Credit: Antilles Records
by Brendan Nagle Featured Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon Music

Ornette Coleman — Of Human Feelings

March 10, 2023

There is perhaps no bolder album title in all of 20th century music than Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. And what’s more, it was entirely appropriate: Coleman’s arrival in New York City in 1959, followed shortly after by the record’s release, sent shockwaves throughout the jazz world. There were plenty of doubters who dismissed Coleman’s innovations as a fad, an affront to jazz tradition, but the test of time has proven that record’s wild proclamation to be true. There’s actually a shared theme among most of Coleman’s early album titles (Tomorrow Is the Question, Change of the Century) that, correctly, positions the jazz provocateur as a progressive force in the genre’s development — as well as a figure oriented toward the future. Crucially, though, Coleman’s music also has deep ties to the past. Consider a record like 1969’s Ornette at 12 — again, the title signals a focus on time, but going in the opposite direction. Ornette at 12 tapped into not only the music of Coleman’s youth (though that is a permanent consideration, too), but the uninhibited intuitiveness of being a child — a notion supported by the decision to have his then-12-year-old son, Denardo, on drums. Denardo would grow into a formidable player as an adult, but he was clearly an amateur in 1969 — and, indeed, his youthful abandon is more or less the point. Coleman may be commonly regarded as a forward-looking innovator, but to fully understand his work, one must also recognize its debt to the past — both in a historical and a personal sense. And there may be no better way to come to that understanding than to examine a less heralded period of Coleman’s career, which began around 1975 with the formation of his first electric band, Prime Time.

Listening to Prime Time with 21st-century ears, the music still sounds a good deal more radical, more outlandish than Coleman’s ’60s quartet masterpieces. By the mid-’70s, the jazz fusion movement was in full swing, but Coleman’s electric jazz had little in common with Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, or any of the other groups that sprung up in the wake of Miles Davis’ adoption of electric a half-decade earlier. Even today, there’s hardly any music that sounds like what Coleman was doing with Prime Time. The closest resemblance can probably be found in some of the more funk-inspired groups from the downtown New York no-wave scene, but none of those bands really approach the complexity and abstraction of Coleman’s outfit, nor do they embody its improvisational principles (and, of course, Prime Time anticipated no-wave by two or three years).

Part of Prime Time’s uniqueness can be attributed to its unusual instrumentation. The typical lineup featured an arrangement that remains uncommon today: two electric guitarists, two electric bassists, two drummers, and Coleman on alto sax (with occasional trumpet and violin digressions), weaving his way in and out of that supersized rhythm section. But that’s not all that sets the group’s music apart. The free approach that typified Coleman’s ’60s work is still intact here, but it’s been expanded, developed into an all-encompassing philosophy that the jazz iconoclast called “harmolodics.” The precise definition of that term is notoriously difficult to pin down, but it’s an approach that’s predicated on non-hierarchy: not just the freedom of each individual to improvise at all times, but the privileging of each aspect of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) equally. In practice, it’s profoundly elastic — Coleman’s music can be frenetic, often feeling like it’s on the verge of descending into total chaos, though it never does. The free jazz revolution that Coleman sparked would inspire all sorts of anarchic improvised music all over the world (plenty of it quite good), but within his own band, his empowerment of the individual never came at the expense of a collective unity. The music bends and contorts and, at times, threatens to burst apart, but that amorphous whole always remains intact. Prime Time, then, was where that magical symbiosis reached its apogee — and of their six studio records, it’s probably 1982’s Of Human Feelings that best represents the group’s essence. 

