I am not one to toss around the word “hero” lightly. It takes extraordinary courage to earn such a designation. I am also not one to write one of these artist overviews with too much usage of the first-person singular pronoun. I like to keep myself out of it as much as I can, trying to maintain some semblance of journalistic objectivity.
But you know what? Ornette Coleman is indeed a heroic figure, not just in jazz, but in popular culture. And for me to make such a statement reflects my own definition of what a hero is. So, to hell with omitting the first person singular pronoun. I’m telling this story the way I want to tell it – from my own personal, biased perspective.
That perspective began when I was in college. What better time to be introduced to Ornette Coleman than during the time when our minds are being pried open and expanded farther than our confining high school institutions ever could pry? And it was in a jazz history class at the University of Rhode Island, appropriately enough, that I first heard Ornette’s name. It was and still is a unique name – who else besides Coleman’s own son can claim it? Admittedly, I was drawn in and driven to find out more as soon as Coleman’s name was linked with that most attractive of adjectives to the mind of a college student with a taste for the unusual – “controversial.”
The text in our history book only briefly touched upon what made Coleman a controversial figure, from what I can remember. Most significantly, Coleman’s tendency to play outside of conventional chord changes seemed to make him a target of derision in his early career. He played by his own rules, and by the early 1970s he had given his set of rules a name – harmolodics.
Loosely described, the name refers to the equal weight given to harmony, melody and rhythm in Coleman’s system of music. But it’s far more than that. For example, most conventional jazz tunes (to use the easiest example – bear in mind that harmolodics can apply to other music forms, and non-music forms like speech and writing) have the main tune or melody – the “head” – followed by solos by the band members which are played for so many bars before repeating the head. In harmolodics, any soloist may end a solo mid-bar, when the feeling is right, and the other musicians better be listening so that it doesn’t fall apart. And what constitutes a “bar” may also change if the rhythm section decides to change the tempo or meter. And a soloist may play against the key or tonal center if the notes played make sense with the rest of the notes being played by the rest of the band. It sounds chaotic when read aloud, but in practice – when played by musicians who are really in tune with each other – it can sound as natural as breathing.
Perhaps Coleman’s son, Denardo, explained harmolodics best in a Philadelphia City Paper article by a.d. amorosi in 1996: “It’s the personal revelation that everyone can create their own language while at the same time communicate with those speaking a different language.”
Surely, this playing outside of what our ears are generally trained to recognize as pleasant sounds must have resulted in some weird, wild, discordant “music” for it to have generated so much controversy, right? The sound sample included with my history textbook’s CD, the 1959 studio recording of Coleman’s oft-covered classic “Lonely Woman,” didn’t exactly make my ears recoil (nor did it wound the ears of future “Band of Gold” singer Freda Payne; she recorded a vocal rendition of “Lonely Woman” (download) in her previous life as a jazz singer). Maybe it was a sign of the impact Coleman’s music had already left on the popular music landscape. Or maybe the textbook editors didn’t want to scare off the students. In any case, I had to find out more – a goal I accomplished by securing an early-morning shift as a DJ at my college station.
One of the first records I sought was Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, which contained the aforementioned “Lonely Woman.” I auditioned “Peace,” whose melody was even prettier and more inviting than the ominous classic presented in class. Surely the naysayers of the late ’50s were out of their minds, or maybe just jealous that they weren’t writing anything this tuneful! No, it was much more than that, but as I continued to learn more, I was already a fan.
In the years before Coleman’s storied debut in New York City in 1959, following two LPs on the Contemporary label, the man had endured some seriously hard times. Born to a poor black family in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, young Ornette endured the mess of segregation and racism so prevalent at the time, not to mention the loss of his father at the age of 7. Coleman gravitated towards the saxophone he heard on the radio in big band and R&B records, and by the time he had learned to play alto and tenor, Coleman had already established a pattern of receiving admonishment for doing his own thing.
Whether it was slipping a jazz solo into a John Philip Sousa piece in the high school band, trying to teach bebop to a bandmate in the traveling carnival show that was one of Coleman’s earliest paying gigs, or simply wearing his hair and beard too long, there was always somebody with harsh words, or worse, flying fists for Coleman’s face. One particularly harrowing story repeated both in John Litweiler’s 1994 biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life (which, for further reading, is the definitive Coleman biography, and well worth seeking out) and Peter Niklas Wilson’s 1999 bio Ornette Coleman: His Life And Music, had Coleman playing a solo with Clarence Samuels’ R&B band in Baton Rouge that stopped the crowd from dancing. Coleman was led outside the club by a man claiming there were some musicians who wanted to meet him, but as it turned out, they really wanted to beat him. And beat him bloody they did, to the point where he blacked out. To add insult to injury, the men tossed Coleman’s sax out of sight and the police admonished him for inviting his fate with his long hair. And it need not be mentioned, but as you can imagine, the “n” word was tossed around by both Coleman’s attackers (who were black themselves) and the police.
