Steve Lake has three meetings and two dinners with the general-in-chief harmolody. Is Ornette going to change the face of funk or turn into Matisse? And where do The Jam Jivers fit into all this? This article originally appeared in The Wire 19 (September 1985).
"If you are touched in some way," said Ornette Coleman ambiguously a quarter of a century ago, "you are in with me." His detractors had fun with that one, but so did his supporters. What artist worth his salt would not celebrate his eccentricity and make a campaign of it? Think of Verlaine, Rimbaud, Artaud, Nijinsky, Ezra Pound - and then focus on "sanity."
To be touched in the other sense of the word is not as easy as it ought to be. You have to hear the music to have an emotional response to it. And, trying to replace a couple of timeworn Ornette LPs recently, I learned that the inventor had been dismissed from the jazz supermarket. Stanley Clarke and Billy Cobham had their wares decently displayed in close proximity to John Coltrane's sprawling library. Racks buckled beneath boxed sets of digitally recorded and direct-metal mastered solo piano improvisations by Jasper van't Hof. And I don't like to mention the wall-to-wall Windham Hill "New Age Music" (one feels suddenly neutered just looking at such albums).
Where was Ornette? I finally tracked him down under "C miscellaneous" where he was represented by a dog-eared Golden Circle (Volume 2) and a tacky neo-bootleg from the Jazz Anthology label with no musician listing or track details and a wrong date, compounding its air of rip-off with a sleeve note hailing Coleman as the Doutaier Rousseau of Jazz. Huh! Was that any way to celebrate a man who had established new values in improvised music several times over? He was Matisse at least! (Actually, Ornette Coleman has drawn parallels between Jackson Pollock's art and his own).
Ornette's first revolution has been so thoroughly documented in print that I don't like to burden the reader with repetition. Newcomers - refer to any book on modern jazz (except Philip Larkin's). The Coleman quartets with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins recorded, in the period 1959 to 1961, a body of work that can now be regarded as Classical in terms of its enduring validity, its restraint, dignity, elegance and proportion. These qualities were not much recognised at the time but for all the sneers of critics and, as ever, of musicians too, Ornette's innovations amounted to a breathing of common sense into the nostrils of modern jazz trying yet more frantically to hurdle chord progressions in the shortest possible space of time. In that cause, Coltrane's efforts were surely the most heroic. On "Countdown" we hear him Chuck Yeagering a rocket powered route to another side of something.
But Ornette, without demeaning his contemporaries or forerunners said: Look, we don't have to do it that way. And at once there was alternative to the petty restrictions imposed by twelve-bar and thirty-two-bar structures and greater melodic freedom for everybody. As "spread rhythm" became the denominator of the new music, drummers and bassists ceased to be in thrall to a more glamorous front line, their contribution no longer supportive (unless they so willed it). In Ornette's vision of Free Jazz a player was as good as his taste. Conventional notions of harmony were not rejected, but other approaches - one runs quickly into the limitations of terminology in Ornette's case - were included, too. Polytonality, the simultaneous use of more than one key, was an important hallmark of Ornette's early music (and plays a big role in his newer music) and there was much modulation between keys. But this was an inclusive music rather than one that substituted a new set of rules for an old set. It was friendly, of a human scale. This was emphasised by Ornette's conception of rhythmic patterns that echoed natural breathing or speech patterns and by the "conversational" dialogues that were a fundamental part of the quartet's expressive resources.
Derided as "anti-jazz" this music was, specifically, "anti-star". Perhaps it was the first non-macho jazz music. The first that was not about strutting one's stuff. Ornette said that he felt a strong ego or star personality would detract from the group creativity. And in so saying he all but sealed his doom, commercially. Looked at logically, it ill-behoves a musician who votes for modesty and introversion to complain, at the end of the day, about lack of financial recompense.
Humility is a nebulous quality - it often turns out to be just the ego's last trap. Sometimes it backfires into religion. For example, and I might be alone here, I felt that the Old and New Dreams group of Dewey Redman, on Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell was too often guilty of building a little church around Ornette's compositions or, worse, mummifying them. Playing their own pieces that group did not lack wit - unless when Charlie was saving whales, children and Central America - but Coleman's tunes required the presence of the composer to wallop them beyond nostalgia's gravitational pull and out of the past tense. (Captain Beefheart: "The past sure is tense.")
