Stephen Rush on Ornette Coleman

Harmolodics cover

FREE JAZZ, HARMOLODICS AND ORNETTE COLEMAN / By Stephen Rush / Routledge Books, 2017 (302 pp., $128 hardback, $45.56 paperback, available HERE or on Amazon)

The 1950s saw two revolutionary music theories emerge, not from the world of academia or of classical music but from the jazz world. The first was George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which was explained, broken down and codified by Russell in his own words. It was, and remains, a difficult but workable system of playing jazz by thinking in terms of the Lydian mode rather than in terms of the Western scale. The second was Harmolodics, the word that saxist Ornette Coleman used to describe his own music, which to many Western ears sounded like tonal anarchy. Some jazz musicians, primarily pianist John Lewis and bassist Charles Mingus, praised and embraced it, but the vast majority heard it as too harmonically “free” to be used by most players who were not Ornette Coleman.

In this sometimes concise but more often sprawling book, Stephen Rush, who is a Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, attempts to explain and to some extent codify Harmolodics through Coleman’s music as well as in extensive interview excerpts with him. Some of it makes sense; some of it doesn’t; and some of it is contradictory, in part because Coleman talked in circles yet never seemed to close than circle.

Rush himself brilliantly lays out the problem at the bottom of p. 73, at the end of conversation number XVI out of XXXIV with Coleman:

People have inquired about Ornette’s music, “Show me it. Write some out.” Ornette’s style of musical calligraphy, with its Harmolodic clefs and such, couldn’t possibly help. Copious transcriptions exist, including my own, yet they only contain note heads, names, and time values. The meaning of the music is deeper than that. “All of those titles [that people give you] just give you a title, in order to go around and express your title to what someone else is doing.” Many academics will try to simplify artistic endeavors so that they can understand it, often irrespective of what is really happening in the art itself.

Which is true but doesn’t solve the problem. The early part of this book is highly confusing musically but not just for those with a moderate knowledge of music or those with a little more advanced knowledge like myself. Since Coleman routinely spoke of notes being “the same” regardless of their “names,” this leads us into a rabbit-hole from which there seems to be no way out, and although Rush tries patiently to explain Harmolodics the bottom line is that it is still a confusing system for anyone trained in any facet of “normal” music. I have written at some point about how the harmonic “clashes” we hear in the music of modern-leaning composers such as Gossec, Berlioz and Wagner were actually in formal music of the late 17th century, but by the second decade of the 18th the musical establishment eradicated those clashes. In his brilliant lecture on Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot, Raymond Lewenthal patiently illustrated how three different threads of melody, each one sounding perfectly consonant when played separately, created a harsh dissonance when played together. But the academic world could not accept even this modest but “annoying” dissonance until it had come to grips with Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Charles Ives, the latter of whom, you might say, lived in his own “Harmolodic” world. Gunther Schuller, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson were the few established classical musicians who were fascinated by Coleman’s music and came to its defense, but even they could not really explain it.

My own experience with Coleman’s music is, I am sure, entirely different from Rush’s and, possibly because of this, engendered an entirely different response from that of academics. I first encountered him playing on a CD titled At the Golden Circle, Stockholm back in the 1980s. Though the recording dated from 1966 and only included him with a trio and not with his classic quartet or larger forces, I was able to follow the thread of his playing pretty easily. I found it attractive to the ear but not conventional; in several tracks, he seemed, in fact, to be playing in a harmonically static environment. And that has always been the paradox of Harmolodics. It’s extremely difficult to explain but somehow easy for the ear to grasp. If you just let go of your preconceived ideas about harmony, and how harmony must “lead” both the melody and improvisation, what yu hear is agreeable and imaginative even when it completely ignores Western music.

In my own words—I am not quoting or even paraphrasing Rush here, just giving you my own take on it—Harmolodics is a way of playing jazz from the top down rather than from the bottom up. In other words, the bass line does not “lead” the upper voices; rather, the upper voices “lead” the bass line. This is one reason why, when I first heard the recordings of the classic Coleman quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, I was utterly astonished at how well Haden could follow what Ornette was doing because, musically speaking, it was the equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a parachute. In his book, Rush states that Haden sometimes supported and sometimes “subverted” what Coleman was doing on alto sax (or occasionally on tenor, or rarer still on the trumpet or violin), but for the most part I consider his musical acumen to have been entirely remarkable. Coleman worked with several different drummers, and most of them were quite good in their role, but he seldom had a bassist as good as Haden, whose background was in—of all things—country and western music. (Jamaladeen Tecuma is another bassist who worked very well with Coleman.)

On the same page as the above quote, Rush continues with an interesting observation that spills onto the following page:

Too often Jazz critics and fans alike are obsessed with speed and virtuosity. They fail to see the artistic statement inherent in the music. Speed and range are false artistic objectives What if we were to dismiss Miles Davis because he “fracked” notes routinely? Indeed, that was his style. What if we reject Thelonious Monk, because he often used “mistake-sounding” half-step dyads as part of his syntax?