So yes, Coleman certainly did suffer for his art, but redemption would arrive in 1958, when his first recordings were published for a wide audience. This, as was already mentioned, invited a whole new wave of resistance to the path Coleman was forging. But as we shall see, his perseverance would pay off. Not only that, Coleman would be honored with pop culture references outside his idiom. A college friend of mine made sure to bring to my attention the final album by the defunct punk band Refused, not just because the album took the sound of punk and joined it with unconventional song structures and unpredictable editing, but also because of the album’s title. It said just as much about the band’s spiritual source of inspiration as it said about the music on the album: The Shape of Punk to Come. Additionally, American indie rock band Yo La Tengo nicked the album cover design from Coleman’s 1958 debut, Something Else!, for their 2003 EP Today Is The Day! Cult British band Clinic did the same for their 2001 Internal Wrangler album with Coleman’s Ornette! LP cover, and as we’ll see later, there’s even a Grateful Dead connection to Coleman’s music. Open your ears, ’cause this truly is Something Else!
Coleman had gone through the R&B routine until it tired his soul. He had jammed with resistant jazz-men who walked off the stage, unable to handle his free flights away from the chords that limited his expression. He had fled Fort Worth for Los Angeles in ’54 with his wife, Jayne. Slowly, Coleman began to encounter ears for his musical vision – bassists Don Payne and Red Mitchell, in particular, proved to be two of the most important contacts he made in L.A. Upon hearing Ornette, at Payne’s house, play one of the many original compositions he had been stockpiling throughout the 1950s, Mitchell agreed to help facilitate an audition at Lester Koenig’s Contemporary label. As it would happen, the invitation to audition arrived almost exactly fifty years ago, at what seemed like a low point for Ornette. His lack of success in securing a steady income through music, and the falling apart of his marriage to Jayne, had driven him to make the decision to leave L.A. and head back home to Fort Worth. Ornette’s mother sent him a bus ticket back, but he never used it. The day it arrived, Koenig asked Coleman to audition. And so followed Ornette’s first record deal, with Contemporary.
Not only did Coleman’s first album for Contemporary, Something Else!!!!, consist entirely of Coleman originals, nearly every album Coleman released would contain solely work from his own pen. This first record found Coleman aided by Payne on bass, along with two other even more like-minded musicians he had met in L.A. – drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry. Rounding out what would be a typical rhythm section for nearly any other small group leader at the time was pianist Walter Norris. His presence gives the album the most traditional, hard-bop-ish sound Coleman ever committed to tape, but it also didn’t quite fit with Ornette’s love of dispensing with a tune’s set chord changes when it came time to solo. While Coleman and Cherry would take their solos where they felt the melody was leading them, Payne would in most cases stick with the changes that went with the head melody.
This had the effect at, times, of making Coleman and Cherry sound like they didn’t know what they were doing. And yet, the combination seemed just right for a pretty tune like “The Blessing” (download). Despite having found a more sympathetic pianist in Paul Bley, in whose quintet Ornette would play his own tunes as a sideman (such as “Crossroads” (download), from live recordings of a late ’58 Hillcrest Club engagement in L.A. that Bley would release independently), ultimately Coleman shunned piano from his working groups for most of the rest of his career, with a few notable exceptions.
While Something Else!!!! received critical praise, some of which hyperbolically compared Coleman’s music to the unassailable Charlie Parker, it wasn’t enough to translate to sales. Not to mention that Coleman was still not working regularly. Apart from rehearsals and sitting in with other bands, the aforementioned shows with Bley were the only major playtime Coleman had in ’58.
Koenig drafted Red Mitchell on bass and Shelly Manne on drums – two big names in the ’50s West Coast jazz scene – to replace Payne and Higgins in the sessions for Coleman’s second album in the hopes that name recognition would drive up sales. While Tomorrow Is The Question! ultimately met the same fate as its predecessor, it nevertheless included one of Ornette’s early signature tunes, “Turnaround” (download), and also gave him yet another reason to celebrate. Mitchell, as it turned out, played on only three of the album’s nine pieces, while another big name – the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Percy Heath – filled the slot on the six tunes that made up side one. Heath met Coleman at one of many gigs where Coleman sat in, leading to Heath’s participation in the session.
The Atlantic Years
MJQ was one of Atlantic Records’ star jazz combos, and one of the most respected, successful and longest lasting groups in the music’s history. So it was no small fortune that the group’s leader, pianist John Lewis, was eventually converted to the Ornette cause via Percy Heath. Lewis persuaded his label boss, Atlantic Records’ Nesuhi Ertegun, to sign Coleman, which he did after brokering an agreement to release Coleman from his Contemporary contract. In doing so, he enabled a real firestorm to erupt over Coleman’s unorthodox approach to jazz.
