Harmolodics 101 For Dummies: Ornette Coleman’s unique music theory


1959: the ‘pianoless’ quartet {a rad concept in itself during post-bop}, Ornette on his white plastic alto sax, Don Cherry on a pocket trumpet, and a rhythm section of Ed Blackwell & Charlie Haden as fluid as the asymmetrical Harmolodic brass. Harmolodic was Ornette’s concept which democratically freed the bass and drums from roles of servitude so they could step up front in the music. Simultaneously it means an inversion of melody being supported by harmony. For example in classical harmony dictates everything the melody can and can not do, whereas in Harmolodic theory multiple counterpoint melodies actually creates the harmonies. Charlie Haden’s pastoral rave-ups & sepia~toned hepcat walking basslines were a harmony amongst themselves! Hierarchy simply does not exist in a Harmolodic universe. Everyone is too busy taking care of the tune to be in a chain of command. It’s omnipresent evolution.

It’s not ‘Free Jazz’, that was just a cool date he did for Atlantic w/ Eric Dolphy as part of a ‘double quartet’. Always the original that was Ornette’s conception of an Octet! In Harmolodic music each instrument is responsible (not unlike existentialism, or post Thoreau self-determination as model or means towards total freedom?) for all 3 roles at all times: melody, rhythm & harmony. Two guitars might establish a strong harmony spontaneously, the sax and bass might play ‘lead beat’ w/ a rhythmic riffing, while the tuned to pitch toms (an Ed Blackwell exclusive ahead of its time in jazz from his studies in Africa) might play the lead line. It’s like Charlie Parker’s bebop could not be surpassed in the artform untill Ornette deconstructed the fundamental DNA of jazz’s infrastructure. Another difference between Bebop and Harmolodic is the ‘head’ meaning verse/ root melody isn’t played literally. Suggesting the difference between idealism & reality?

Rather the combined unison of at least 2 instruments suggest the melody in full and only if the listener is using both ears can they ‘hear’ the whole idea. In other words the players know the basic melody, and without planning which notes each might slightly deviate from the main line, they move forward in time together and whichever notes land slightly askew over the beat or atonally outside the key are not mistakes. they are more akin to the way Picasso & Braque described an object or objects from multiple viewpoints over the same plane/surface. Or the way James Joyce invented syntax and vocabulary to explain post-industrial feelings with new tools of language, with non-linear narratives freely moving back & forth in time to suit the characters rather then the characters being dictated by the narrative. Add in a Futurist/ DaDa obsession with change, modernism and progress (Coleman’s music played proper will always evolve within the space of 1 tune form something to something else!) as well as a nearly blasphemous rejection for ‘reverence for tradition’ so dominant in nearly all other music genres.

Yes his ideas spanned all the artforms and his music was a direct reflection of his philosophy in real time, before the digital age’s compulsive self-glorification with ‘instantaneousness’, Harmolodic music already by the late 50’s had reached a unity gain factor of ESP communication between the players as a prerequisite for virtuosity within the form. The possibility of master of bebop, swing or blues attempting to play Harmolodic and never being able to is more likely than not. Coleman’s ideas insist that you leave the beret, glasses and long cigarette at the door as there’s literally no time for charades, facades, or even styles when everyone involved in the performance must lead when its the right time, follow other times and be a bridge to both elsewhere. That goes for the listener too: a leap of faith is not enough to go along for the ride, you have to get inside the music as much as it’s getting inside your head to participate. Dancing in your skull!

Prime Time, his electric double trio plus him on horn, was example of Harmolodic overload, yet when stripped down to a 2 piece like on Soapsuds, Soapsuds album with only sax & bass, the principles (daresay we even the ‘ethics’?) of Harmolodic music are that teamwork is the only way to get the job done, that everyone’s strengths will be the focus and whoever has the most energy at the moment is the vanguard. Like electricity in lightning skies or the way water flows in the path of least resistance, Harmolodics is a process of sound energy set in motion by more than one musician; then observed, commented on and curated by the group for the audience to absorb as more a rhetorical, ironic question then final statement. As in pop music it’s impossible to play the song correctly unless its a perfect copy, in Harmolodics its impossible ever to play the same song twice the same way if the players know how to work within Coleman’s cinemascope surround sound technicolor framework they will create poetry by design using spontaneity and interpretation from the 1st note to the last beat of every composition.

Yet only those who played in his myriad bands can truly absorb Harmolodics, because there is a post-Dixieland collective improvisation effect at times; often dictated by the composition itself, while at other times different instruments take different focuses on the melody, harmony or groove. Like all jazz it’s all about listening while speaking only here the musicians must listen to each other at every moment, or anyone can derail the whole band. Of course his band’s were conducted & schooled by the Maestro, so when they hit the stage they had mastered his approach which was both specifically unique when heard for it’s detail and universally empathetic when experienced as a whole sound. Change of the century was indeed the case; the verdict was a revelation transcendent of revolutions.



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