Robert Palmer, the broadminded music critic, once pegged saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman succinctly: “He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate.”
Palmer was writing in 1972, soon after Coleman premiered his defining symphonic work, Skies of America. Several years later, Coleman would release Dancing in Your Head, the official unveiling of a strapping band he called Prime Time. (Palmer made a cameo on clarinet. But that’s another story.)
The album largely consisted of two variations titled “Theme From a Symphony,” built around a core motif from Skies of America. But its delirious sound palette — electric guitars, electric bass, bashing drums — made clear that Coleman was thinking outside the framework for symphonic music, or any known species of jazz.
What, then, was the aesthetic matrix to which this music belonged? Coleman called it Harmolodics, and it has been the subject of endless discussion, before and since the saxophonist’s death two years ago, at 85. Denardo Coleman, his son — also the drummer in Prime Time, and the active steward of Ornette’s legacy — put it this way:
Harmolodics is a combination of theory, in terms of music, and philosophy. It’s just a way so that each person can be taken through a series of ways of thinking to open them up, so they understand there’s more than one way to do things. So on the one hand it’s mysterious, but it’s really simple.
Denardo was speaking with WBGO’s Ang Santos last week, at Ornette’s loft in the garment district of Manhattan. This was for a series he has organized as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. More to the point, it was a rehearsal of Prime Time, which reunites on Friday night at Alice Tully Hall.
Also at the loft were electric bass guitarist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and electric guitarist Charles Ellerbee — like Denardo, both charter members of Prime Time — and guitarist Kenny Wessel, who played in the second iteration of the group.
“We really have to make this sound the way Harmolodics would sound, even without Ornette,” said Ellerbee, who played with Coleman for 14 years. “He was the granddaddy of us all, Harmolodically speaking. To do it with him, because he was the innovator of it, was cool: We’d always sound like Harmolodics. So that is the only challenge: Can we do it and sound like Harmolodics, now that Ornette is gone?”
The odds would seem favorable, but there have been unexpected challenges. Last month the band was shocked by the death of guitarist Bern Nix, another founding member, who played on seven Prime Time albums, starting with Dancing in Your Head. At a memorial for Nix last week, Denardo Coleman suggested that the concert would now serve as a double tribute, to Bern as well as Ornette.
“We got to rehearse with Bern once,” Denardo told Ang Santos, “and we were expecting to rehearse again, and we got the news.”
Still, the reunion will be a festive occasion, with no trace of sadness or ambivalence. The music, in all its riotous ebullience, wouldn’t have it otherwise. And Denardo has stacked the deck: among the featured guests in Friday’s concert are the saxophonists David Murray, Kidd Jordan and Joshua Redman, and the trumpeter Wallace Roney. They’ll join almost every surviving member of Prime Time in two configurations, making a noise that could only be described as joyful.
Jazz audiences, and many critics, have given Prime Time a mixed reception over the years, even as Coleman’s earlier work, on albums like Change of the Century, gradually edged further into the mainstream. Gary Giddins has pointed out that Dancing in Your Head, for instance, “was embraced by members of the rock press and reviled or ignored by the jazz commentators who had hailed the Atlantic-era quartets.”
(Giddins had one example close at hand: his editor at the Village Voice was Robert Christgau, known as the Dean of American Rock Critics. “The teeming intellectual interplay of the rhythms is no less humane than the childlike bits of melody,” wrote Christgau about another Prime Time album, Of Human Feelings. “And the way the players break into ripples of song only to ebb back into the tideway is participatory democracy at its most practical and utopian.”)
For some jazz fans who bristled at Prime Time, the issue boiled down to the electric instrumentation. “He wanted a bigger sound,” said Denardo, matter-of-fact. “And he was thinking like an orchestra. The fact that it was electric, that was just what was happening then.”
The abandonment of swinging rhythm for a funky backbeat was another factor that alienated the band from some jazz partisans and endeared it to the underground rock scene. But it was always clear, in speaking with Ornette, that these terms meant as little to him as the various other strictures and conventions he’d worked so hard to transcend.
Tacuma, one of his brightest protégés, credits him not only with imparting Harmolodic knowledge but also shaping his very concept as an instrumentalist. “He helped free me from the idea of the bass guitar,” Tacuma said. “Knowing that the bass guitar can be more than a bass guitar – it can be an equal to any of the other instruments that were on the scene, or onstage at the time.”
Rigor was Coleman’s ethos, even if he could be idiosyncratic about it. “His rehearsals, he would start with about three hours of conversation,” Denardo recalled. “It was like a class, like you’re in a laboratory. He’d talk about notes, and he’d have a stack of manuscript books of what he had been working on. You’re talking about somebody who really was dissecting the DNA of sound. So he’d sit everybody down, we’d hear a three-hour lecture on music. Then we started playing music, for another 10 hours.”
No one is pretending that the Prime Time reunion hews to that level of preparation. But Denardo has been running rehearsals since May, and there’s no question that the musicians have been taking it seriously. “It’s always a challenge to play Ornette’s music,” reflected Murray. Others are bringing their own experience: Redman, for one, has recently been working in a Colemanesque mode of an earlier vintage with Still Dreaming, a tribute to Old and New Dreams.
“For whatever reason, the Prime Time songbook hasn’t really been played that much,” said Wessel, drawing a comparison to Coleman’s music from the 1960s. “Prime Time was running from the ‘70s until 2000. So that’s like 30 years of hundreds of tunes. These are great tunes: ballads, funky, unbelievable melodies, bop heads.”
And in some respects, contemporary audiences might be Ready for Prime Time, in a way that they weren’t when the band was in active circulation. Tacuma has his suspicions, anyway. “I think there’s sort of this mashup of styles that’s happening,” he said. “With Prime Time, we sort of incorporated all of those different elements into a total sound.”
Prime Time performs on Friday at Alice Tully Hall. The Lincoln Center Festival continues with a concert of his chamber music, by Ensemble Signal, on Sunday.
Ang Santos contributed reporting to this story, and produced the radio segment.