With a major label contract in hand, Coleman not only had access to greater exposure, he also finally had a band in place that “got” his music entirely. Cherry and Higgins returned, and another important collaborator Coleman met in L.A., bassist Charlie Haden, completed the group that went on to record Coleman’s most well-known and highly regarded albums. The first of these remains the most famous and iconic of the bunch, 1959’s boldly titled The Shape of Jazz to Come. From the first few seconds of “Lonely Woman,” it’s clear that something completely different is happening. Haden’s bass drones as Higgins drives forward, while Cherry’s pocket trumpet and Coleman’s now trademark plastic alto sax play the classic, haunting theme together in harmonic, telepathic union. And from here, Coleman and crew veer off into warped bop territory with “Eventually” (download), in which Coleman’s sax mimics the sound of laughter, the calming, pretty “Peace,” the wildly structured “Focus on Sanity,” and a couple more unforgettable melodies in “Congeniality” and “Chronology.”
With this recording completed, and the second Contemporary album finally released, the momentum Coleman had slowly built up through his contacts and word of mouth led to an offer for a residency at the Five Spot in New York City in November of ’59. With Haden, Cherry and Higgins in tow, Coleman made the trek to New York. With their arrival, more paid gigs followed, and the “free” style the group favored only began attracting more polarized opinions as the word continued to spread by mouth and in print. This newcomer was, unintentionally, ruffling the feathers of the very musicians who were once on the cutting edge (and, truthfully, in some cases still were). While boosters like John Lewis were invoking Bird in their praise, and searching souls like Coltrane found inspiration in what Coleman was doing, his detractors were growing in number and in stature. Litweiler’s biography collects some key quotes: from the old big band crowd, Roy Eldridge proclaimed in ’61, “I think he’s jiving, baby.” Bird’s old partner Dizzy Gillespie told Time Magazine in 1960, “I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz.” Miles Davis, ever the provocateur, declared, “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.” Coleman even claimed that drummer Max Roach punched him in the mouth following one of his sets at the Five Spot, and verbally harassed him the following morning.
The establishment was scared shitless of this guy, though the fuss would die down in time. Rock n’ roll proved a much greater threat to the old masters than Ornette ever was, and perhaps this increased competition for audiences from another form of popular music was driving some of the old guard a little nuts. But no matter, Ornette had endured worse, and he carried on with his first New York recording sessions. The results were heard in 1960 as Change of the Century, concluding a string of four albums bearing intentionally prophetic titles, which (along with frantic performances like the title track [download]) no doubt fueled the hype and divided opinions surrounding Coleman and his music.
And as excitement continued to surround the quartet, it underwent its own changes. A narcotics conviction led to Higgins’ losing his cabaret card, prompting Ornette to replace him with an old colleague he had met in New Orleans, Ed Blackwell. Blackwell fell into and drove the band’s groove naturally on the next record, 1961’s This Is Our Music, where he added new shades of tone as on the delicate rolls coupled with Haden’s bowed bass in “Beauty Is a Rare Thing” (download), though he swung hard and played inventive polyrhythms as well. Not long after these sessions, drugs would knock Haden out of the band as well. Coleman replaced him, at Haden’s recommendation, with his former roommate and Bill Evans sideman Scott LaFaro.
The “free jazz” moniker associated with Ornette’s music will forever be traced back to the album of the same name, which became a novel and legendary entry in Coleman’s discography. For this 1961 LP, Coleman assembled a “double quartet” consisting of his regular quartet of himself, Cherry, LaFaro and Blackwell, and a second quartet with his former rhythm section plus trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and reed rival Eric Dolphy. Ironically, Dolphy was championed by the conservative jazz element for his experimental work within traditional changes and modes which, often enough, sounded stranger, less melodic and more atonal than Ornette’s work. Furthering the irony of these rivals playing together on the session is the nature of the album itself. While the title Free Jazz implies an anarchic mess of sound, in reality the proceedings were controlled and organized – several themes were written out for the collective ensemble to play. In between, the musicians are soloing and responding to whichever individual is taking the lead. Bass and drum solo sections are saved for the end. There was definitely method to the madness, which, again ironically, may have been what kept Free Jazz from becoming more than just a historical meeting of legends, blowing hard on a grand experiment. As it stands, it’s a novel representation of group improvisation, one that would be far more conducive to repeat listens if not for its nearly 40 minute uninterrupted length. (The first take [download] was less than half that length, but did not appear on record until 1971).