I was glad that Ornette's music had entered its . . . what? Fauvist? Pop Art?? . . . most colourful Phase. It was louder ("But that's the only way those guitars can be heard"), it was more playful than ever, and the melodic kernels of the pieces had been hacked to an almost nursery rhyme simplicity (shades of such old quarter numbers as "Joy Of A Toy "and "Humpty Dumpty") but their purpose was to propel into the improvisational process that Ornette now called "harmolodics". Later, as the players' responsiveness to the methodology sharpened up, he fed them more complex snippets to extemporise round. "Like when you get a new car, "bassist Albert McDowell explained to me, "you got to drive it slowly to break it in. When it starts to feel comfortable you can take more chances with it."
To extend an analogy, the cars in Prime Time's world were dodg'ems, bucking a three-dimensional rink - its planes and interstices labelled Harmony, Motion and Melody. Harmolodic theory will turn the ground beneath your feet to a soft sucking ooze when you hector Ornette or James Blood Ulmer or almost any Prime Timer for specifics. Ornette's almost private interpretation of such terms as "unison" or "transportation" or his dialectical fine-tuning of the micro-worlds between "rhythm" and "beat" and "tempo" have a way of leaving the outsider more outside than ever. Having pursued this line of enquiry fairly persistently with a number of past and present Coleman alumni I have come to the not-terribly-confident conclusion that harmolodics in practice means this: You solo all the time and you stay out of the other guy's way. The source for the improvisation is of Ornette's notating but the charts are only there as raw source material. You don't necessarily play the note that's written on your sheet music, Dewey Redman once said, you just have to hold in your mind the way in which Ornette might play it.
Once the head of the melody is negotiated, and that too may be placed quite approximately, the musician is free to play on any of the melody's centres. A certain note sequence might set up its own momentum when explored more thoroughly. Or, more vaguely still, the player might choose to focus on what he considers the feeling of the melody. But melody, even unstated, is the key to harmolodic interplay. It informs a kind of free polyphony, where the counterpoint derives not from meticulous overlapping of different melodies but from multiples of fragments of the tune's various aspects. From such shards and splinters the group builds its swirling harmonic structure, roving in and out of a ring of keys. Though all players add to the group effort, each is encouraged to retain his personal sound, the focus on his background and experience. For this reason, the usual descriptions of Prime Time as a "jazz-funk" group (see John Rockwell's generally useful book All American Music) are unsatisfactory, though both jazz and funk are integral components of the music.
The second hour of a live Prime Time set almost always features a long sequence of unaccompanied solos by the band members. This is the part of the performance I like the least. I'm much more interested in hearing the instrumentalists' creativity channelled by the composer's guidelines. Coleman, I think, views this section of the set as a demystifying gesture, a way of saying "See, this stuff isn't as boggling as it might first appear to be: such solos, each thoroughly comprehensible, surely, are the building blocks for the music you've heard up until now. "Unhappily, this is not quite the case because alone in the spotlight, the guys get into grandstanding and showbiz has been known to take over. However, the process eliminates a few distinctions. If categories are needed it's easy to hear that guitarist Bern Nix, with his cleanly-articulated linear approach, is in the "jazz" tradition, while fellow guitarist Charles Ellerbee, all fuzzed chords and chopped rhythm, is obviously funk-rooted. Equally, when Blood Ulmer was Prime Timing you couldn't miss the raw blues in his sound (that tone: Like Son House taking a kitchen knife to a Steel National Dobro). Jamaaladeen Tacuma's furious solos seem like the last word in virtuosity along the Stanley Clarke/Alfonso Johnson/Pastorius trail but there is more to his musicality too, from Philly soul to the influence of Hamza el Din's oud playing. A problem - if one can call it a problem - is that given the nod to solo, Tacumo sometimes tries to serve it all up at once. . .
And so it goes. Denardo? Ornette's son has moved into a zone all
his own, drumwise. It is hard to grasp the notion that he has now
been playing with his father for twenty years. Listening to the
title track of The Empty Foxhole in a Munich radio studio last year
he was philosophical about his debut as a drummer - at age ten. "I
was just concentrating on trying to play the best that I could," he
shrugged. "That's still what I try to do."
His adoption, in the last few years, of an electronic Simmons kit in preference to the time-honoured skin-and-wood trap set distances him still further from the idea of "individuality" as a personal quirk tacked onto The Tradition. Now, Denardo Coleman sounds like no one else and the old, invariably negative, comparisons with Blackwell and Higgins are finally redundant.
