarizing sensation in the New York jazz world.  He followed that with a tour, and then back to more gigs in New York City.  What is more, while continuing to work with core collaborators Charlie Haden (bass) and Don Cherry (trumpet), his working band underwent an important shift.  Drummer Billy Higgins lost his cabaret card (essential for live performers in New York City at the time), which provided Ornette with the opportunity to reunite with innovative New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell, who moved the group’s rhythmic structure further away from bebop.  Blackwell was an old friend of Ornette’s.  Suffice it to say, this version of the Ornette Coleman Quartet was well versed performing together by the time they entered the studio to record what became this album.

In the liner notes to the following year’s Ornette!, Gunther Schuller described the overall structure of an Ornette solo this way:

“Little motives are attacked from every conceivable angle, tried sequentially in numerous ways until they yield a motive springboard for a new and contrasting idea, which will in turn be developed similarly, only to yield another link in the chain of musical thought, and so on until the entire statement is made.”

This almost equates Ornette’s musical approach with the cubism of the likes of Picasso, a style frequently described as when a visual artist depicts a subject from a multitude of viewpoints in a single work.

George Russell also commented in 1960 about his own concept of “pan-tonality” and how Ornette represented a kind of implementation of an overall sound not bound to any one tonal center, whereby, as critic T.E. Martin later added (“The Plastic Muse, Part 2,” Jazz Monthly June 1964), all tonalities are possible.

Ornette and his sidemen have never offered any satisfactory explanation of “Harmolodics,” the musical theory Ornette applies.  Ornette tends to describe this as playing in “unison”, but the problem is that he uses that word in a way that is sui generis and therefore non-explanatory.  One of the more useful comments they have made (both Ornette and sideman Don Cherry are on record making such comments) is that the players think through all the chord changes in a song and then play something beyond the changes.  This comment doesn’t entirely make sense either.  Ornette’s bands didn’t exactly play atonally.  So this seems to circle back, perhaps, to George Russell’s comments about “pantonality” and Gunther Schuller’s comments about “motives”.  The underlying question is what links each sound together, harmonically (when played simultaneously) and melodically (when played over time).  Playing “beyond the changes” might mean that the subject of each song is never stated directly, but instead a copious amount of indirect statements (untethered to chord changes) imply what is missing and perhaps cannot be directly expressed by chord changes.  But really the reason why Ornette attempts any of this in the first place seems to lie beyond pure musicality and rest somewhere in the realm of sociopolitical ideology; Ornette’s worldview put him squarely on the political left, close to anarcho-syndicalism (don’t know what that is?  Read Ursula K. Le Guin‘s classic sci-fi novel The Dispossessed).

This Is Our Music is one of the essential Ornette Coleman albums.  It opens with the stupendous “Blues Connotation,” one of the songs that draws from Ornette’s background playing in R&B bands.  He does a few low, rumbling growl/squawks close to the R&B sax tradition.  The song is a great example of one of Ornette’s most endearing qualities.  This is a song with a melody that has an innocent, childlike simplicity, and yet, this is precisely not some sort of retreat to a fantasy of a safe and secure childhood.  No, this is about mature adult things, the sort of music that is beyond the capacity of infant children.  Yet it is an argument that mature adult topics should include a space for innocence and simplicity and goodness (compare here the physicist character Shevek in Le Guin’s novel mentioned earlier).

“Beauty Is a Rare Thing” is a slower tune that is an early example of Ornette’s interest in orchestral composition.  Haden plays his bass arco (bowed) insistently and deliberately to provide subtle and slowly evolving support, and Blackwell plays lightly on his toms (not unlike how a symphony would play tympani) and switches to cymbal rides and washes for a stretch.  Cherry plays brief squeaks behind Coleman, quite atonally.  The song is nothing if not a piece that builds and develops a sense of momentum in spite of the angular and abrupt soloing that would normally seem to lead in the opposite direction.

Kaleidoscope” is a twisting, complex composition.  It is a fast number drawing from bebop.  It quickens the tempo to something allegro (fast) after the largo (slow) “Beauty Is a Rare Thing.”  It’s also a chance to hear the players stretch out with showier solos.  Blackwell is all over his kit.  The horn players have been described as playing violently (relatively speaking).

“Embraceable You” is a rare standard (rare for Coleman albums that is).  It gets an appropriately sarcastic reading, complete with the horn players offering swaying, almost staggering lines, at times like a band playing gag lines to get a rise from the audience.

The rest of the album continues at a high level, mostly reaffirming what had already been mapped out earlier on the album.  But the compositions are strong, especially the quirky charm of the lyrical “Humpty Dumpty.”

This Is Our Music stands as one of the finest Ornette Coleman albums from top to bottom.  Even the cool indifferent photo of the group on the album cover, carrying the humbly provocative title “This Is Our Music,” has become iconic (and frequently tributed on other album covers).