Coleman returned to his regular quartet, giving the Scott LaFaro-anchored group its first and only full-length album representation with 1962’s Ornette! LaFaro’s busier, more ornate bass lines changed the group’s sound yet again, in contrast to the more sympathetic, deeper tones of Haden. The tunes were longer as well – only four selections made up the album, yet it still clocked in at around 45 minutes. Adding to the novelty was the fact that all selections were named with initials rather than fully spelled-out names. Fortunately, Rhino’s box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing revealed the meanings of titles such as “R.P.D.D.” (download), which stood for “Relation of the Poet to Day Dreaming.”
LaFaro never did work with Ornette again – not long after resuming his gig with Bill Evans, he was killed in a car accident. His replacement for Ornette’s final Atlantic album, 1962’s Ornette on Tenor, was future John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison. The album found Ornette returning to the instrument that had helped him earn his pay in R&B bands in the early ’50s, while continuing to explore his music in longer recordings – “Enfant” (download) was its shortest piece, at 6:28. While Garrison’s approach was more like Haden’s telepathic sense in the instrument’s lower register than LaFaro’s, and while this made for a smooth transition, Garrison himself struggled with the music and blew up at Ornette on stage one night during a gig at the Five Spot.
With Garrison leaving to join Coltrane, and Cherry and Blackwell soon departing as Coleman’s work dried up in ’62 (which coincided with his decision to start charging significantly more for his appearances), major changes were taking place. The brief but wildly prolific Atlantic era was over, the remnants of which would see release on later compilations The Art of the Improvisers (1970), Twins (1971), To Whom Who Keeps a Record (1975, initially in Japan only), and Rhino’s box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1993).
By late 1962, Ornette had finally assembled the trio that would serve him into 1966. The classically trained bassist David Izenzon, and Ornette’s old friend from Fort Worth, drummer Charles Moffett, created an entirely new sound, a smoother yet equally forward-looking and interactive environment for Ornette’s alto to search for new melodies and harmonies. The new trio closed out ’62 with a self-financed concert at New York’s Town Hall, which did not see release until 1965. In the meantime, Ornette took some well-deserved time off to take care of some business. His divorce from Jayne was finalized in ’64, and while he wasn’t leading a band or recording, he was learning two new instruments – trumpet and violin. So by 1965, while the rest of the jazz world was still digesting and making sense of what Ornette had already done, he was making waves yet again.
Released by ESP-Disk after Blue Note’s initial release was scotched due to legal issues, Town Hall 1962 featured 3 new pieces for by the newly formed trio, plus the first released evidence of Ornette’s composing for European classical forms. “Dedication to Poets and Writers” (download) was played by a string quartet, and represented his boldest experiment on record thus far, as he was venturing out of his genre. The music itself, with its strict and stiff rendering through varying tempos on a theme that rarely changed otherwise throughout its nine minutes, stood in major contrast with the more assured work of the trio.
Coleman, Izenzon and Moffett kept busy in ’65 with the recording of the soundtrack to Conrad Rooks’ film Chappaqua. Ultimately, Rooks decided Coleman’s music was too good for the film, and instead opted for a new soundtrack by Ravi Shankar. The film has faded into memory, while the soundtrack hasn’t necessarily become one of Coleman’s canonized works either. However, the four continuous LP sides did see release in ’66 on the CBS label, albeit only in France and Japan. The recording [excerpt] (download) exhibited more of Coleman’s experiments with classical textures, as he augmented his trio with a wind ensemble throughout the score (not to mention the occasional tenor blasts of Pharaoh Sanders).
It was ultimately the well-received 1966 two-volume At the Golden Circle LPs on Blue Note (recorded live in Stockholm, Sweden) that solidified the trio’s reputation. “European Echoes” (download), from the first volume, with its sing-songy theme and oom-pah-pah beat, became a signature piece which Coleman would revisit with his next revolutionary band in the mid ’70s. The second Golden Circle volume was most notable for foisting upon us the first released example of Ornette’s “unique” (read: much criticized) style on violin and trumpet in that set’s “Snowflakes and Sunshine” (download). While his violent, screeching violin approach would change little over the years, his trumpet playing would slowly improve to the point where his tone on that instrument became almost as immediately identifiable as the human cry of his alto sax.