Well, I’ve said the same thing for years, and as it turns out I am among a very small minority of classically-trained listeners who find the styles of both Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk to be musically valid. Perhaps that’s because, again, I came to Monk’s music with fresh ears and no preconceptions, but I for one never thought of his music as containing “wrong notes” as so many others do. In fact, the manner in which Monk played the piano, with splayed fingers, is extremely difficult to do, but he chose that method because it gave him the opportunity to accent certain notes within a bar, or even within a four- or five-note phrase, that sounded “wrong” because it was on the off-beat or sometimes in the middle of a beat. But that doesn’t mean that Tatum is to be rejected because he “played fast.” What Tatum did was miraculous, too, because within his note-filled runs and licks he was able to create wild Baroque (in the correct sense of the word) fantasies which in its time also subverted traditional tonality. Tatum could think, and play, in two or three or four different keys at once, flitting back and forth between them so quickly that although the ear caught the variations they sounded like momentary excursions when in fact he sometimes managed to completely leave the home key without most listeners even realizing it.

The problem with Ornette’s music came when he worked within the framework of a “legitimate” string quartet or symphony orchestra. He knew very well that classically-trained musicians could not, for the most part, improvise because that was not part of their training, but because they didn’t learn music as thoroughly as their jazz counterparts (you can scarcely find a classical musician, even today, who can think in terms of the cycle of fourths which is the basis of even earlier jazz improvisation, let alone upper harmonics, extended chords and modes) they clearly couldn’t follow him when he began his Harmolodic excursions, thus he had to write for these formations in a harsh world of mixed tonality which academically-trained ears could not grasp. If you compare, for instance, Coleman’s commercial recording of his jazz symphony Skies of America on which he is the only jazz soloist (for some reason, the rest of his band was not granted permission to record while he was in London making the record!) to the much fuller live performance on which he and his septet, which consisted of Coleman, two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers, worked over and around the written score as played by the Verona Arena Symphony Orchestra, you end up hearing an entirely different experience. Yet for many classically-trained listeners who will even deign to listen to Coleman, the studio recording is at least something they can grasp. When New York Times music critic John Rockwell reviewed a full performance of Skies of America in New York with Coleman’s working group improvising away, he found it much too chaotic to grasp. And since he couldn’t understand it, he blamed Coleman for making it sound “chaotic” and “formless,” not himself for refusing to just open his ears and listen.

Of course, Coleman’s music sounded “right” when played by a jazz orchestra, as it was by the Jazz At Lincoln Center group on May 18, 2018 as a tribute to Ornette…but alas, Skies of America wasn’t on the program, just excellent arrangements (mostly by Ted Nash) of jazz pieces by Coleman. Nowadays, you could probably make up a string section of the Turtle Island and Atom String Quartets, fill in with brass and wind players who have jazz experience, and really do Skies up pink.

But to return to Rush’s fascinating but sometimes frustrating  book, he himself described Harmolodics best on p. 8 of the book as collective improvisation in which “equal consideration should be given to each player. Early Jazz uses this very premise for improvisation. Harmolodics is also about breaking the stranglehold that harmony had on Jazz by the end of the 1950s.” Rush then clearly lists the various aspects of Harmolodics as follows:

  • purposeful use of range to organize the structure of an improvisation
  • reference to keys within and without the home key of the composition during the improvisation
  • the artful manipulation of phrase length
  • a balance between “inside” and “outside” [playing]
  • a playful use of folksong-like characteristics, to wit, longer note values, antecedent-consequent phrasing, strong references to the “home key” or “home keys”
  • the extrapolation of key centers stated or implied by the head
  • the strategic and balanced play between harmonic and rhythmic tension and simplicity
  • detailed listening and flexibility by the bandmates to create large-scale structures
  • the use of timbre as an expressive tool
  • the use of Pop groove references within a Free Jazz composition
  • clear reference to Blues modality and phrasing.

All of which is true in relation to Coleman’s own work, although I personally reject “the use of Pop groove references.” And in fact, I also reject the use of funk, hip-hop and rock references in jazz—All of which is true in relation to Coleman’s own work, although I personally reject “the use of Pop groove references.” And in fact, I also reject the use of funk, hip-hop and rock references in jazz—all jazz, not just Coleman’s. To re-quote Roy Eldridge, “the jazz beat goes somewhere; the rock beat stays somewhere.”

At least twice in the book, Rush refers to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as an example of “equal consideration given to each player,” but although I like some of the Oliver records, I find much of their work rhythmically stodgy. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton, who actually heard the Oliver band in person when he was 13 years old and never forgot it (he even got to sit on King Oliver’s knee!), once told me that the band was ten times better in person than they were on records, but that Oliver, a gentlemanly and somewhat subservient Southern black man, was told to “keep it minimal” when he made his records and so he did. I would, rather, point to the marvelous 1944 recording sessions that Willie “Bunk” Johnson made with George Lewis on clarinet and Warren “Baby” Dodds, who was Oliver’s original drummer. Despite that these records were made some 20 years after the last Oliver-Armstrong sessions, Johnson, who worked in the sugar cane fields, rarely heard 1930s jazz even on the radio, and so was still insulated within the style he had grown up with as lead trumpet for the Superior Band in New Orleans. There is a loose, almost wild feeling to the collective improvisation within those Bunk Johnson records that eluded Oliver in the recording studio, and I personally feel that they give a much better impression of what improvised jazz sounded like c. 1910-1916.

