Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman, the new book from pianist and educator Stephen Rush (get it from Amazon), sets itself a fairly audacious task: explaining what Harmolodics is. The shallowest answer, and the one most frequently offered, is that Harmolodics is the system that Ornette Coleman devised to compose and improvise, and which he used from the 1950s until his death in 2015. As a word, Harmolodics is a portmanteau of harmony, melody, and rhythmic.
The deeper answer is that Harmolodics is much more than just a composition/improvisation system; Harmolodics is a philosophy that reflects the ideals of life. That leads us into the guts of this new book: Harmolodics as philosophy, explained mostly through the words and music of Coleman himself and Rush’s explanations thereof.
In the only article Coleman published on the subject, in the July 1983 issue of Down Beat, he defined Harmolodics as “the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.” And that is about as clear as Coleman gets when speaking about Harmolodics. Rush talks about Coleman’s ability to make “a statement that is as profound as it is ambiguous.” Given the relative lack of substantive words from its creator specifically on the function and philosophy of Harmolodics, the interview and explanations that form the core of this book are a welcome and important addition to Coleman scholarship.
The book is structured in three main parts. Part One provides a quick background to Harmolodics as well as attempting to set it in an historical context, arguing that the development of Harmolodics is inseparable from the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Harmolodics teaches that all pitches and all musicians in a group are equal, none more important than another, which was (and still is) the main goal of the ongoing civil/human rights struggle. This idea is expanded upon greatly in Part Two, an extensive interview with the man himself.
Comprising roughly one hundred and thirty pages, Part Two is broken down into many subsections, each around two pages in length, that feature an extract from the conversation followed by a couple of paragraphs of “Reflection,” wherein Rush interprets Coleman’s ideas. Rush is usually very successful in his interpretations, which thankfully are in a substantially less oblique language than that which Coleman deploys.
Part Three is split into two main sections, the first being a detailed analysis of solos from ten different recordings of Coleman compositions. This is followed by a section that contains full transcriptions of these solos. Most of these are performances by Coleman, but also included are analyses of solos by Paul Bley (“When Will the Blues Leave?” from 1961’s Footloose!), Pat Metheny (“Mob Job” from 1985’s Song X and “Humpty Dumpty” from 1993’s Rejoicing), and interestingly enough, Branford Marsalis (“Gigging’” from 2002’s Footsteps of Our Fathers).
From a philosophical standpoint, three of the main areas of discussion, and they are very interrelated ideas, are unison, transpositions, and the importance of naming. For Coleman, all notes are equal and the same. C, D, and E are the same as Bb, C, and D, both conceptually and in reality. A concert pitch instrument plays a C and it sounds as a C, but transposing instruments will play a concert C and sound a Bb, Eb, F, or whatever note their instrument will transpose it to. Depending on how you want to view it, the two Cs are either a unison or a transposition. Being able to view the same thing in several different ways is key to understanding Harmolodics. As Coleman states:
[We] have seven notes to each key. We only have twelve keys, but they are all coming from the same notes. That means you have C natural on the violin and C natural on the trumpet; you have two different C’s
...it’s like sound, light, emotion and pain and brain. All of these are the same, have the same movement in relationship to what we demand when using them.
Sound has no tonic. And don’t forget it. You can make it anything once you give it a name. Because the frequency will just cloud it up. You hear what I’m saying? If you keep that for yourself, you will never have to worry about keys, changes, and melodies. They are all fixed. They only go to here [pointing to his head]. They open up and close. But that’s not you. That’s it.
As Rush says:
Transposing instruments use different names for the same pitch. Ornette translates this into a wider notion of “naming.” “It’s about name. It’s about who belongs and who doesn’t.” “Naming” is a way to codify people, to figure out who’s in and who’s out.
And later, in one of Rush’s “Reflection” sections:
As I have pointed out a number of times, in black parlance, the giving of a name to something is a deeply significant act. Naming not only locates and identifies things, it also can be a way of delimiting and controlling people, as in the re-naming of slaves. Thus re-renaming becomes an act of liberation.
Rush is clear about how anathema Coleman’s ideas are to the established European based music theory that is the main subject of study in Western universities.
Ornette was not of the academy, and had no reason to care how incomprehensible his theories of transposition would seem to the average college music theory teacher. Regrettably, the average college music theory teacher is too preoccupied with Western ways of thinking about music to appreciate Harmolodics, or musical organization, as a metaphor for human dynamics. According to Ornette: “Because everybody could become equal in relationship to the results.”
What this book is not is a general introduction to or biography of Coleman. And that’s great. Not all books need to rehash the same biographical material that is easily available from many other sources. Rush dives into his subject with little preamble. I do wish the book came with a CD or downloadable playlist of the music that is discussed, particularly of the solos analyzed in Section Three, but I imagine that would have been close to impossible, given how hard it would be to secure the rights, and would have undoubtedly raised the already substantial price of the book ($49.95 is the publisher’s price for a paperback). The music discussed is mostly still in print, and should be easily available online if it isn’t already in your collection.
Reinterpreting Ornette Coleman’s ideas into plain English is not an easy task, but Rush is mostly successful in his approach. As with many philosophy books, I found myself reading a few pages at a time and then putting it down to spend some time digesting the ideas and their implications. I imagine I will spend a long time thinking about the ideas discussed in this book. Even after so short a time, I find the ideas have already influenced my playing and general conception of music.
Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman is one of the most important books on Coleman’s philosophy and music. An essential read for anyone who wants to dig deep.