Perhaps the most heartwarming story of Coleman’s life and career is the one told in his liner notes to 1966’s The Empty Foxhole, his third release for Blue Note. Loosely paraphrased, Ornette had asked his young son Denardo what he wanted for Christmas during a phone call while he was on the road. When Denardo mentioned a toy gun he had seen on TV, Ornette cleverly replied that he didn’t think he could find it where he was at the time. He offered Denardo an alternative should he not be able to find the gun – a drum set. Denardo liked the alternative much better, and as he took to the kit, Ornette promised to make a record with him. He actually went on to make many records with Denardo over the years. The first of these was The Empty Foxhole, recorded when Denardo was a mere 10 years old. Izenzon opted out of bass duties for the album, which gave Charlie Haden the chance to reconnect with his old bandleader. While selections like “Good Old Days” (download) clearly do not exhibit the rhythms of a seasoned professional, nor those of a child prodigy, they do display a young Denardo showing great proficiency and enthusiasm for his instrument at such a young age. Nevertheless, the album still received some unfair slams, the most biting coming from Shelly Manne, the drummer on Coleman’s second album. His assessment? “Unadulterated shit.” Ouch!
Coleman continued to write more classical pieces, though few would see proper release. His first full-length album of classical pieces arrived in 1968, on the RCA Victor Red Seal label, as The Music of Ornette Coleman. The centerpiece of the album was the live recording of the 21-minute piece “Forms and Sounds” (download), scored for The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet with trumpet interludes by Ornette himself. The piece was written so that any of the wind players could change the octave in which they were playing. Interesting little exercise to try – pull out your preferred instrument and play what you feel like playing over the “Forms and Sounds” music. Every note fits! The album was rounded out with two string quartet pieces on side two.
Coleman recorded his last two albums for Blue Note in the Spring of ’68 across two sessions with Dewey Redman on tenor and the famed rhythm section of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison, who had already played with Coleman prior to working with Coltrane. Trane had died the previous year, after having spent the bulk of the 1960s exploring the free, avant garde reaches of his music thanks to the inspiration of Ornette. Fittingly, Ornette had played (along with fellow free jazz visionary Albert Ayler) at Coltrane’s funeral the year before. The association continued, and yet there’s little resemblance at all to Coltrane’s music on the sister LPs, New York Is Now and Love Call. “Broadway Blues” (download) actually recalls more of the early R&B music that Coleman grew up on, while his trumpet in “Love Call” (download), when coupled with Jones’ pounding on the toms, is far removed from Coltrane’s spiritual explorations, or even Ornette’s own human-like cries, with its bird-like mating call of a theme.
From ’67 through ’72, Ornette’s working bands continued to be in a state of flux. Occasionally, both Izenzon and Haden played bass in the group, with Izenzon bowing and Haden plucking with Blackwell on drums. This group’s only officially released recording was a bizarre yet oh-so-right pairing with none other than Yoko Ono on the track “AOS” (download), recorded during a rehearsal for a London concert and released on Ono’s first album, 1970’s Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. It remains the single most sensual and shocking recording in Ornette’s entire discography, precisely because of the trick Yoko pulls with her vocal and the band’s cinematic accompaniment.
Ornette at 12 (1969)
Don Cherry and Dewey Redman were rotated here and there, and Denardo was drumming with the group more frequently. In fact, the LPs Ornette released on Impulse!, 1969’s Ornette at 12 and 1972’s Crisis, found Denardo in the drum chair again on these live recordings, committed to tape in 1968 and ’69, respectively. Among the performances were “C.O.D.” (download) (from Ornette at 12), which demonstrated the tremendous growth the young Denardo had experienced in the two short years since The Empty Foxhole. Charlie Haden’s beautiful, moving “Song for Che” (download) (from Crisis) reflected Haden’s increasing social consciousness, which would become most evident on his first album with the Liberation Music Orchestra.
Ed Blackwell returned to the drum chair, rejoining Coleman, Haden and Redman for 1970’s Flying Dutchman release Friends and Neighbors. The album was most notable for its chorus of literal friends and neighbors from around Ornette’s New York Artists House loft singing the title song (download) in unison, like a sidewalk jazz cousin to “Give Peace a Chance.” But it would be the two albums Ornette recorded for Columbia that proved to be his last major statements for a good number of years.
For ’71’s Science Fiction, the original quartet of Coleman/Cherry/Haden/Higgins that made such a huge splash in ’59 on The Shape of Jazz to Come reunited for several tracks, playing with even more fierceness and power than they had a decade earlier. Ed Blackwell drummed alongside Higgins on some tracks, and Dewey Redman also played on some. Enough material was recorded for two albums (and in fact, a second album was released by Columbia, 10 years after the fact, as Broken Shadows). More than this, it was the presence of solo vocalists that yet again elicited divided opinions (that exist to this day). “Science Fiction” went very far out, with the quartet playing a ferocious, chaotic backing to a poem recitation drenched in reverb, punctuated by the occasional jarring cry of a baby. Indian singer Asha Puthli added haunting vocals to two tracks, one of which – “What Reason Could I Give” (download) – kicked off the album like no Ornette album has begun before or since. The tune of the other Puthli track would be reprised on Coleman’s second Columbia album, the one in which represents his only symphonic work to ever be officially released as an authorized recording.
