Tag Archives: Ornette Coleman

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).

Ornette + Joachim Kühn – Colors: Live From Leipzig

Colors: Live From Leipzig

Ornette + Joachim KühnColors: Live From Leipzig Verve 314 537 789-2 (1997)

If there is a problem with Ornette Coleman’s later years, it is that the central question of “freedom” addressed by his music lost its immediacy.  This is to say that the problem of a lack of freedom had an immanent character in the late 1950s and early 60s when he first rose to prominence, when racial segregation and so forth were the norm.  But after the 1960s came to a close, and as Ornette became (perhaps grudgingly) accepted as an elder statesman of jazz.  At this point wasn’t he “free” and the game over?  This is to say the pursuit of freedom in “free jazz” doesn’t really mean much if the listening audience doesn’t recognize that pursuit juxtaposed with certain conditions of non-freedom.  So the question becomes, yes he is free, why does that matter?

There was plenty of space for Ornette to pursue amusements from the 1980s onward.  There was much more of a tendency for his later music to be meditations on very elemental but also very innocent pleasures.  Songs like “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages) come to mind here.  But, that is also misleading.  Because as time went on Ornette managed to use that approach to probe the banality of modernity.  With mixed results, this lead to Virgin Beauty and Tone Dialing, though the approach started earlier (like “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” the theme song from a daytime TV show, on Soapsuds, Soapsuds). He was also doing comparisons between his musical ideas and established ones.  So Tone Dialing included “Bach Prelude.”  This was a more academic approach, perhaps, a kind of open dialog.  But it also was a kind of scientific attitude of sorts that looked at the way his (arbitrary) methods emerge from the conditions around him and how other circumstances faced by others produce different, or even slightly similar methods.

Joachim Kühn is a pianist raised in the former East Germany (GDR).  He had classical music training but turned to jazz when beginning his professional career.  It is Kühn’s classical training and seeming affinity for the Second Viennese School‘s chromatic expressionism that makes him a rather perfect pairing with Ornette.  The two players are able to meander endlessly, usually independently, but also with Kühn reacting to Coleman.  There is plenty of space in these performances for reflection.

Coleman notoriously avoided working with pianists most of his career, to avoid locating a tonal center on the fixed keys of a piano.  But late in that career, he kind of had nothing to prove, and in fact could prove that he was not bound to tonality best by working with a pianist anyway!  Ornette still plays in his trademark way, with practically no vibrato and with lines that tend to sustain the high notes.  There is little of the R&B influence of Ornette’s early recordings.  No matter.  These performances are wonderful.

Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come

The Shape of Jazz to Come

Ornette ColemanThe Shape of Jazz to Come Atlantic SD 1317 (1959)

Ornette Coleman’s second album as a leader has the bold title “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (selected by the producer Nesuhi Ertegun) and few albums earn such bold statements as this one does.  His music has always pushed anarchic tendencies.  In 1959, he was still accustomed to the format of bop and hard bop, and those habits of thought definitely inform this music.  The songs open with a head played by the entire group, and the performers trade solos before returning to the head.  Now, the catch is that both the head and those solos don’t sound at all like any others around in 1959, excepting perhaps a few forward-thinking performers like Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra.

The opening “Lonely Woman” is perhaps the single best-known Coleman composition.  The sour, dissonant melody played by Coleman on his plastic alto sax (he was unable to afford a metal one in his early career) and Don Cherry on cornet stumbles along, falling forward.  Ornette said he composed the song after coming across a painting of a wealthy woman who looked sad to him.  As was Ornette’s key approach to music, the song features unusual improvisation with the players free to melodically improvise without fixed harmonic relationships to each other or a tonal center.  The result is that music theory and the limiting rules inherent in that kind of knowledge are subordinated (if not completely discarded) to the ideas (Ornette referred to “emotion”) that the performers hold form in their performances.  The performers may have been habituated to the format of bop jazz, but they were clearly heading in a completely different direction.

