Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman

November 30, 2017

By Stephen Rush

A Definition of Harmolodics: The Shape of Jazz to Come

Harmolodics is about race. It is about human equality. Equality of tones is about race. Consider this exchange from page 128:

Stephen: This constraint on civilization and the constraint on music is going to cause an end to jazz?

Ornette: I know you’re right…. I know you’re right. And the reason why it is … sex, money, and race. In that order.

Harmolodics is an approach that attempts to value each element and each participant equally. Melody is the “source of the music,” as Ornette told me years ago in an interview that predates this material. From melody all other elements are implied: groove, intervallic content, harmony. If one were to trace Gary Peacock or Charlie Haden’s bass notes accompanying Ornette Coleman over the years, it would prove difficult, even fruitless, to attempt to codify the harmony for any given composition. Each repetition of the form, if there is a repetition, uses a consistent harmony. The bass line, seeming to contain the harmony, is actually a result of the melody: in the same way, the bass line of a Bach Two-Part Invention seems to contain the harmony, but is actually a result of the melodic material that generates both treble and bass lines.  The melody is the source code of all the other musical events, harmonic or contrapuntal. It is simply bizarre that music schools still teach the bass line as being the generator of the melody (figured bass instruction is endemic to all classical Western European music education). Ornette’s approach is much more straightforward: “top down” instead of “bottom up.”

Notice in “Peace Warriors,” from In All Languages (Coleman 1987), Charlie Haden’s ability to follow and sometimes subvert Ornette’s tonal and rhythmic phraseology. The composition itself is tonally ambiguous, and deliberately so. The first phrase is almost a throwaway tonally—ending in A—but generates the groove. It does end on a G#, making the G# seem like either I or V. The first portion of the head is certainly in C# (major or minor), with phrases ending on C# in m. 4, G# in m. 6, C# again in m. 8, and G# in m. 10 (see below).  However, the coda (mm. 11–14) ends the composition with a phrase in G, then in Gb!

I could envision this scenario in a jazz improvisation or theory class:

Teacher: In what key is “Peace Warriors” by Ornette Coleman?

Student: C# and Gb, I think! But maybe A, G, or G#.

Teacher: That is precisely correct. But isn’t the key of the composition established by the opening phrase of the composition, and supported by the last phrase?

Student: Yes, but the opening phrase ends in A, and the last phrase ends in G#, and the body of the composition is clearly in C#. In other words, the composition is in at least three keys, before any improvisation occurs at all.

Teacher: Correct! You get an A. Or a Bb, or a … (class laughter ensues).

“Peace Warriors” is a Harmolodic composition. It is in many keys, and shows traditional sequences of I–V, surely, and transpositions (e.g. the coda) down by a step. These are not new compositional approaches, but they are newer consequences of traditional approaches.

A close look at the improvisation (above) shows that starting in m. 18, Ornette begins by transposing the shape and rhythm of the opening phrase – eight times. The ending notes of each of those phrases – ostensibly the tonal centers for those transpositions – are Bb, Ab, Fb, D, B, Bb, Ab, Db. To attempt to provide some rationale for those choices would be to miss the point – this phrase is about the shape and the rhythm of the motive rather than an attempt to reveal some larger architectonic scheme. But it is a key element of how motivic generation works in Harmolodics, with absolutely no respect for the traditional hierarchy of tonality.

Such rapid change of tonality, however, could soon turn into a difficult, didactic exercise in both listening and performance, so Ornette sinks deep into a key in order to balance stasis with non-stasis. Starting at m. 38, he begins with a clear phrase in G. Charlie Haden hears and supports this wonderfully. In order to seat the improvisation in the key of C, Ornette inserts the Wizard of Oz quote “I am the King of the Forest” in m. 45. It is interesting to note that the time feel flexes away from 4/4. My notation is not meant to imply, by the way, that m. 44 is in 2/4 time, or m. 47 is in 5/4, but it is meant to show that the “6 feeling” of the quote is superimposed on the 4/4 time of most of the improvisation. This, too, is Harmolodic improvisation. The domination of 4/4 time on Jazz improvisation is just as much an issue here as the dominance of “playing with the changes.” Free Jazz means freedom from 4/4 as well as freedom from playing over prescribed harmony.

A bit more about folk music in Ornette Coleman’s “style” of improvisation. Measure 63 begins a very pleasant folk-like melody, with almost the feel and lilt of a children’s song. The first phrase is out-of-time but clearly in C. Measures 63–66 are a phrase going from I to V in G, then mm. 66–69 go from G to C. What complicates this, though, is that Charlie Haden accompanies the V chord (G major) in m. 66 with an A (going to a D!), and the cadence back to a I chord (C major in m. 69) with a Bb! Surely Haden heard the reference to C major in Coleman’s improvisation, and just as surely, he chose to not play the obvious or appropriate tonal solutions. One could say that if he were to play the “right notes” (as in the roots of the chord) it would have been the wrong thing to play because this is Free Jazz.

Just to round out this improvisation, note that Ornette ends with a long note, slightly sharp – a trademark of his. The note he uses ends up being “C” – ironically, the putative key center in the middle of the solo. In this way, he helps the listener along, using a mix of tonal and atonal languages. He grounds the listener’s ear, centering on focal points – in this case C major – while exercising extreme liberty.

This technique of referencing vital keys could be related to the “folk-music influence” so often cited in discourses about Ornette’s style. Ben Ratliff describes it brilliantly in his obituary of Ornette in the New York Times (June 11, 2015): “[his music] embodied a new type of highly informed folk song: deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective musical language and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences.” Of course this technique goes back to the early days of Bebop. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie often inserted (usually comical) quotes of everything from folk tunes, cartoon theme songs, and even Ferdi Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” into complex improvisations. Later, Albert Ayler was to take this a step further with his extremely connotative compositions that sounded like hymns (“Prophecy”), popular calypso music (“Ghosts”), or New Orleans dirges (“Spirits”). This is clearly a strong part of the jazz tradition.

Works Cited

Audio Recordings

Coleman, Ornette. 1987a. In All Languages. With Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. Caravan of Dreams Records, Caravan of Dreams CDP 85008, vinyl recording.

Coleman, Ornette. 1959a. The Shape of Jazz to Come. With Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. Atlantic, Atlantic LP 1317, vinyl recording.

Stephen Rush is a professor of music at the University of Michigan, and is the author of Free Jazz, Harmolodics and Ornette Coleman (Routledge, 2106) which includes an extensive interview with Coleman and many transcriptions, analyses of Harmolodic compositions performed by Coleman, Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny, and others. Rush has performed and recorded with Roscoe Mitchell, Steve Swell, et al. His classical work is also widely known, with performances by Warsaw and Detroit Symphonies, members of the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Symphony. He has also recorded over 35 records and CDs.,

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