As suggested earlier, Coleman is fascinating not just for the way he looks forward, but also for the way he looks to the past. For an example of this, look no further than Of Human Feelings’ opener, “Sleep Talk,” which revolves around a call-and-response motif that quotes the famous bassoon melody from The Rite of Spring. It’s a playful reference, but one that also carries quite a bit of meaning, especially when one remembers that Stravinsky himself borrowed that melody from Lithuanian folk music. One of Coleman’s peculiar contradictions is that even while his formal approach is so progressive, his playing is rooted firmly in the antiquated blues and R&B with which he grew up. His melodies tend to be simple, easily singable, at times even resembling childish nursery rhymes, but by working them through his harmolodic framework, these relics of the past are given a radical new context, and thus transfigured. One can’t help but think of Stravinsky and Coleman as parallel figures in some respects — The Rite of Spring itself is a work that draws on traditions of the past (folk art, pagan ritual) to fuel its innovative modernism, and, indeed, the riotous reception that greeted its premiere in Paris is not unlike the uproar that ensued in response to Coleman’s controversial residency at the Five Spot in 1959. As for the jazz giant’s own past, it’s invoked on “What Is the Name of That Song?” which reworks a refrain from his 1972 symphony, Skies of America. What was once a dense cacophony of strings is reborn as a loose, danceable piece of avant-garde funk. And this sort of thing is an extremely common practice for Coleman: 1977’s Dancing in Your Head, the first Prime Time album, similarly borrows a theme from Skies and repurposes the melody as a motif throughout the entire record, in the process stretching and manipulating it until it becomes something totally new. On Of Human Feelings, this strategy  speaks to the would-be disjunctions that lie at the heart of Coleman’s work, and the effect is one of collapsed boundaries — temporal, tonal, rhythmic, interpersonal. Old-fashioned bluesy melodies collide with hard funk basslines, West African polyrhythms manifest as quasi-disco beats; the spirits of Charlie Parker, Igor Stravinsky, and a younger Ornette Coleman mingle together as one. And always, there’s present-day Ornette at the center, gently guiding these disordered fragments into a cohesive synthesis.

For all the emphasis on Coleman’s genius, the importance of his collaborators can’t be understated, and he would be the first to admit it. This can be illustrated easily by listening to the records that precede The Shape of Jazz to Come: his playing and principles are essentially the same, but, with the exception of Don Cherry, his bandmates, skilled as they were, just weren’t on his wavelength. It wasn’t until he and Cherry hooked up with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and Ed Blackwell in the late ’50s that Coleman’s style was able to flourish. All of those figures were masterful musicians, but just as important was their willingness to embrace his unorthodox approach. And the results speak for themselves. 

The Prime Time generation went even further in their devotion to Coleman, and in their commitment to unlearning the restrictions they’d been taught. By this time, the dynamic within the band had shifted to something resembling a guru and his pupils. Coleman’s new cohort was quite a bit younger than him, with some of them, like drummer Grant Calvin Weston and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, still being teenagers when they joined. And, of course, there was Coleman’s son Denardo, the only player other than Ornette himself to appear on every Prime Time record, as immersed in his father’s ways of thinking as one could be. These musicians were more than just sympathetic collaborators; they were disciples in the school of harmolodics. And on Of Human Feelings, that change is easy to recognize: All six players are on their own, playing in differing keys and rhythmic cadences, but it’s also obvious how deeply they’re listening to one another. Listen to the guitar interplay between Bern Nix (the ultra-clean tone in the left channel) and Charles Ellerbee (the more distorted one panned to the right) on a track like “Him and Her.” They’re playing off of each other, ducking in and out of each other’s lines, filling in gaps, but they never lose their respective individual characters. One can focus on any combination of players and observe astounding repartee. It’s ironic, perhaps, given how haphazard the music might sound on first listen, but Of Human Feelings exists at the apex of musical connectedness.

Returning finally to the question of album titles, we should consider Of Human Feelings itself — it doesn’t share the temporal theme of those earlier titles, but it may be even more elucidating of Coleman’s concerns. Plenty of art claims to abide by a similar expressive principle, but few works actually apply that humanist impulse to something radical, stripping away all conceivable barriers in pursuit of a pure, liberated expression. If anyone can be said to have made a music of human feelings, it’s Ornette Coleman.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Album Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.