Within the free world of harmolodics, some are more free than others. If, on the military scale, no one ranks lower than captain, then Coleman Senior and Junior and Jamaaladeen Tacuma are all generals-in-chief. These three seem to call the shots most often in the course of an evening's improvising. Additionally, Denardo now functions as Prime Time's manager, having taken over that slot from - and this is one of my favourite facts in Ornetteology - Sid Bernstein, manager of pop songstress Laura Branigan and the fellow who brought the Beatles and the Bay City Rollers to America.
For years we have been promised new Prime Time Albums, including a Fort Worth-recorded live "Skies of America" with the group restored to the performance. (This was the original intention but Union restrictions and visa problems until the 1972 session to a saxophone-plus-orchestra taping only.)
If all of Ornette's discography is in tatters, Prime Time come out of the picture particularly badly. "Dancing in your Head" and "Body Meta" have disappeared, along with the overly-ambitious record labels that issued them, Horizon and Artist's House (sunk perhaps by the weight of their packaging - all those booklets and inserts and gatefold sleeves must have cost more than the vinyl.)
Tales of Captain Black, an interesting Ulmer/Ornette/Tacuma/Denardo session has also disappeared - a pity, because the bluesier slant of Ulmer's compositions, the stripped-down line-up and the transparent Ornette/John Snyder production makes it one of the better introductions to harmolodics in action.
So, what's left. There's Of Human Feelings issued in 1982 and in circulation as a bootleg since 1979 when it was recorded. Six years old, it is the most contemporary Prime Time LP, as of this writing. In that six-year gap James Blood Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson have come to some measure of prominence and Ornette-inspired ensembles of varying degrees of competence - James Chance, Material, the Lounge Lizards, Deadline - have all been well-represented on record and given acres of coverage. It's a mug's game to complain of lack of justice in the music world (why justice there when nowhere else?) but the history of this era of the music is lopsided for lack of evidence of Coleman's contribution in the last decade.
Odds-on, this is in some measure Ornette's fault/choice/responsibility. Through his career there have been stories of his intractability regarding cash and, more specifically, the amount due to his genius. It is said that he once refused to gig unless he got as much loot as Dave Brubeck. And if achievement and influence were directly related to the business of supply and demand he would have had a point. His stubbornness meant that he simply did not work, however. Depending on your age and experience, you will find this stance either heroic or self-defeating.
The fan of the partisan critic (no difference really) likes to believe in the musician as haloed angel and the record company as a network of evil horned greedheads. In jazz, however, the player usually gets shortchanged by the well-meaning amateur whose independent label is really just the audio equivalent of a vanity press. The big labels want to do business, in which role they usually - though, of course, not invariably - play an above-the-board game. Their investment is obviously geared to their anticipation of profit. Ornette's demands that his three albums of improvisations with the Master Musicians Of Joujouka be simultaneously issued in every CBS territory were predictably met with a snort of derision.
I was once present when Ornette weighed into a CBS executive about the company's failure to subsidise him to the tune of several million dollars so that he could keep an orchestra on the road. Such incidents lead journalists, even those highly sympathetic, to describe Coleman as "naïve". I have found myself wondering if his attitude was perhaps some radical bargaining tactic: demand some astronomical sum and you might at least get several times what The Villains had originally intended to offer.
It is also clear that for all the frustrations that are its side-effects the role of enfant terrible is one that Coleman has enjoyed. Now, indeed he has become a sort of père terrible, even a guru terrible. Looking for other artists who occupy a parallel role, one might single out Karlheinz Stockausen, Sun Ra, Ken Kesey and Holger Czukay. Not a "star" among them, but every one a "teacher". And the essence of their teaching is transmitted only to the most diligent of disciples. The best of the rest of us are only "touched in some way."
How often have you read the kind of interview where Marshall Allen or Jamaaladeen Tacuma or even Steve Lacy (in reference to Cecil Taylor and Monk) talks about perseverance with His Master's Charts until - suddenly! - in a blinding flash of satori, they understand, they reach the core. But their season-ticket is non transferable. Having flown the coop Dewey Redman will say to Down Beat writer:" I was with Ornette three years, and I don't understand the harmolodic theory more than anyone else, not to explain it to you. It isn't because I haven't tried to understand it; I've asked Ornette all sorts of questions."
While not claiming that it is a conscious ploy on Ornette's part to stay as inscrutable as possible, one might observe that the Master ceases to have a job when his followers comprehend him completely.