When Ornette plays a slurred trill on “Eventually,” he almost sings into his horn in a way that drives home the new set of values embodied in the music.  For if anything, Ornette’s music represented the expression of different political choices that couldn’t be expressed in the old forms.  So he crafted new ones.  When you hear this, note how fun and happy much of the music is at its core.  In a context in which feeling good expressing yourself without guilt is deemed unacceptable, then going ahead is radical.  But with Ornette, he does this amazing thing.  He fights for this arena to express things in music without positioning himself as some kind of messiah-like figure with unique talents.  The way he plays makes you think you could maybe do it too.  The Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini said in an interview, “My nostalgia is for those poor and real people who struggled to defeat the landlord without becoming that landlord.”  This is precisely what Ornette’s music represents, and why it seems right to have a certain fondness for The Shape of Jazz to Come decades later.  You can gauge anyone’s politics by how they react to this album — those who want to retain modes of domination in society won’t take a liking to it.  And people who claim Ornette had limited abilities should be asked: by whose standards?

It is a commentary on the lack of meritocracy in the world, but Ornette owed much of his “break” into the professional music world to John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, who helped Ornette find gigs, a record label and gain some kind of credibility from an endorsement by an acknowledged star.  Of note, though, is that it was a respected musician like Lewis, who had a masters degree in music and taught music at prestigious conservatories associated with European classical music, had enough credentials to allow him to support Ornette’s music without being criticized as not knowing what he was talking about.  Other self-taught musicians who lacked such institutional credentials would risk being labeled as know-nothings for supporting Ornette’s music.  But, all that aside, Ornette did well with the opportunities available to him.

With his time in the spotlight on Atlantic Records, Ornette recorded music as radical as anything heard before in jazz.  Musicians who worked their entire lives to perfect their skills playing chord changes were probably chagrined to see Ornette throw all that out and place an emphasis on other elements, improvising with composition as much as interpretation in his solos.  The more open-minded found in Ornette a visionary.  No doubt, Ornette had a much more individualistic conception of musical performance than most listeners (and society writ large) were ready to accept in the late 1950s, which is to say he thought everyone should have much more latitude to express themselves in their own ways without deference to established modes of expression (which invariably are the products of institutions that reproduce social hierarchies).  So perhaps under the old critical standards this music is played “poorly”, but the point is that the old standards are self-serving and this music steps outside them.

Ornette plays in a harsh way, with a sound always about a quarter cent sharp.  This was partly due to playing a plastic Grafton saxophone.  But even after he bought a new metal one, his sound retained its biting qualities.  It was simply his sound.  Don Cherry played cornet in a similar way.  He had a knack for keeping to Ornette’s melodic lines with a characteristic phase-shift, always a split second off of Ornette’s timing.  Bassist Charlie Haden plays with a warm, R&B tinge, occasionally playing double stops (“Focus on Sanity,” “Chronology”) in a fluid, buoying way that contrasts with the dissonant horns.  Drummer Billy Higgins is basically a very forward-thinking bebop drummer, who grew into the free jazz movement.  His playing is rather rooted in bop structure here, which is a major reason why The Shape of Jazz to Come is an easier listen than some of Coleman’s later works with more free-wheeling percussion and rapidly shifting polyrhythms.

“Peace” is the longest track here, and the group plays with a lot of space, at a slower tempo.  The song says as much in the notes left out as in the ones played.  Is peace about their being less in the world?  Less what?  Take a listen and wonder.

The Shape of Jazz to Come is certainly one of Ornette’s most likable albums.  He made more challenging ones, in hindsight at least.  The vestiges of bop structures make this a bit less demanding, without being a cake walk.  Any jazz education should include this album as essential listening.  Yet this is also a work well worth revisiting.  If the flaws of this album are the ways it can’t get past bebop structures entirely and the overabundance of optimism about unleashing music this radical, those are as endearing as flaws come.

