The Turnaround!

Previously Published Articles, Essays and Reviews
Bill Shoemaker

This article originally appeared in JazzTimes Volume 25/Number 10, published December 1995.

Dialing Up Ornette

Odds are that every media piece surrounding the release of Tone Dialing will include the grabber-factoid that this is Ornette Coleman’s first recording in seven years. This is something not to gloss over, as it is a marker, albeit an innocuous one, of several critically important cultural trends. Most glaringly, there’s the actuarial reality that artists can only survive so many seven-year silences. Coleman has endured more than his share, as the number of years that comprise the several lengthy gaps in his discography surpass the entirety of some jazz greats’ careers. Then, there’s the peculiar time warp that exists within jazz history. In other endeavors, persons with an age difference of ten years are seen as contemporaries. Yet, Clark Terry, whose diamond anniversary was celebrated on a recent JT cover, is generally thought to be of an older generation and a different era than the 65 year-old Coleman. The other, perhaps most limiting, tip to this time warp phenomenon is Coleman’s status as a late-’50s revolutionary. At a time when America’s most prevalent image of a revolutionary was Fidel Castro, Coleman was typecast as the plastic alto-wielding subversive, machete-ing jazz at the turnaround. Revolution, however, is a young man’s game. Now that Coleman is eligible for senior citizen discounts, the revolution in jazz is largely a revolution in marketing, and its target audience’s primary knowledge of Ornette Coleman is as a passing reference in a Jerry Garcia obit, or as the guy behind a weird Pat Metheny record.

Coleman’s recourse has been a logical one: institutionalize. In recent years, Coleman has handed the family business over to his son, Prime Time drummer Denardo Coleman, who earned his stripes producing three Coleman recordings before taking over the day-to-day operations. With the infrastructure in place, a five-year MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in hand, the new Harmolodic Recording Studios opened for business in Harlem, and the launching of the Harmolodic label in association with Verve/Polygram, Coleman is poised to shape jazz from a new and vital vantage. And, if there’s any doubt about the product Coleman plans to deliver, check out Tone Dialing. With a new edition of Prime Time that includes Dernardo, bassists Brad Jones and Al MacDowell, guitarists Chris Rosenberg and Dave Wessel, keyboardist Dave Bryant, and tabla master Badal Roy, Coleman incorporates everything from rap and Latin rhythms to a Bach prelude to convey his all-encompassing theory of harmolodics. Idiosyncratic to the marrow, even the promotional materials are pure Ornette...

Bill Shoemaker: I was intrigued by the puzzle that came with the promotional materials for the Tone Dialing. When you piece it together, it reads, “remove the caste system from sound.” Can you expand on the idea behind that statement?

Ornette Coleman: To be very honest, America is a very young country. 95% of all the art and the intelligence we experience is not founded in the culture of America. We have been brought up in America with information of so many viewpoints of class, viewpoints of poverty, ethnicity. Since music is one of the main ingredients of people’s happiness, it has always been defined by these viewpoints. Europe is a composer’s society, not the improvised society America is. Because of the word ‘jazz,’ America is more of an improvised society. When you think of classical, jazz, folk, or ethnic music, most people think in racial terms rather than in descriptions of what they like. You don’t describe things you like by race; you describe them with the words that show how you recognize what it is and who put it together. But in music, rock represents white, jazz represents black, classical music represents Europeans, and on down the line. But all the music that’s played in America is really played with the same exact notes that come from the European system. It’s five years from the year 2000 and I don’t think any ethnic group, regardless of how it relates to its and past and its roots, is getting their full freedom of expression in this system. For me, America represents a concept of achieving a civilization. That concept is built on the concept of how Europeans brought themselves from cave dwellers to scientists, and how Africans and other people raised their consciousness. Yet, for some reason America builds a caste system in the business concept. It’s a way to avoid relationships with other races and enjoying creativity from outside their identity. The puzzle covers more territory than just sound, but that’s its meaning in dealing with music.

How does harmolodics take on this caste system in sound?

Harmolodics is a base of expanding the melody, the harmonic structure, the rhythm, and above all the free improvised structure of a composition beyond what they would be if they were just played as a regular 2-5-1 structure, or if they were played with the concept of a melody having a certain arrangement to know when to start and stop. In other words, harmolodic music is equivalent to “the” being “die” in German, or “bread” being “pain” in French. It’s like saying, “Give ma some pain” when you’re hungry. So, harmolodics is a way to describe and use information that has identical meaning but sounds like two different words at the same time. When you hear the guitar, the bass, and everyone else play what is called their tone dialing sounds, they are not so much playing different notes as they are playing their own tones, a form of the notes they have been given in the clef that they read. Basically, what you are doing in harmolodics is relying on the basic information that goes into composing, playing, and improvising on forms. You are relying on everything you have experienced as shapes and forms and sounds. Everything in the room that you’re in is made from the earth, but it’s not just soil. If a word means something else in another language, and it’s spelled and sounds the same, that’s very harmolodic. So, when you’re able to play like that, it expresses what sounds could be if they weren’t programmed to represent a certain territory. It has to do with what you base a concept of unity on. Unity in Europe comes from shared territories, not like America where unity is created out of shared conditions.

