How Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time broke the rules and influenced generations

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On June 11, the world lost one of modern music’s most revolutionary and controversial thinkers.

Ornette Coleman’s entry into the recorded jazz world, 1958’s Something Else!!, ruffled many a feather. Coleman’s voice was truly unique; his approach to compositional structure and tonality was unlike nearly anything else being recorded or performed at the time, eschewing chorus-solo-chorus structures and emphasizing a more raw tonality through his alto saxophone which led even the most “modern” critics of the time crying foul.

Coleman believed more in the power and emotion of harmonics than the rigid structures of bebop, and his early experiments for Atlantic led to an epochal watershed recording entitled Free Jazz in which two quartets performed simultaneously but separately, each foursome exploring a different time signature and series of tributaries based on a unified melodic theme.

While each member of the respective quartets was given space and time for their own solos, any additional group member in the quartet was free to respond as well within the structures heard, creating a complex palette of tonal and harmonic dissonance. This “structured improvisation” was at the time the longest continual piece of improvisation recorded to disc, and the album’s name would become coined as a catch-all buzzword for jazz music focused more on improvisational dialogues than the long-accepted confines of tightly-written compositional structure.

While much has been, and will continue to be written on Coleman’s invaluable innovations in exploring the freedom of expression within jazz’s DNA (and in effect reemphasizing its roots in the raw emotion of blues music) less is often spoken of regarding Coleman’s fertile 1970s and 80s music, which saw the saxophonist and composer aligning himself to contemporary funk and rock sounds, differing sharply from the jazz fusion movements of his peers.

While many who know Coleman’s music speak highly of his “classic quartet” featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, I personally prefer the sound of his long-running group Prime Time, featuring two electric guitarists, two drummers, and sometimes two electric bassists, with Coleman’s lone horn in the center of the maelstrom. Prime Time’s electric sound turned away from the Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Santana-inspired vamps of electric Miles Davis, Weather Report and the like, instead taking inspiration from the structures of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic groups, punk and new wave.

While the fusion movement of the 1970s and 80s found many of jazz’s old guard attempting to get hip to modern youth culture and fit their own vibes into the sounds of contemporary music, Coleman  did the reverse, bending rock instrumentation into a compositional and philosophical worldview he dubbed “harmolodics”. Each member of Prime Time was free to explore their own personal concepts of rhythm, harmony, melody, speed, and phrase completely free from a tonal center. The resulting music was dense yet fluid, as each band member was simply listening and responding to something played by another member of the group – according to Coleman’s theory, musicians in the group are able (and encouraged) to play individual melodies in any key, and yet still sound coherent as a unified ensemble. Prime Time’s music was a room of lively conversations which were at times easy to follow, and at others quite multilayered and obtuse, yet still highly kinetic.

While I was familiar with Coleman’s 1950s and 60s quartet recordings as a teen, it was Prime Time’s music that really spoke to me and helped me greater understand and appreciate the concepts and communicative intricacies of collective improvisation. By placing these polytonal conversations of open expression into a more groove-oriented framework, I was able to lock into aspects of Prime Time’s complex amalgamations of improvisation, compositional minimalism, punk rock/DIY energy, and emotive expression and dissect it on my own terms.

Prime Time’s music is particularly significant to FACT readers, as Coleman’s dense, cubist interpretations of funk and soul have seen further mutation outside of the jazz world by producers such as Hudson Mohawke, El-P, and Flying Lotus, as well as permeating rock music via groups like John Zorn’s Naked City, Arto Lindsay’s DNA, James Chance’s ensembles The Contortions and The Blacks (which would go on to actually feature memeber of Prime Time at one point), Secret Chiefs 3, The Minutemen, and even The Grateful Dead, whose guitarist Jerry Garcia both played on one of Coleman’s albums with Prime Time. There’s also an entire contingent of Ornette disciples and practitioners in the Black Rock and M-Base movements centered around artists and groups like Harriet Tubman, Steve Coleman (no relation), Cassandra Wilson, Vernon Reid, and Burnt Sugar.