The Ornette Coleman Trio – At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One

At The "Golden Circle" Stockholm, Volume One

The Ornette Coleman TrioAt The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One Blue Note BST 84224 (1966)

In 1962 Ornette briefly retired from recording and public performance. He returned to public performance in 1965, after teaching himself violin and trumpet, and then spent the remainder of the decade bouncing between record labels.  He recorded a number of albums for Blue Note in the late 60s, as that label started to fade from prominence.  Both just before and after his retirement he worked with a trio featuring Charles Moffett on drums and David Izenzon on bass.  Most of the Blue Note recordings are considered somewhat second-rate entries in the Coleman catalog.  But two volumes of live recordings from Sweden at the “Gyllene Cirkeln” club have definitely withstood the test of time and can stand alongside Coleman’s best work.  It was Ornette’s first tour of Europe.

The music here is a refinement of what Coleman did in the late 1950s and early 60s with his combo that featured trumpeter Don Cherry.  There is a lightness and optimism in this music that is rather rare in free jazz circles, where dour seriousness all too often predominate.  Coleman plays many songs here with melodies that could well double as nursery rhymes.  The sparseness of the trio format, without any other horn to play harmony with Ornette, and with Izenzon and Moffett both playing in ways that recall standard bop jazz, make this music a bit less demanding on the ears than Coleman can sometimes be.  But for all those reference points, this music also reflects the growth and change in Coleman’s music from the preceding years.  This is transitional music.  The amazing thing about Coleman is that no matter how radical his approach to music was, it wasn’t static.  Here, the radicalism comes in a most unexpected way.  It introduces complex, novel structures by appearing to do anything but that.

These songs often find Coleman playing for a long time, without repeating himself and without relying on another wind player to add independent melodic statements (much like on Chappaqua Suite, recorded earlier the same year).  He also throws in short little riffs of surprising complexity.  No, this is not a performer limited to simply melodies; this is a performer choosing to play them.  The effect all this brings about in the music is subtle.  At any moment, Ornette doesn’t seem to be playing differently than he was five years earlier, but he’s playing that way for so much longer without tiring that this represents a whole new level of that same type of playing.  Reaching that new level opened up new horizons for compositional structures in the music.  The group doesn’t return to “heads” (group statements of a theme) in a planned way, as on early Coleman recordings.  Izenzon and Moffett are largely free to solo simultaneously with Ornette — though both are fairly restrained players who do so without much flash or pageantry.  This becomes the heart of Ornette’s musical theory of “Harmolodics”.  This is a trio of musical equals.  None of the instruments is privileged over the others.  Moffett plays a key role in this.  His drumming is bop-inflected, but also more skittering and decentered.  He drops a few bass/kick drum “bombs” like Art Blakey, but he works in a lot of hi-hat rides and runs on his tom drums during Ornette’s playing time, with a touch so light and effortless that he turns what would be a Blakey solo feature in a Jazz Messengers performance into supportive “accompaniment” that suits concurrent playing by the other trio members.  As the players work together, they are able to react and shift directions as a unit, without tearing the fabric of the performance apart abruptly.  Rarely does jazz performance this angular and sharp sound, if not smooth and easy exactly, at least as smooth and well-incorporated as it does.

There is an earnestness in this music that makes it difficult for even Coleman detractors to bag on it.  At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One is certainly Coleman at his most approachable.  It is probably advisable for newcomers to his music to start closer to the beginning, with some of the Atlantic recordings; however, this live set makes for an excellent second course, so to speak.  His music reach a pinnacle of complexity in the coming decade, as he began to realize works at the furthest reaches of what his “harmolodics” concepts suggested in music.