I have tried to interview Ornette on three occasions, hoping that his words might give me deeper insight into his music but, each time, I was flummoxed by encounters that seemed more like zen lessons administered in a thick fog. The first meeting, when I was about 21 or 22 and thoroughly unready for it, found me in Ornette's loft where people were listening to an album by country rock group Poco (!) Ornette, having ascertained that I was, in that period, a salaried Journalist not being paid specifically for talking to him declared that when I was in his house I was not on the job and should therefore not speak of music. He had no objections to chatting, he said. The chat was one-sided. Ornette ate chicken and three out unanswerables: "How many rhythms are there in the world?" How much do they pay the guy who makes the money?" A videotape of "Skies Of America" flickered as a backdrop.
The second meeting was at the Moers festival in 1981. There he announced that he had now found the key to the mass audience that with Sid Bernstein's business strength behind him would proceed to unlock the door.
Third meeting. Late 1984. Scene: a very Bavarian restaurant in Muchin's Schwabing district. In keeping with the policy of having everything in his life doubled - think of the two drummers, two basses, and two guitarists in Prime Time - Ornette orders two dinners. "I'll take the Wiener schnitzel and the spare rips and a beer and a coke." The night before Ornette had said that he was tired of talking and complained that nobody ever talked to his band. I volunteered to do just that. Prime Time was assembled around a table and then Ornette took over and talked anyway, with Denardo making a few interjections.
Ten minutes after complaining that his career had been consistently stymied by racialism, by lack of sufficient funding and by people who had gone out of their way to thwart him he said that there were "three things I refuse to worry about - that's black or white, rich or poor or having enemies." I knew that I was on a losing wicket already.
Ornette talked about how the "white pop image" had been manipulated by the media as a means of keeping other peoples under control. "Take James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. They're both great, right? But James will never have the kind of success that Springsteen has." I demurred here, figuring that Brown was leading that particular race, with more hits under his belt. Besides which, Brown seemed to have become a figure of singular respectability, always being pictured shaking the hand of this or that high-ranking Republican, usually inside the White House.
"Yeah, yeah. That's not what I'm saying," said Ornette
impatiently, obviously not listening. "The thing is that the people
who package music for the consumer package it as a racial and
social issue. They don't package it as just the true expression of
what a person's doing.
"I took a cab out here from the airport and the driver was listening to the radio, a song about some woman with blonde hair and blue eyes who had taken away the singer's man. I could see that the driver, a white person, could see that image in his mind. He was probably thinking 'I wish I had a woman like that'.
"As a black person I recognised the theme as a blues but if it had been, the guy wouldn't have recognised it as the same story. You know what I mean? But, listen, whatever race I was I wouldn't want to have that song as my spiritual. I don't know why any race should want to cling to the images of suffering.
"I don't. These concepts - racism, rich or poor, having enemies - have all been designed for people to react upon each other in a survival manner. Either for the sake of money or just plain I-don't-like-you. Something makes you take that concept as your personal vendetta against society.
"I've never believed that you had to destroy to be better than the next person or that you had to be poor to be creative. Human beings, regardless of race, are more important than categories."
(The direction of the interview was well beyond my control by this point.)
"But do you know what I find? Said Ornette, an impish smile playing around the lips. I confessed I didn't.
"I find that women don't have the problems as much as men. You know why?
"If you're married to a black woman and she has your baby and then you divorce her and I marry her and she has my baby - she's gonna love both those babies. But you and I might not even speak to each other. That's the difference."
I said we could test this theory experimentally.
Denardo laughed. "Who's gonna print this?"
Ornette: "Yeah, we'll see you in jail, Lake."
Denardo: He prints this he's out of a job."
Ornette told me, as he often tells interviews, that I should just write whatever I feel like writing, any way I feel like writing it. By this point, he said, his opinions could be guessed. It was no longer necessary to met him to quote him! (Shades of Henry Miller meeting would-be biographer Jay Martin with "you can write whatever the fuck you please about me" and even goading him to lie generously: "more interesting that way".)
Earlier on we had all agreed that Prime Time was far more potent live than on record, and again the group announced the imminent issue of a bunch of new records that would put that picture to rights.
Some writers have suggested that there is a gulf between Ornette and the Prime Time Band on stage. In other words that he is soloist, they mere backdrop. Ornette said this was just an aural/optical illusion based on preconceptions about the role of the saxophone. Denardo added, interestingly, that sound engineers in concert halls just could not be persuaded to bring the saxophone in line with the other instruments. "They look at the instrumentation and they think 'Oh yeah. Jazz-rock!' You really have to spell out the concept to them.