I’ve chosen five albums from Coleman’s 70s period and beyond, focusing on Prime Time’s tenure but including a few noteworthy tributaries as well. These albums shine light on a side of Coleman that seldom seems to be discussed in the reverent tones reserved for Ornette’s free jazz period, but which to me are just as important to modern day music. Other folks may have different choices, but consider these a jumping off point: by no means is this list meant to be the end of your research, but rather an inaugural crawl down a rabbit hole with many, many side journeys. Happy listening and welcome to Prime Time.

Ornette Coleman
Science Fiction
(Columbia, 1971)

Consider Science Fiction the transition from the classic acoustic quartet sounds into more knotted clusters of electricity. Featuring appearances by trumpeters Bobby Bradford, and Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins and saxophonist Dewey Redman, Science Fiction was Coleman’s first open attempt to look contemporary soul music in the eye and engage it in conversation, while pushing the mission of his classic acoustic ensemble to its contextual and communicative limits in more concise timeframes. There are three vocal pieces on the album – singer Asha Puthli delivers two magnetic, sultry lamentations, and poet David Henderson recites a blistering cluster of dubbed-out wordplay – but the voices of the instruments cry just as loudly and passionately, if not more so.

Science Fiction bridges Coleman’s past with his future, but also fuses both halves together in a way that none of his other albums did. It stands as a deep, fiery statement from an ensemble of players at the heights of their powers, but also at times seems like the end of the road for the acoustic quartet. What comes next was both shocking and yet completely sensible.

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Ornette Coleman
Body Meta
(Artists House, 1978)

Come Body Meta, the acoustic quartet had essentially been dissolved. Coleman released an album of orchestral music in 1972 (Skies Of America) and had recently introduced a new ensemble focused around electric instrumentation and a more cyclical sound that drew inspiration from a 1973 visit to Morocco. That album, 1977’s Dancing In Your Head, featured the first recordings of Coleman’s new Prime Time band, along with an excerpt from his time in Morocco.

While many regard Dancing to be the key Prime Time document, in my opinion it’s Body Meta that first showed the full depth of Ornette’s new band. The inaugural release on Coleman’s own Artists House label, Body Meta touches on juke joint blues vamps, cubist refractions of James Brown’s “on the one” style, and even militaristic waltzes. It is perhaps the most loose-limbed and deceptively relaxed of any release featuring the Prime Time band, who were known for their taut intensity. The album is also hugely important in that by setting up the Artists House label, Coleman showed that an artist of his stature and reputation could operate outside of the confines of major label hierarchy, ushering in a new era of independent and underground jazz distribution.

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James “Blood” Ulmer
Tales Of Captain Black
(Artists House, 1979)

Coleman’s Artists House label not only released the bandleader’s own music, but also that of a number of his contemporaries, including two blistering albums by guitarist (and sometime Coleman bandmate) James “Blood” Ulmer. Blood was one of the first musicians to leave Ornette’s ranks and continue the exploration of harmolodic theory in their own compositions. Tales Of Captain Black, recorded in 1978 with Prime Time’s Tacuma on bass, Ornette’s young son Denardo (who by this point had fully joined Prime Time) on drums, and Ornette himself on alto sax, was the first non Ornette-led excursion into harmolodic group dynamics, offering a more serrated approach to funk, but filtered through the margins of rock’n’roll abstraction.

Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic blues, the barbed no wave dissonance of Arto Lindsay’s DNA, and a bit of Beefheartian fragmentation circa Lick My Decals Off make for easy reference points, but this is clearly a work of its own, with the rhythm section playing cat and mouse while Ulmer extracts technicolor variations on the shade of blues. Ornette’s presence is spectral, his horn haunting the ether in a mix that pushes his voice almost literally into the background of the stereo field, giving his voice a tonal quality and aural presence practically never before presented in such contexts. While this isn’t Ulmer’s finest album of the period (that would go to the near-perfect follow-up Are You Glad To Be In America?, released in the USA by Artists House and given a European release by none other than Rough Trade) Tales Of Captain Black is an essential document that shines rare light on Ornette as a sideman.

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Ornette Coleman
Of Human Feelings
(Antilles, 1982)

This, dear readers, is it. 1982’s Of Human Feelings is THE ONE – a document of Prime Time’s greatest lineup at their most intuitive and communicative, a well-oiled machine that simply wipes the floor with anyone even attempting this sound. Recorded in 1979 after an initial failed attempt at a direct-to-disc session, the group – by this point a sax/bass/two-guitar/two-drummer powerhouse – rips through eight songs with such confidence and fluidity that each was recorded in only one take. That’s right: what you hear on the album is what was laid down in the studio, with no additional overdubs, effects, or bullshit added to pepper things up. It isn’t needed.