A large portion of this book—133 pages, to be exact—is taken up with extended interviews of Coleman by Rush. My head was spinning by the time I got two-thirds of the way through this, because Coleman talked, as he played, in circles. He kept coming back to certain key words (mostly “human,” “life” and “f***ing”) which were sometimes used in one context, sometimes in another. Although there were some glimmers of insight in these interviews, particularly on p. 110 where he said “life is so creative that it doesn’t have to please anything,” but then he’d return to his circular metaphors. After the interviews were over and done with, Rush came to his own conclusion, with no direct input from Coleman, that Harmolodics were inextricably tied into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s. With all due respect to Prof. Rush, I disagree with him. Harmolodics was about full creative equality for the musicians within his groups and, since he used white as well as black musicians, racial equality as well, but more in a general sense, like Duke Ellington’s lifelong promotion of black culture without politicizing it. Ornette Coleman was more of an “can’t we all just get along?” person than a political animal. He was less political than Dizzy Gillespie, who frequently commented on the ongoing situation and in fact ran for President (mostly as a joke) in 1964, and certainly less political than Charles Mingus, who wrote pieces with titles (and sometimes lyrics) pointedly fighting for Civil Rights. Coleman took no part in any marches and gave no concerts specifically to support the Civil Rights movement, as others did. But yes, he wanted people to see him and other black musicians a people and not just as tokens—which, ironically, was an attitude that flew in the face of the Democratic Party, for which African-Americans and in fact all minorities are exactly that.

One of the best pages in the book is p. 139, where Rush does a superb job of explaining the inner workings of Harmolodics in concrete terms (he also gives specific examples of each feature which I have omitted here):

  • the extrapolation of key centers stated or implied by the head.
  • the play between harmonic and rhythmic tension and simplicity.
  • a balance between “inside” and “outside” playing.
  • the use of careful motivic development—usually derived directly from the head.
  • detailed listening and flexibility by the bandmates to create large-scale structures.
  • flexible phrase lengths.
  • strong but brief tonal references.
  • the use of timbre as an expressive tool.
  • the use of Pop groove references within a Free Jazz context.
  • clear reference to Blues modality and phrasing.
  • careful use of range as a structural tool.

I believe that these features, along with a loose view of tonality—whatever key Ornette or Don Cherry or Charlie Haden was playing in at the moment was the tonality—sum up Harmolodics perfectly. The problem, as I said earlier and reinstate here, came when Ornette worked with classical musicians, as he did in his piece for string quartet Dedicated to Poets and Writers and his piece for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble Skies of America, where the strings (in particular, even in the symphony) seem to be sawing away tonelessly in their little bitonal world as the jazz goes on around them. One might say that these pieces reflect a culture clash between the world of Established Music, where everything, even atonality, has to have a set purpose, and the world of Harmolodics, which embraces, as I said above, a philosophy of “can’t we all just get along”?

The next section of the book, covering 79 pages, consists of Rush’s musical analysis of ten pieces, with solos. Nine of these pieces are by Coleman while the tenth is by Keith Jarrett who, for all his keyboard facility, is a jazz musician I can’t stomach. These are fairly straightforward; anyone with a fair grounding in music can follow what he says, particularly since he includes numerous scored examples. The final portion of the book, 52 pages, has full transcriptions of all solos. The only one I personally disagree with is Doughnut. Although I own both the 1962 Town Hall performance, the one transcribed here, and the 1966 Golden Circle performance, I strongly prefer the latter, where Ornette stretches out, sounds much more relaxed and swinging, and does much more with his solo.

At the tail end of the book, Prof. Rush lays out his syllabus for a one-semester class on Harmolodics. To be honest, I’d probably fail, in part because my sight reading skills are not at a professional level. Yes, I know how to read music; I learned it when I was in the sixth grade, and I can go through a score, but slowly, picking out each note on the piano one by one. I can hear musical accurately, however, and sit down at a keyboard, pick out the notes by ear, and transcribe it to sheet music. But I never could master the art of fast sight-reading like most professional musicians do, which is why I write about music instead of playing it. (Yes, I was a fairly proficient pianist until I suffered thoracic outlet syndrome in the 1990s and had to stop playing.)

So there you are. Although the book is somewhat pricey, with copies ranging from $43.77 for the paperback edition to a high of $128.44 for the hardcover, you can download it to your Amazon Kindle (if you own one…I don’t) for $10.82 (to rent) or $42.54 (to keep). It is well worth the read for both ordinary Ornette Coleman fans with some musical knowledge (which, I would think, are most of them) and more advanced musicians.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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