Ornette Coleman – The Best of Ornette Coleman: The Blue Note Years

The Best of Ornette Coleman: The Blue Note Years

Ornette ColemanThe Best of Ornette Coleman: The Blue Note Years Blue Note 7243 8 23372 2 5 (1997)

This could have been more aptly titled “The Best of the Worst.”  Ornette’s time with a recording contract for Blue Note came both when he was experimenting with new configurations of his music, and when Blue Note was just starting to drift into irrelevance.  Collected here are tracks from, in order of appearance, New York Is Now!, At The “Golden Circle” Stockholm, Volume One, The Empty Foxhole, and Jackie McLean‘s New and Old Gospel.  Recording as a leader, only the live Golden Circle album is really successful from this period, and it found Ornette re-stating and summarizing his past in a lighter trio setting.  Of the other tracks, “Broad Way Blues” is quite nice, even if it is a rather stiff performance of more transitional material that he bettered later on.  “Old Gospel” is from a rare album on which Ornette plays for another leader but doesn’t completely dominate the leader McLean.  All said, this collection is completely unnecessary, though perhaps it sheds some light on a much-maligned period of Ornette’s illustrious career.  Listeners should be warned that this is by no means representative of the man’s entire career.

Ornette Coleman – Friends and Neighbors

Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street

Ornette ColemanFriends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street Flying Dutchman (1970)

Ornette Coleman has had a strange and wonderful career.  From the beginning, he was an iconoclast who sparked intensely divisive reactions. And yet, eventually, he was accepted as one of the most significant jazz musicians to date.  But his legacy is a bizarre thing.  He has recorded for a variety of record labels.  He jumped around far more than most: they call Impulse! “the house that Trane built” and Miles Davis started on Prestige but stayed on Columbia for decades.  Whatever the reasons for Ornette to jump around so much (I’m actually not familiar enough with the circumstances to comment), the result was a patchwork of recordings on different labels, many of which seem to have never been reissued, as of this writing, or have seen only fleeting reissues that soon went out of print.  What this means is that listeners born long after Ornette’s career began often have no access at all to huge swaths of his recordings.  In fact, even among Ornette fans, there are plenty who base their admiration entirely on his output for Atlantic records, which spanned a period of only about five years!

Ornette signed a one record deal with Bob Thiele‘s Flying Dutchman label, and released Friends and Neighbors, a live recording made sometime in 1970 at Ornette’s own New York City loft at 131 Prince Street on the Lower East Side.  It was, at that time, still a seedy area abandoned by industrial concerns.  But it had been in fits and starts a haven for jazz musicians, and would increasingly become a kind of magnet for jazz musicians in the 1970s.  The Wildflowers series of albums from the later 70s documented the scene in all its glory.  It was an independent-minded scene, with musicians doing everything themselves, from finding venues, promotion, to performance.  This was partly out of necessity, as venues and record labels closed or were simply unwilling to support this kind of music.  It was still a successful endeavor, for a time, and many musicians could support themselves this way while making the music they wanted.

This band is interesting.  It has Ed Blackwell (d), Charlie Haden (b) and Dewey Redman (ts), but also, literally, friends and neighbors on vocals — the audience of people who came to the show get to participate.  Redman’s time with Ornette is a strange one.  Many recordings by the two have lacked reissues, and those they recorded for Blue Note were are notoriously off.  But Redman added a unique contrast to Ornette’s sour alto (and his squealing trumpet and violin!), with a hefty tone that conveyed a sense of definite, conscious purpose.  Ornette’s son Denardo had started playing drums in his father’s bands, but longtime collaborator Ed Blackwell is back behind the drum kit this time.  Blackwell was a perfect match for Ornette’s style of music, and that is evident here.  He brings in traces of bop styling while also having a light rolling lilt (a style he expanded through work with longtime Ornette collaborator Don Cherry).  Charlie Haden is a rock.  He’s fantastic here as always, with a warm inviting character that adds down-home grooves and cheerful optimism to the mix.  It is Haden’s contributions, more than anything else, that make the music catchy and welcoming.

