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 (see also “Kontra-Punkte“) 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.

Ornette Coleman – Chappaqua Suite

Chappaqua Suite

Ornette ColemanChappaqua Suite CBS 66203 (1967)

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

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

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

Ornette Coleman – Town Hall, 1962

Town Hall, 1962

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

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

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

Ornette Coleman – Science Fiction

Science Fiction

Ornette ColemanScience Fiction Columbia KC 31061 (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ornette Coleman – Change of the Century

Change of the Century

Ornette ColemanChange of the Century Atlantic SD 1327 (1960)

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

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

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

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

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

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

In All Languages

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

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

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

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

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

Coleman wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coleman then questions his interviewer,

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

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  That quote is basically a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  This also ties in to something sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written about with respect to autodidacts (people who teach themselves things), who are typically shunned and rejected by people trained in “legitimate” modes of discourse that are associated with dominant groups and institutions.  This is because autodidactism is commonly (implicitly) perceived as a threat to those dominant groups and institutions — threatening their ability to reproduce themselves and regulate the status of members of those groups.  John Litweiler‘s bio Ornette Coleman a Harmolodic Life (1992) recounts stories of Ornette feeling ill when he realized how much his own methods differed from accepted norms when studying with Gunther Schuller and of the numerous physical beatings Ornette suffered at the hands of those threatened by his new techniques when starting out as a musician.

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

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

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

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

Paul Bley Quintet – Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Complete Live at The Hillcrest Club

Paul Bley QuintetComplete Live at The Hillcrest Club Gambit 69272 (2007)

Wow.  In short, what you have here is pretty sloppy packaging of some great music.

The packaging:  Well, to begin with, the cover and liner features a photo of Ornette Coleman that must have been taken close to 50 years after the music was recorded.  Then the tracklist is messed up completely.  Track number five is labeled “When Will the Blues Leave?” and track seven labeled “Ramblin'”, while track five is clearly “Ramblin'” and track seven is clearly “When Will the Blues Leave?” when you play the music.  Then, there is the fact that this is credited as an Ornette Coleman record.  Strictly speaking, these recordings were made at gigs led by Paul Bley where Ornette and Don Cherry just sat in.  But, Ornette does steal the show, there are tons of Ornette’s compositions here, and Bley was so profoundly influenced by Ornette that maybe it’s only slightly misleading to call the album Ornette’s own.

The music:  Awesome.  Previously released on Paul Bley/Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry/Charlie Haden/Billy Higgins: The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet and Coleman Classics, these live recordings show that, musically, Ornette was leaps and bounds ahead of what his problematic first studio album suggested.  The landmark contribution Ornette made to jazz was in disengaging improvisation from a verse/chorus format built around repeating harmonic structures, and turning it into something that seems to continuously move forward, as Paul Bley explained in his September 2007 interview in The Wire magazine.  It’s a style more linked with serialism in Euro-classical music (think Anton Webern) than the hard bop and cool jazz traditions still in vogue in 1958.

In truth, the sound quality here approaches that of a bootleg.  Billy Higgins and especially Charlie Haden sound quite muddy in the mix, and Bley is hardly audible when comping — only becoming distinctly clear when taking solos.  Yet the horns come across quite clearly.  Don Cherry is in a surprising form, playing with a delicacy on “How Deep Is the Ocean” rarely associated with him.  But Ornette is really front and center here, showing why he is known as one of the greatest stylists and soloists.  Well, perhaps Ornette’s talents aren’t quite as popularly recognized as they should be.  Bley once described the negative reaction to the music at the Hillcrest Club, which catered to a predominantly black, working-class audience.  He exaggerates some (audience chatter and even applause is audible on the recordings), stating that when his band with Coleman and Cherry took the bandstand:

“Several things happened almost at once.  The audience en masse got up, leaving their drinks on the table and on the bar, and headed for the door.  The club literally emptied as soon as the band began playing.

“For the duration of that gig, if you were driving down Washington Boulevard past the Hillcrest Club you could always tell if the band was on the bandstand or not.  If the street was full of the audience holding drinks in front of the club, the band was playing.  If the audience was in the club, it was intermission.”

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (1999), p. 63.

But then, Goethe offers the following in his travelogue Italian Journey, Part One (1816):

“One gets small thanks from people when one tries to improve their moral values, to give them a higher conception of themselves and a sense of the truly noble.  But if one flatters the ‘Birds’ with lies, tells them fairy tales, caters to their weaknesses, then one is their man.  That is why there is so much bad taste in our age.”

In quite a later age too Johann.