It's time, no doubt, that the band had a harmolodic engineer on stage with them, an eighth member of the consort with a role comparable to that of Kurt Munkacsi in the Philip Glass Ensemble. The nature of the instruments almost demands it, Ornette playing amplified alto and violin against the futuristic textures of Tacuma's Steinberger bass or Denardo's "industrial" - sounding kit.
Does the hardware itself suggest that progress has been made? Or is Prime Time's occasional intimation of rhythm and blues the turning of the wheel full-circle to long-distant days when Ornette, Prince Lasha and Charles Moffett had a Louis Jordan-inspired Texan high school band called the Jam Jivers?
Ornette talked of a lecture he'd attended by Buckminster Fuller where the scientist/philosopher had dismissed "up and down" and "backwards and forwards" as antiquated notions.
"You live on the earth which is round," Ornette summarised. "The earth moves in circles around the sun. Your skull is round. Fuller said, for people on the planet, there are only two directions that have any meaning. That's round and round . . ."
Ornette Coleman smiled. "And OUT."
CHECK UP: POINTS TO PONDER FURTHER
If "Skies Of America" had been hyped in the fashion of the Hitler Diaries and offered to us as a lost score by Charles Ives, say, what would Jon Rockwell and Max Harrison and the other half-dozen customs officers at the gates of Western Art Music have had to say about it? Would it still be "naïve" and "clumsy"?
Strange contrast between Ornette's often baffling riddle-filled dialogue, and the clarity of his musical thought. His arrangements on Alice Coltrane's "Universal Consciousness" chase the wishy-washy mystical mood out the studio door. One feels that intelligence has entered the room.
Technique. Wynton Marsalis claiming in a recent Musician interview that nobody commented on how early Coleman sounded like Charlie Parker. In fact almost everybody commented on this. How much less generous other musicians have been regarding his trumpet and violin. Funny that Jackie McLean, a musician technique-obsessed, should have been the first to encourage Ornette's trumpeting. (Old And New Gospel) At this point, I wouldn't mind if Ornette hung up the alto in favour of the violin.
I remember John Stevens talking about how improvisers sub-divided into two camps, those who had a Music and those who only had an Instrument. There are not so many in the first camp and more - Ornette, Miles, Lacy, Braxton, Sun Ra. . . But already one can add Blood Ulmer and Shannon Jackson to that list. There must be something to Coleman's guru status. How else explain the incredible blossoming of Jackson, particularly? One day Ornette gives him a flute. Then, in what seems like no time at all he is writing some of the most refreshing and original compositions and arrangements around. Or take Jamaaladeen Tacuma on his own hunger to learn and plan and devour everything: "Ornette Coleman has created a monster!"
In the world of categories which Coleman rejects, the Pat Metheny Group is viewed by some as a sort of polar opposite to Ornette's restless experimentation. Yet Metheny - white, middle-class Middle American - knows more of Ornette's music than any musician I've met who has not actually played in the master's band (possible exception: Charles Brackeen). Having played and recorded with Dewey Redman, Charles Haden and Billy Higgins, Metheny continues to perform Ornette tunes in his set. Somehow this proselytising has not registered with the hipsters fraternity. Nor is it generally known that both Prime Time guitarists were students of Metheny's at Berklee.
The 1984 disco-fied version of Dancing In Your Head" that appears on Jamaaladeen Tacuma's Renaissance Man offers a tantalising glimpse into how Ornette might sound if he opted more directly for the funk market. Supported by congas and a DMX drum computer plus Jamaal and Charlie Ellerbee (the funkiest Prime Timers) Ornette puts more of an R & B spin on the melody. Terrific, frankly.
I don't remember who it was who wrote about how Ornette had been enormously influential without being much imitated (let's make another exception for Mr. Charles Brackeen here), but this is obviously true. Possibly elements of late Coltrane. Ayler and Pharoah Sanders are more easily caricatured?
For that matter, neither has Ornette's dress sense been much mimicked (Brackeen is a long-sleeved T-shirt and flared jeans man.) but I like those screaming neon suits of Ornette's, so loud as to defy mockery.
What becomes a legend least? Ageing, undoubtedly, though jazzers have proved better at it than rock musicians. All the same, jazz fans prefer their heroes dead and beyond the lure of a fast buck. How would a 65-year-old Charlie Parker have functioned in the hip-hop scratch'n'rap zone?
I notice that Ornette's publishing company, for years Phase Text Music has suddenly become One Foot Music I hope this foot is not "in the grave" but rather the one that Gurdjieff spoke of when he said that the artist "should think of money with his left foot."