The Wire

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In Writing

Archive Portal: Ornette Coleman

June 2015

In the third of our series of posts shining a light into the darker recesses of The Wire's back issues archive, Tony Herrington continues our online tribute to Ornette Coleman by selecting seven articles that expand on the theories and music of the late saxophonist and composer

Ornette Coleman interviewed by Howard Mandel
The Wire 140 (October 1995)
“I’ll answer anything you ask me,” Ornette tells Howard Mandel early on in this extensive 1995 interview. Except Howard doesn’t get many opportunities to ask him anything. Instead, Ornette unspools an almost unbroken flow of off the cuff philosophising and tail spinning that moves with its own internal logic (just like the music) and probably gives as good an idea of what it was actually like inside Ornette’s head as any of the interviews The Wire published with him down the years (there were seven in all). It includes, as almost all Ornette interviews did, several explanations of his patented theory of harmolodics, all of which are gnomically transparent or lucidly opaque, depending on how you choose to read them.

John Szwed’s Epiphany
The Wire 322 (December 2010)
John Szwed’s biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Alan Lomax have established him as one of the great historians/interpreters of some of 20th century music’s most wanted. Shame he hasn’t written a book on Ornette. This essay appeared in the magazine’s Epiphanies column and describes John’s experiences at the Ornette Coleman Week staged in 1985 in the rather unlikely location of Hartford, Connecticut. The subtext is all about how Ornette and his music might relate to African-American pop culture, and vice versa. It begins with John spotting a local restaurant’s Chicken Ornette lunch special, and ends with him getting an inkling of the actuality of harmolodics at a James Brown concert.

Howard Mandel on a harmolodic ritual
The Wire 131 (January 1995)
Ornette’s multimedia Tone Dialing performance at the 1995 San Francisco Jazz Festival became notorious for including an unannounced 20 minute live body piercing ritual. Howard Mandel’s report on the event isn’t so much a critical review as a ‘just the facts’ news despatch, complete with quotes from Ornette that rationalise it all by locating it in the benign ambit of harmolodics.

Alan Cummings on “Lonely Woman”
The Wire 261 (November 2005)
“Lonely Woman” from 1959’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come has the most indelible melody Ornette ever produced (which is saying something), an ululating blues-drenched line that sounds (and feels) like the true expression of a love that is unconditional and universal. Alan Cummings’s contribution to this issue’s portmanteau cover feature, “Remake Remodel: 60 Cover Versions That Rattle The State Of Song”, discusses versions of “Lonely Woman” by two musicians routinely branded as misanthropists: singer Diamanda Galás, who was once called a satanist by Ornette’s contemporary Cecil Taylor, and the sociopathic Japanese noise guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi. Alan’s mini-essay on these seemingly counterintuitive covers suggests the empathy for others implicit in Ornette’s line was so powerful it could even melt the hearts of musicians predisposed to reject such sentiments, then spur them on to make some of their own most affecting work.

Richard Cook on Prime Time
The Wire 23 (January 1986)
Credited to Ornette Coleman And Prime Time, Opening The Caravan Of Dreams was recorded live in 1983 in Fort Worth, Texas, Ornette’s hometown. The album title was literal rather than poetic: the occasion for the concert was the inauguration of a utopian performing arts centre, the Caravan of Dreams, an event reportedly attended by William S Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Richard Cook’s review of the record doesn’t bother much with the backstory because what Richard was most concerned with was getting to grips with what the record contained, the baffling but compelling, complex but elemental technologised new music Ornette was now producing with Prime Time, and then communicating something of its urgent contemporaneity, a task he confronts head on.

Paul Bradshaw on Prime Time
The Wire 33 (November 1986)
Another take on mid-80s Prime Time, this one by Paul Bradshaw, author of The Wire’s Destination Out club column and future founder of Straight No Chaser, reviewing a live performance in Tokyo. Paul is just as thrilled and bewildered as Richard Cook by the music. He invokes Def Jam and Sly Dunbar to articulate Prime Time’s rhythmic density and intensity, as well as to suggest another way into the music: ie via hiphop and dancehall rather than avant garde jazz.

Royal Trux on harmolodics
The Wire 171 (May 1998)
“Harmolodics is my only social and moral framework,” Neil Hagerty tells Louise Gray in this 1998 interview with Royal Trux. That might sound like a weird endorsement considering Hagerty’s and RT’s reputation for indulging in cartoon levels of drug-fuelled rock ’n’ roll excess. But it also says much about the significance and reach of Ornette’s unifying theory of everything. Not (just) a tool for deconditioning uptight jazz and art music players, most of whom dismissed it as mumbo jumbo anyway, harmolodics was a system designed to liberate Western vernacular music from the twin yokes of capitalist production (ego and money) and put it back in touch with its own soul. Which is why its principle adepts were disaffected R&B virtuosos, no wave mavericks, hardcore refugees, marginalised UK post-punks (for proof, search The Wire archive for interviews with James Blood Ulmer, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Pinski Zoo, Universal Congress Of, etc). Elsewhere in this interview, Hagerty’s partner in RT, Jennifer Herrema, expands on the duo’s understanding and application of harmolodics as the “possibilities of relationships”. In other words, harmolodics is life.

Every issue of The Wire can be read online as part of the magazine's digital archive, which contains more than 370 issues of the magazine and 30,000 pages of experimental music history going back more than three decades. Full access to the archive is available exclusively to all the magazine's subscribers. For more information click here

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