Some of the best material here is when Ornette is playing violin or trumpet (both versions of “Friends and Neighbors” and “Let’s Play”).  Other musicians like Miles Davis (as mentioned in his autobiography) despised Ornette for playing instruments for which he was supposedly not qualified.  This is one of the most fundamental differences between Ornette and everyone else though.  He was an autodidact.  And he was an anarchist.  Teaching himself to play an instrument was the natural thing to do, from those perspectives.  And he was bound by no one’s external ideas about who gets to decide what is the right or wrong way to play any instrument.  So his self-taught techniques on violin and trumpet lacked the path-dependencies of people trained by others to follow certain performance institutions, meaning, especially, a respect for traditional hierarchies of teachers and students passed down from (only) respected elders to (only) younger players who respect and value the status of the teachers and reproduce the hierarchy.  In a really classic anarchistic and autodidactic fashion, Ornette abruptly severs those institutional pathways and just plays however he wants.  This almost always draws the ire of people (“conservatives” is the formal name) who demand adherence to social hierarchies that they have climbed, are climbing, or wish to climb.  Some hate him for eschewing these hierarchies they are invested in, but that is precisely what other people love about Ornette!  This is the most elemental reason for the polarizing reactions to the man’s music.

For a CD reissue of Friends and Neighbors, Dean Rudland provides excellent liner notes.  He makes the pointed observation that Ornette’s music was “non-harmonic”.  This might seem like a confusing statement about a musician who has dubbed his approach to artistic endeavor “Harmolodics”.  But what it means is that Ornette generally does not dictate harmonic relationships in his compositions, at all.  He establishes melodic progressions, but harmonic relationships arise only through the collective actions of all the performers during the act of improvising the songs.  This is one of Ornette’s most radical concepts.  He steadfastly refuses to establish relationships between performers.  Everyone gets to play (transpose – the term Ornette tends to use) at his discretion, and the resultant harmonies become whatever they become.  The performers don’t have complete discretion (this is not like some incoherent anarcho-punk morass).  There is a structure offered, which is kind of an agreed direction (Ornette tends to call this playing in “unison”), but the implementation is equally open to the discretion of all the performers.

The man’s music was evolving through this period, and the use of trumpet and violin were the most telling signals that it would boldly go where no one chose to take it before.  It is on the trumpet and violin songs that it is most clear that each performer is allowed to do anything and contribute equally.  Ornette has no privileged position in the band.  These things are contrasted by “Long Time No See” and the first part of “Forgotten Songs”, which kind of look back to what Ornette was doing back in the early 60s with the Don Cherry quartet or with the Izenzon/Moffett trio in the mid-60s.

While Friends and Neighbors might not be the most significant of Ornette’s recordings, it is still a really, really good one, very near the top of the stack.  It shows him continuing to develop and refine the concepts that would culminate in Science Fiction (1972).

Ornette Coleman – Of Human Feelings

Of Human Feelings

Ornette ColemanOf Human Feelings Antilles AN-2001 (1982)

Ornette’s “Harmolodics” approach to music was really more of a political ideology expressed through (generally unarticulated) musical techniques that placed all the performers on a radically equal level.  In this sense, Ornette is kind of an anarchist — not the bomb-throwing type (though his music is “the bomb”) but an adherent to a kind of utopian philosophy that posits a society without hierarchies of power, status, etc.  His music might appeal to the fictional anarchist society on the planet Anarres in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s sci-fi novel The Dispossessed (1974) — which took inspiration from the work of libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin.

Ornette’s seminal album Science Fiction set the tone for much of what he did over the next one to two decades of his career.  “What Reason Could I Give?,” the opening song from Science Fiction, laid out the basic format of trying to regulate the the volume, intensity and tone of each performer on an equal basis that serves the whole more than the individual (egotistical) parts.  This resulted then in a relatively slow progression within the song, as one performer makes a change and in a split second all the others adapt to that change in a corresponding way appropriate for his or her instrument. In the time since Science Fiction, Coleman’s band “Prime Time” adopted more funk-rock influence, in the form of prominent electric bass but also in the style of heavier rock drumming, etc.  The opener “Sleep Talk” is sort of a perfect update on “What Reason Could I Give?”  It takes the same basic approach of treating all the players equally, but, aside from the funk-rock and R&B textures, the players have a much wider latitude to make their “equal” individual contributions.  And the pace is now furious.  If “What Reason Could I Give?” seemed to move slowly to give the performers a chance to react, there is no built-in delay any longer.  The sorts of contributions that are equalized is less constrained to playing unison notes, and it is more like little chunks of sound, and within those chunks each performer gets to do what he wants.  The drummers get to pound away more lyrically, and the bass player gets to deploy more rhythm, like in something approaching slap bass style techniques.  “What Reason Could I Give?” stayed close to the realm of almost “new age” feel-good complacity, but the Prime Time band had space to explore other emotional territories, with frenetic, jiving and even aggressive guitar riffs blended with contemplative noodling and sour, playful notes from Ornette’s saxophone.  A song like “Air Ship” even points to a unique view of masculinity in music, by putting elements of machismo in the mix but refusing to either affirm or condemn them.  They just drift by as one more possibility in a song world with many other possibilities.

