Priceless and Free


Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)

So Ornette Coleman has finished his Chronology. Rather than doing a standard obit, I think it would be more interesting to chat about what he did, which was and remains the subject of much confusion.

WARNING: May contain unsubstantiated personal opinions.

His approach has come to be known as “free jazz”, but that’s not really right. He did release an album of that name, but he never liked the term applied to define what he did. In fact, he didn’t really like labels of any kind.

When pressed, his word for it was “harmolodic”, and the fact that people struggle to understand what it means is, for me, a clue as to its meaning.

For one thing, it’s more a creative agenda than a style – it’s not a what, nor even a how, it’s more of a why. He was usually very gnomic when discussing it, and perhaps enjoyed winding people up when they kept asking: “yes, but what does it mean?”

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the perfect definition of harmolodics is contained in the book he never got round to writing about it.

Of course, with avant garde approaches of this type (although he probably didn’t see it as avant garde, but natural) there still needs to be some kind of defining notion. I’m thinking in particular of “instruction scores” – even if the intent is “everybody plays what they want”, that template needs to be clear. Even Cage’s 4’33” contains the instruction “tacet”.

A purist would argue that there is always some kind of framework – the personalities and moods of the performers, the recording or performing environment. That influence is always present in music, and especially in live jazz.

So far, so free-floating. Ornette did choose a certain way of working, at least on his first albums. So let’s move on from Pure to Applied Harmolodics (if you wish).

You lookin' at me?

You lookin’ at me?

So – here is the 32-bar form we’re going to be using. Get used to it folks, because we’re going to be going round and round it for a while…

This establishes harmony as the pre-eminent determining force in the musical construction. Obviously we try to bring nuance to this structure, but at the end of the day it remains bound and strophic.

Ornette has stated that in the context of music, his approach involves levelling the playing field between melody, harmony and rhythm.

So out went that harmonic tyrant, the piano. In came heads which didn’t necessarily imply obvious harmonic patterns – effectively “instruction scores” on manuscript paper, and out went form.

The ensemble then played on the intervallic shapes and the general spirit of that original statement, producing a kind of freeform counterpoint. In the sense that harmony and form emerged from time to time, they did so spontaneously as a result of the interaction of the individual melodic voices.

Perhaps the primacy of melodic line in this context represents a form of positive discrimination. Of course, the bass and drums aren’t condemned to boomp-boomp-boomp and ting-ting-ta-ting either. In one respect, by re-emphasising the notion of fully collective endeavour, his Shape of Jazz to Come was harking back to jazz past.

In fact, there was probably a political point as much as an artistically conceptual one. Traditionally, European music has organised by harmony, African music by rhythm. Jazz, therefore, since its early days had rather danced to a white man’s tune…

A lot of people championed Ornette’s music (Leonard Bernstein for one) for many reasons, but not least because it was a way of liberating jazz from the hamster wheel. It also emphasised an emotional directness that had perhaps become somewhat overshadowed in jazz by the late ’50s.


Miles Davis – ever a man with an eye to the latest thing – was paying attention. His adoption of some of Ornette’s approach became the basis of his second quintet and the expression “time, no changes” came to be bandied about. Perhaps he had to soften the approach somewhat, calculating that he couldn’t afford to be quite as fearless – by that stage, he had an awful lot of horses that he didn’t want to scare too much.

Interestingly enough, even when they weren’t playing pure “time, no changes”, Miles’ new crew exhibited a much freer kind of playing over changes. The influence remains today, and you’ll hear it in the playing of all but the most mainstream musicians.

Of course, Ornette’s “future music” hasn’t condemned “past music” to extinction. But it’s left its mark everywhere. And shaping the way just about everybody plays is quite a legacy.


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Posted in e) Rants & Ramblings, i) Reviews
2 comments on “Priceless and Free
  1. Adam Cole says:

    Nice little obit. Well spoken about him. I always thought he was an awful lot cooler than the legacy he seems to have gotten. To quote Arthur Miller, “He’s liked, but not well liked.” I think he deserves to be well liked.

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