Skies of America was originally intended as a three-part work for symphony orchestra and jazz quartet. However, strict union rules in the U.K. proved to be a hassle, making the planned recording with the London Symphony Orchestra a scaled back affair in which the score was edited down to two parts and only Ornette played alongside the orchestra (as heard on “The Artist in America” [download]). The sound, like no other symphony, was attributed to the musical system Ornette had been teaching his sidemen since the 1950s. In the liners to Skies of America, he finally gave it a name – “harmolodics.” As Ornette explained, “‘Skies of America’ is a collection of compositions and the orchestration for a symphony orchestra based on a theory book called The Harmolodic Theory which uses melody, harmony and the instrumentation of movement of forms.” This theory book is Ornette’s own Chinese Democracy – rumored since the beginning of time, but only leaked to the public via the occasional media interview and the words of Ornette’s own Sebastian Bach-like devotees. According to biographer John Litweiler, the manuscript went through an unsuccessful round of editing and it’s speculated that other attempts have been made.
Regardless, a new wrinkle in Ornette’s – and music’s – history appeared with Skies of America, a work which Ornette simply described as his style of music translated to a symphony. Which, in reality, is exactly what it is. The percussion is executed in much the same way that an Ed Blackwell might have done it, had he been allowed on the recording. The melodies are played simultaneously by the orchestra in their respective ranges without following traditional ideas of chord changes, just like his small groups. The melodies flow freely, and the feel of the melody rather than a chord system dictates the direction of the composition. Don Cherry has described harmolodics as a system where “you’re reaching to the point to make every note sound like a tonic,” which, according to Wikipedia, is “the pitch upon which all other pitches of a piece are hierarchically referenced.” Or as Ornette put it, playing harmolodically involves “using the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm all equal.” It’s one of those things that’s easier done than said, and once one’s ears are accustomed to this relationship of notes, it becomes less sensible to speak of the system and more to just listen and interact. And enjoy!
Prime Time and Beyond:
By now, Ornette Coleman had gotten used to having the rug pulled out from under him. From a constant criticism in his formative years, to derision from his peers upon finally making it, to the hassles surrounding the recording Skies of America, it was just one obstacle after another – all of which were eventually overcome. The next obstacle followed a revelatory trip to Morocco with music critic Robert Palmer in 1973. While there, Coleman jammed with the famed Master Musicians of Jajouka, who have become something of a mystical legend since the late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones recorded them in 1968. With these musicians, Coleman was thrilled to be able to engage in a musical conversation with a people who did not share his language or culture. Not only that, the response was so positive that Coleman planned on releasing the recordings he made with Palmer. However, upon returning to the States, Coleman was axed by Columbia as part of its infamous purging of jazz artists in ’73. He was in good company: Bill Evans, Charles Mingus and Keith Jarrett all got the heave-ho as well, while only the most profitable acts – Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and hot fusion acts Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra among them – remained.
Now that he was a free agent for an extended period for the first time since his mid ’60s sabbatical, Coleman’s band underwent further personnel changes. The Morocco experience had inspired him to take his harmolodic concept and apply it to a music that would connect with wider audiences. And in America, that meant following the lead of the profitable acts Columbia had retained, by adopting rock and funk music forms. Miles Davis’ early-to-mid ’70s bands would later be compared to the band Ornette formed just as Miles was about to retire. While Miles had long since come around to accepting and even adopting Ornette’s idea of a freer way of improvising and spot orchestrating, Ornette himself did not have his own electric band – which he dubbed Prime Time – until 1975.
Ornette’s conception of Prime Time had the sonic power of a symphony orchestra translated into a full electric band doubled, much like his “double quartet” from the Free Jazz session: two drummers, two electric bassists, two electric guitarists, a piano and a horn. This was scaled back initially to just a horn (Ornette), two guitarists (Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix), one bassist (Jamaaladeen Tacuma) and one drummer (Ronald Shannon Jackson). Denardo would appear regularly as a second drummer with Prime Time after their initial recording sessions, which yielded the 1977 release Dancing in Your Head on A&M’s short-lived Horizon imprint, and 1978’s Body Meta, which appeared on the independent Artists House label.
The former not only featured two lengthy variations on a theme previously heard in Skies of America as “The Good Life” (now retitled “Theme From a Symphony” [download]), it also included four and a half minutes of the ’73 Morocco tapes. Ornette refused to call this band a fusion or funk group, or a jazz group, preferring instead – as he stated in the liners to Body Meta – to call it his first harmolodic band. Which does makes sense. For while the guitars and bass can sound pretty funky, and the occasional fuzz tone can point to rock, and Ornette’s solos still recall jazz improv, one listen to “Voice Poetry” (download) – which even cops a Bo Diddley beat – is enough to know that Prime Time sounds nothing at all like any rock, funk or jazz band that ever was.