Harmolodics has a flexibility that the European stereotypes don’t have.

At one point, Europeans had a moveable C. France had its own C. Every country had its own C. It changed according to territory.

But the European forms become standardized, if not static, whereas harmolodics’ translation and referencing of information allows musicians to change the form of a composition each time is it performed.

Take the Bach piece. When I was putting together a new Prime Time band, I went to the Manhattan School of Music and they told me about Chris Rosenberg the classical guitar player. So, I met with him and asked him what was his favorite classical piece, and he said the Bach Prelude. I asked him to play it and then I asked him to play it again, and I improvised on my horn, harmolodically. So, you can hear the true essence of harmolodics in the Bach piece. Chris plays the identical notes, the same thing, twice, back to back. But, when the whole band comes in, its sounds like he’s playing some kind of harmony or changes. Yet he’s playing the same melody. The melody hasn’t changed; it’s been heightened so that you can compare how new information makes the use of a form more clear. What we call melody, harmony, and changes are titles that were applied to a certain growth in music at a certain point in time. I don’t have new words for what those words mean, but I have found how not to let those terms affect something that I found that enhances what those terms can mean. Harmolodics doesn’t changes something from its original state. It expresses the information a melody has within its structure without taking it apart to find out why its sounds that way.

So, hearing harmolodics is analogous to, say, having a brilliant orange canvas on a wall by itself, and experiencing the pure color. Then, you place an intense green canvas next to it. The orange hasn’t changed, just our experience of it, vibrating against the green.

That’s getting close. When you play the piano you’re playing in the G clef, that’s the treble clef, but the soprano, alto, tenor, and the bass clefs are independent of the treble clef. If you take the soprano C, which is on the E line, you take the bass C, which is on the second space, the alto C, which is on the third line, and the tenor C, which is on the fourth line, you’ll have A, B, D, and E. Now, the B natural that’s on the treble clef is totally independent from those four notes, therefore most people transposing those voices to the treble clef are not transposing the natural notes of the unison. That’s why you have harmony, changes, and improvising, because the treble clef doesn’t transpose, it’s only for range. If you have A, B, D, and E in the bass clef, you would be reading C, D, F, and G. In the treble clef, when you play A, B, D, and E, that A is C, the B is a C for alto, the a C for the tenor, and the E is the C for the soprano. So, it’s not really four different notes, it’s the same four notes. So, therefore it’s deceiving to believe that the piano is the transposed clef for all voices. What it really does is uses those four words to make harmonies, keys, and chords. The treble clef does not have a pure voice. If I asked you to play the soprano G natural on the piano, that’s C natural for the treble clef. C natural for the soprano would be E. You can’t hear those as voices, so you call them chords and keys. In harmolodics, those four voices are transposed into one voice. For instance, the A, B, D, and E would be B, C, E, and F on the alto clef, and G, A, C, and D on the tenor clef. The same notes. So, you have a different unison for the same notes. When the piano was invented it destroyed the natural concert C for every country and made the treble clef the range for those Cs to be transposed into keys and chords. What I’m trying to express is that everyone has used those keys and chords and everyone that plays a melody that uses a 2-5-1, even if it’s a new melody, it doesn’t sound like it has gone anywhere. It just sounds like a sequence. When I’m speaking to you about the caste system, it’s not just a racial point or a musical point, I’m really talking about a civilization concept. Let’s face it. There’s only been five men on the planet that weren’t looking for a job -- Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Mohammed, and Moses. They weren’t looking for a job because they were looking for a higher consciousness. If music and art has a consciousness, it shouldn’t be from a caste point of view.

It shouldn’t be about paying the man.

That’s what I’m saying. Think of the word “minority,” not in terms of race, but in relating to information. There are more minorities than there are people who control information. That’s why I’ve written a theory book about harmolodics. I’ve finished it about ten times and it’s time now to close it down and get it out. Someone may tell you that B and F are a flatted fifth apart, but they’re also the major seventh of C and F#. But, they don’t sound like that when you play them back to back. Your information may be limited, but the way you use the information doesn’t have to be limited. Your tone will cause you to change any note to the way you hear it. Your relationship to your tone is based on your emotions. If it wasn’t, everybody would sound the same. When you play something and you hear you own tone, that’s tone dialing. That’s you. If you create music just from the concept of your own tone, you will be doing something no one else has discovered. It’s not impossible.

Playscape Recordings


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