Freed Jazz

The Philosopher King Brings Himself to It

Coincidentally, three albums from 1971 to 1975 that plot the emergence of Coleman's harmolodic revelation have just been reissued, though the third was kept under wraps until 1982. He was under contract to Columbia for a year before the company chose to prune the roster (this was the era of Jive Clive, himself recently pruned); out went Coleman, Mingus, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett. Science Fiction and the fugitive tracks later released on Broken Shadows (which, I am astonished to realize, are new to me) have been collected as a two-disc set, The Complete Science Fiction Sessions. Most of the material comes from September 1971, and notwithstanding a few charmless vocals, it positively glimmers: in numbers by the great quartet, of course, but also in the quintet with Bobby Bradford and Dewey Redman, and especially in a fantastically supple septet—a kind of Free Jazz double-quartet with just one bassist. I am too overwhelmed by my belated discovery of the four septet numbers ("Written Word" was unreleased) to suggest a comparison with the octet, except to note that Bradford is more in sync with Don Cherry and the music than Freddie Hubbard was and Dewey Redman is every bit as persuasive, maybe more so, as Eric Dolphy—his solo on the exhilarating "Happy House" is classic.

The symphony, Skies of America, recorded by Coleman with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham, is the work that introduced the harmolodic theory. But these two albums combined with the third, Dancing in Your Head (Verve), recorded in 1973 and 1975, offer an inadvertent guide to the theory in the guise of one recurring melody. In Science Fiction, it is called "School Work," though an element of the theme also appears in "Happy House." In Skies, it is the third movement, "The Good Life," which lets you know in a minute or so that the lowering skies will be periodically brightened by Coleman candles, most of them in the second half, lit by his own alto—the only improvising instrument on the recording.

Then the tune charges into harmolodic heaven—worked up by repetition from a quasi-blues to a fervid chant and improved by a hot closing cadence—as Dancing in Your Head's "Theme From a Symphony" (variations one and two), which excepting two brief tracks with the Master Musicians of Jajouka (one previously unissued) constitutes the short—by watch-time only—disc. A quarter of a century later, Dancing is more remarkable than ever, perhaps because back then we assumed it would open a floodgate of like performances, if only by Coleman and his harmolodic passengers. Yet it remains entirely sui generis, an extended saxophone romp and rant that for sheer creative volatility is rivaled in that period only by Sonny Rollins's "G-Man." At the time of its release, many were troubled by the plugged-in guitars and bass, but far more interesting was its structural similarity to the symphony—once again Coleman was free in a tableau largely notated.

Harmolodic Heaven, circa 1979
photo: Elena Carminati
Harmolodic Heaven, circa 1979

Coleman has said that his written-improvised works, unlike the heads-and-solos numbers, require frequent performance so that players can adjust to their possibilitiesand audiences can appreciate the variety ofperforming options. At Battery Park, the harmolodic strain will connect the extremes of his extraordinary achievement and masters and newcomers will have the opportunity to find out who they are.

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