This is pure punk rock draped in sparkling funk silks, offering up some of Coleman’s most melodic tunes since 1959’s ‘Lonely Woman’. Guitarists Nix and Ellerbee riff and vamp behind the polyrhythmic pulses of drummers Denardo Coleman and Calvin Grant Weston, while Ornette simply soars overtop the intertwining grooves. Jamaaladeen Tacuma is the album’s star, though; his basslines are so nimble and complex that Ornette simply didn’t find it necessary to double him up with another player. There are foreshadowing contextual winks at the cyclical repetitions of Arthur Russell and Peter Gordon, the jagged James Brown mutations of James White and the Blacks (who’d soon after draft Bern Nix into their roster for a number of gigs and an album), the punk-funk disco deviations of Ze Records and the polyrhythmic density of Talking Heads’ epochal Remain In Light album, all of which were greasing up NYC’s downtown dance clubs at the time.

The short running time of each of the album’s pieces also made way for more tightly wound and somewhat aggressive performances in each musician. Of all of Coleman’s albums of this era, Of Human Feelings seemed like it had commercial potential, and this incarnation of Prime Time actually performed the album’s closer ‘Times Square’ on Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, the album also saw a number of release setbacks until Coleman fired his manager and signed a deal with Island Records subsidiary Antilles for the LP’s release. It failed to chart or see any success outside of high critical praise, and Of Human Feelings has sadly remained out of print in the digital age, with no legit representation on CD or MP3 aside from a very much out-of-print Japanese CD release in the 1990s. While Coleman and Prime Time would record a number of excellent sessions after this, they’d never capture this much lightning in a bottle again.

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Ornette Coleman & Prime Time
Virgin Beauty
(Portrait/Epic, 1988)

1987 saw the 30 year anniversary of Coleman’s career as a recording artist. He celebrated this milestone with the ambitious and intense double album In All Languages, which saw him reuniting with his 1950s “original quartet” of Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden on one LP, while the second LP featured new recordings by Prime Time, then essentially a double trio of electric guitar, drums, and electric bass. What proved most interesting was that each LP saw the bands interpreting many of the same Ornette originals, providing the most direct cross-section and contrasting portraits of Ornette’s creative mind.

Its 1988 follow-up Virgin Beauty expands upon In All Languages’ use of syndrums and more electronic textures (Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia also contributes THIRD guitar to three of the record’s eleven songs, adding stoned space blues textures). In many ways, it prefigures the synthetic jazz density of the Brainfeeder camp, particularly Flying Lotus’s Until the Quiet Comes and Thundercat’s debut, not to mention foreshadowing elements of Hudson Mohawke’s digital sheen and scattershot density. This is Prime Time at their most relaxed, perhaps for the first time cooling out on their innovation and instead playing with the modeling clay examples of jazz fusion that had become easy listening radio staples by the close of the 80s.

Make no mistake, though: Virgin Beauty is anything but smooth and easy. It dumps battery acid on the tropes of “smooth jazz” and makes it chunkier than a jar of peanut butter. The ambient textures first explored by Prime Time on In All Languages are also considerably more prominent here, giving the album a darker, more unsettlingly eerie tone. The absence of Tacuma’s basswork is notable as well, as his dexterity is replaced by more smoothed out contemplative grooves, and the syndrums give much of the album’s rhythmic template the illusion of machines breathing and dancing with the band.

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Bonus Cut: Jamaaladeen Tacuma
‘Dancing In Your Head’
(from Renaissance Man, Gramavision, 1984)

We’ll close things out with a track that isn’t essential by any means, but it’s a playful, interesting curio nonetheless. In 1984, Prime Time bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma released a solo album called Renaissance Man which featured this weird and wonderful hip-hop/electro rework of Ornette’s classic ‘Dancing In Your Head’ (better known as ‘Theme From A Symphony’). Tacuma never played on the tune’s original recording, and actually gets Ornette to play sax over the b-boy version heard here – he really lets rip about halfway through. The rest of this album is pretty rough, but if you find this in a dollar bin, go for it.

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