The formation of Prime Time did not spell the end of Ornette’s relationship with acoustic music, however. He kept returning to it, and in ’79 he released a duets album with Charlie Haden, Soapsuds, Soapsuds, again on Artists House. Haden himself had recorded a pair of duets albums around the same time, with Ornette guesting on one track each. Here, the whole album was theirs alone, where they explored four Ornette originals plus, curiously enough, a rendition of the theme song from Norman Lear’s satirical soap opera “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” (download).
Of Human Feelings (1982)
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A year later, Ornette was back in the studio with Prime Time, with Calvin Weston replacing Ronald Shannon Jackson, and with Denardo finally joining the band in the studio as second drummer. The 1979 sessions for what would be released three years after the fact by Island’s Antilles imprint as 1982’s Of Human Feelings made history as the first album to be recorded digitally in New York (Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop actually came first, but that one was recorded in L.A.). The funk grooves hinted at on Body Meta grew a little fatter, with Tacuma’s bass coming more to the forefront, and driving the pulse as much as the drummers on tunes such as “What Is the Name of That Song?” (download) and “Job Mob.”
Opening the Caravan of Dreams (1985)
Prime Design\Time Design (1986)
The occasion of Prime Time’s first live album turned out to be a homecoming of sorts. Appropriately titled Opening the Caravan of Dreams, the album documents Prime Time – now with Albert MacDowell as a second bassist and Sabir Kamal replacing Calvin Weston – playing a lively set to launch the performance center/nightclub/restaurant/recording studio, which coincided with the occasion of “Ornette Coleman Day.” Not only did Coleman receive the key to the city before the opening in September of ’83, he found himself aligned with a new independent record label, also called Caravan of Dreams, which released Opening two years after the event, in 1985.
The label followed it a year later with Prime Design\Time Design. Also recorded live during the Caravan’s opening concert series, PD\TD is an entirely different monster. Where the live Prime Time performance of “Sex Spy” (download) from Opening, previously heard as a duet with Charlie Haden on the Soapsuds, Soapsuds album, percolates with danceable funk, the polar opposite occurs on PD\TD. Denardo Coleman provides a chaotic drum accompaniment to a string quartet ensemble, where each soloist is essentially playing a solo part in against the others in competing time signatures, like nightmare of repeating, simultaneous freeway crashes. This all occurs after about four and a half minutes of just the strings playing the theme [excerpt] (download), which amusingly bears shades of “Moon River.”
Song X (1986)
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1986 was even more notable for the way in which Pat Metheny inaugurated his new contract with Geffen Records. His debut for the label, rather than being yet another Pat Metheny Group release, was essentially an Ornette Coleman album. Ornette provided the material for Song X, and was, intentionally or not, its dominant voice. With Denardo sharing drum duties with Jack Dejohnette, and Charlie Haden filling the bass slot, Song X veered from swinging numbers like a newly reimagined “Job Mob” (now titled “Mob Job”), to the almost thrash metal 13-minute onslaught of “Endangered Species,” to the disarmingly beautiful “Kathelin Gray” (download). Metheny fell into Ornette’s concept of music like he was born to do it, though in reality he had some practice already, having recorded an album with Haden and Dewey Redman, and even covering “Round Trip” and “Broadway Blues” on his ’76 ECM debut Bright Size Life.
Haden was on board with Coleman again for the next album, which reunited them with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. The original, classic quartet recorded one last album together as half of a double album, 1987’s In All Languages (Ornette’s last for Caravan of Dreams), where Prime Time played seven of the same compositions (plus some others) on the second record to give an aural contrast in instrumentation, approach and expression. The quartet’s vibe was enhanced with reverb, while Prime Time was beginning to add synth textures and electronic drums to their arsenal. The sonics were pop, but the end results were anything but. Listen to the quartet version (download) and the Prime Time version (download) of “Space Church.”
Ornette’s musical conception, even with rock and funk instrumentation, was still pretty far off from what pop audiences expected and consumed. And yet, Ornette hungered for success on a pop scale on his own terms. The closest he came with any of his albums was with Prime Time, on 1988’s Virgin Beauty. It helped, of course, that the third coming of CBS Records’ Portrait imprint distributed it, and that the album contained a more varied sonic palette now that of-their-time, Prince-like synths and electronic drums were added to the mix. It also didn’t hurt to have the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia adding a third guitar voice to three of the tracks. Coleman was inspired to add Garcia to the recording by a Dead show he had attended, and in the early ’90s Coleman would return the favor by jamming with the Dead at some of their concerts. Though Garcia’s presence on tracks like the bright, child-like funk that is “Singing in the Shower” (download) was a definite highlight, it was Coleman himself who stole the show on slower, ballad-like pieces like the mostly unaccompanied alto piece “Unknown Artist,” and “Chanting,” on which Coleman displays some of his most beautiful trumpet playing.