If “Sleep Talk” is a high water mark for what Ornette’s Prime Time band could do with Harmolodics, then a problem, perhaps, with the rest of Of Human Feelings is that it never really reaches that high water mark again.  It’s a fine album, for instance the second song “Jump Street” is nearly as good as “Sleep Talk” and there are plenty of other fine songs here, but the intensity seems more aimless as the album progresses (“What Is the Name of That Song?,” “Job Mob”).  That’s a bit unfair.  Still, things get very dense when we have subsets of the group working together within the larger group, and therefore harder to follow.  This reflects a slightly different approach to the group interplay, one that tolerates internal factions, if only on a fleeting basis.  Anyway, what Ornette’s music, in general, and recordings like Of Human Feelings, in particular, put forward is not simply a new set of feelings or statements of perspective, but also a new mode of interaction between musical performers (and by extension, people in general). It is that latter aspect of the man’s music that has made him such a controversial figure.  It made him an innovator and revolutionary.  That tends to either generate enthusiasm or contempt, depending on the listener’s outlook.

Paul Bley, an early associate of Ornette, has said that Ornette’s music

“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.”

The anarchistic impulses of Ornette’s Prime Time band made this A vs. ABCDEFGHIJK issue a closer question.  Occasionally, Prime Time sound like a band playing just “A”, metamorphosing, rather than progressing to something outside “A”.  This, at least, is the challenge that Harmolodics presents.  The band probably lets ABCDEFGHIJK win most of the time.  But it isn’t always a clear victory.  There is also a sense that the band is expressing itself as a kind of new urban elite, trading in sleek, street-wise riffs.  In short, they almost claim “mission accomplished” when hindsight has shown that there was still a ways to go before the ideas bound up in Ornette’s music had achieved what they sought from society at large (this being a central feature of Le Guin’s book The Dispossessed).  The tone of elitism also sits somewhat uncomfortably with the premise of Harmolodics.  Lastly, it must be said, the notion of treating all instruments and performers as equals sometimes reduces itself to a rather tedious and pedantic exercise in mapping out and assigning values to each contribution — to treat them equally there must be values assigned to each part, enabling the “equation” to be balanced like a mathematical formula.  In that way Ornette’s quest to make music that is “real” ends up taking on the opposite quality, that of superficial appearances driven by the balancing act between the instruments, with a subtle tendency to favor content that fits more easily under Ornette’s Harmolodics regime over content that expresses something deeper.  The humor and playfulness of Coleman’s early music is not always so apparent under those circumstances.  Harmolodics works best when the performance is somewhat less polished, so that in a postmodern way one can hear the imperfect machinations that produce the music.

Given that the textures of late 1970s and early 1980s R&B have fallen somewhat out of favor, and that Of Human Feelings is conceptually challenging, this is definitely not the place to start with Ornette Coleman’s music.  Even just within the output of the Prime Time band, many listeners seem to prefer Dancing In Your Head.  Yet this music is crucial to understanding the impossible dreams Ornette was driving towards in his music.  The early, more well-known stuff formed a path to this, and if this just raised more questions than it provided answers, it may help explain the technical workings of Harmolodics more plainly than other Coleman albums.