Ornette Coleman's "harmolodic theory" is a lightning rod that has attracted the boldest, brightest jazz performances of the year. Since 1975, the legendary saxophonist has schooled a New York cadre of musicians in his demanding discipline. Now two of those disciples -- drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer -- have emerged from their mentor's shadow with albums that push harmolodic music into new territory.
Harmolodic theory is both musical (giving the harmonic, rhythmic and melodic elements equal and independent action) and philosophical (manipulating the instrument to the player's purpose rather than submitting to the instrument's usual purpose). In practice, it superimposes elements of rock, funk, fusion, swing, bebop and free jazz in a crowded but creative collision of ingredients.
While funk stays inside the dance beat, bebop implies the dance beat and plays around it. Harmolodic music plays both in and around the beat; a profusion of rhythms gather for quarter-note throbs and then scatter for exotic digressions. While swing boasted strong written melodies, bebop emphasized harmonic variations and free jazz took the variations out of key and pitch strictures. Harmolodic music does it all at once: Strong melodies played simultaneously in several keys with concurrent, independent variations. Harmolodic music also mixes rock instrumentation -- electric guitar and bass -- with the acoustic horns of more traditional jazz.
The trick to all this is to create enough order and clarity in the thick layering of music for the listener to hear the interactions. No one, not even Coleman himself, has achieved harmolodic music as rich and accessible as Ronald Shannon Jackson & The Decoding Society have on "Man Dance" (Antilles, AN 1008). Jackson has written lovely, evocative melodies -- all too rare in progressive jazz -- and has imposed a dramatic discipline that brings satisfying resolutions out of the discord.
Jackson also achieves more variety within the harmolodic framework than anyone else. The soaring unison melody of the title cut is girded by an electric bass in a manner reminiscent of Weather Report. Yet it takes on additional dimensions as Vernon Reid's busy electric guitar scratches at the elegant edifice and Jackson's drumming keeps every space brimming with activity.
"Catman" and "Belly Button" capture the onrushing pace and ricocheting complexity of urban streets but locate the unifying harmonies and rhythms. By contrast, "When Souls Speak" is a lovely evocative ballad with sliding guitar notes and sighing horn lines raining down over percolating bass figures. It achieves a lyrical quality unprecedented in the harmolodic genre.
James "Blood" Ulmer (who appears at the 9:30 club tonight) is much more dominant in his band on "Black Rock" (Columbia, ARC 38285). Obviously influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Ulmer's jagged, thrusting electric guitar applies Coleman's harmolodic approach to rock. Hendrix's surging rock rhythm and soaring guitar lines are broken down into fragments and arranged so that secondary tones and rhythms swirl around the primary accents.
Ulmer has the skills to keep a swarm of buzzing notes flying for extended periods. The album's secret weapon, though, is the rhythm team of bassist Amin Ali (son of Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali) and drummer Grant Calvin Weston. Ali and Weston manage the difficult harmolodic task of keeping the rhythm simultaneously constant and varied. This basic trio plays two pieces alone and is supplemented by one to three musicians on the seven others. A lack of variety hurts the album, however; many cuts sound much the same. Moreover, Ulmer is the only non-rhythm player on seven numbers. While Ulmer's guitar-playing has grown more disciplined, his singing is still terrible, and his three lead vocals mar those numbers.
Ornette Coleman's continuing feuds with the music industry have often delayed or prevented his pioneering music from reaching the public. Only a handful of his harmolodic recordings are available despite rumors of numerous sessions. A 1979 session has just now been released as "Of Human Feelings" (Antilles, AN 2001), his most recent music on record. A key, pre-harmolodic 1972 session has just been released as "Broken Shadows" (Columbia, FC 38029).
There's a certain geometry to "Of Human Feelings." Coleman's Prime Time band balances two drum-guitar teams across the fulcrum of master bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. This two-sided team plays a thickened rhythm in and around the beat. Above this agitated tug-of-war floats Coleman's lonely, lyrical alto sax.
Coleman still has one of the most distinctive reed voices in jazz, and his melodies are quite captivating, especially on "Jump Street" and "Love Words." The rhythmic support is more condensed and organically unified here than it was on Coleman's convulsive, groundbreaking harmolodic albums, "Dancing in Your Head" and "Body Meta." Coleman's playing too is more sharply defined and purposeful than the overwhelming assaults of those earlier records.
"Broken Shadows" is largely taken from the sessions that produced the remarkable album, "Science Fiction." The new release finds Coleman at a midpoint between his turbulent free jazz pioneering and just as turbulent harmolodic work. In 1972 he had slowed down enough to reveal his gift for pensive melodies and populist blues. "Broken Shadows" includes the four backing musicians who went on to form Old and New Dreams and two of the compositions that quartet recorded. The most surprising and satisfying performance on "Broken Shadows" are two with Oklahoma blues singer Webster Armstrong.