The dawn of the ’90s saw Ornette keeping up his busy pace with his first major soundtrack work. Though Chappaqua Suite had been intended as a soundtrack, it was technically one of those “inspired by the film” records instead. He had also recorded the soundtrack to another little-known film, a 1965 experimental comedy titled Who’s Crazy, but that soundtrack was never released in a definitive, official form. He finally got it right on 1991’s soundtrack to the William Burroughs novel-turned-movie Naked Lunch, largely composed by Howard Shore. Performed primarily by a core trio consisting of father and son plus bassist Barre Philips and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, four of the album’s 18 selections were composed by Coleman and one by Thelonious Monk – the classic “Misterioso” (download) – was also included. The Monk tune marks the only appearance of piano on the album, where the theme is played against a Shore composition, Coleman blowing freely and creating something new out of an old standby.
By the time Coleman’s next album arrived, he had formed a new label called – what else! – Harmolodic. Distributed in the U.S. by the famed jazz label Verve, Harmolodic’s inaugural release was also the first to feature a completely revamped Prime Time lineup. Only the Colemans and Al MacDowell remained from the old band, while, most significantly, Coleman added Dave Bryant on keyboards among his other replacements. This warming up to keys resulted in the most varied, diverse record of Coleman’s career. The personnel shakeup resulted in the freshest Prime Time record since the ’75 sessions, as the feeling of the new mingled with the obligatory funk, Indian tablas courtesy of former Miles Davis sideman Badal Roy, Latin rhythms, competing time signatures, occasionally straight-ahead jazz textures, and even elements of hip-hop. “Street Blues” opens with the simulated sound of turntable scratching, and “Search for Life” (download) features the only appearance to date of an MC rapping on a Coleman piece.
Following through on Coleman’s renewed relationship with keyboards, his next set of albums combined this development with a desire to reconnect with his acoustic quartet roots. This was spurred by Rhino’s release of the Beauty Is a Rare Thing box set in ’93, which had the effect of driving Coleman to attempt to reunite the original ’59 quartet. Don Cherry was gravely ill at this point, however, and he died in ’95. Rather than replace him, Coleman formed an entirely new acoustic quartet with Denardo on drums, Charnett Moffett (son of Coleman’s mid-’60s trio drummer Charles Moffett) on bass, and Geri Allen on piano. Allen proved to be as open, liberating and melodic a pianist for Ornette in 1996 as Walter Norris had been traditional back in ’58, and the resulting pair of Sound Museum albums bore this out.
The tunes on Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women are mostly all the same, though the performances offer a study in contrasts of mood and meaning, much in the same way that Prime Time and the original quartet had reflected and refracted identical material on In All Languages. The Hidden Man version (download) of the tune “Sound Museum” drags on two minutes longer than its Three Women counterpart (download) and, while they sound alike, the different choices each musician makes in how and when to play their respective instruments results in markedly different feelings.
In which Coleman’s reconciliation with the piano reaches its final fruition. This album of duets with German jazz pianist Joachim Kuhn, who had previously led a late ’70s fusion band, proved once and for all that Coleman’s harmolodic concept could result in startling, unrestricted music with piano. Recorded live in ’96, Kuhn’s interaction with Coleman on Colors is aggressive and highly intuitive, highlighted by the album’s closing tune, “Cyber Cyber” (download). It would be Coleman’s last release on his Harmolodic label.
Coleman’s recorded output was nil for almost a decade, excepting the odd guest appearance on “pop” albums like Joe Henry’s Scar and Lou Reed’s The Raven, the latter of which followed by six years a rare live performance in which Reed sang his classic “Satellite of Love” (download) on stage with Prime Time one night during a four-night program of live Coleman performances at Lincoln Center in New York. 2006’s independently released Sound Grammar was long overdue, and its appearance made waves yet again. The album, which was recorded live in Ludwigshafen, Germany on October 14, 2005 and featured Coleman in a two-bass quartet for the first time since the late ’60s, resulted in Coleman’s receiving a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. While many of the tunes were oldies (including “Song X” and “Turnaround”), the harmolodic concept ensured they would sound completely fresh, while new tunes like “Jordan” (download) found Coleman playing and composing with the fire of his much younger self, pushed on by Denardo as the genetically perfect drum collaborator. Tony Falanga and Gregory Cohen provide alternating plucked and bowed bass to surprisingly complementary effect. But then, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise by now that a band with two acoustic basses could work so well. If anybody could pull it off, it’s Ornette Coleman.