Ornette Coleman/Dancing In Your Head

Today I’m writing about Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album Dancing In Your Head. Sort of. As you know by now, these vinyl finds tend to take a circuitous route somewhat like a musical version of Seth Myers’ Closer Look. In any event, this is a piece of vinyl that I bought online for $5. The cover is pretty beat up but the vinyl is in sweet condition, maybe VG. 

by Marshall Bowden

This is not an album that you see every day in the wild, but it’s not rare or unheard of. It was the debut of Coleman’s group Prime Time, which featured the alto saxophonist in the company of two electric guitarists and a bass/drum rhythm section. Sometimes there were multiple bassists or multiple drummers. The band recorded and appeared on seven albums released between 1975 and 1995. They were seen as something of a funk or avant funk outfit, even compared at times to Parliament or Funkadelic, and there is no question that Coleman used the static, repetitive bass riffs that defined funk as the base for his harmolodic invention. The closest thing to Prime Time I that a lot of listeners can relate to is Miles Davis On the Corner and the era that followed, with a band that soloed fiercely over a dense block of rhythmic repetition and stuttering stops and starts. The difference is that Prime Time has the airiness of a Caribbean steel drum or Mexican mariachi band, much less dense and dark than Miles’ ’73-’73 bands. 

When Dancing In Your Head was released (1977, though it was mostly recorded in 1975 with ‘Midnight Sunrise’ having been recorded in 1973) Miles had withdrawn into his Manhattan apartment, rarely to emerge until the change of the decade. Ornette had found some similar inspiration but kept his sound uniquely his own. Dancing In Your Head features two takes on a “Theme from a Symphony” and a briefer piece called ‘Midnight Sunrise’, which features recordings Coleman made of Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka backing his flights of alto sax improvisation. The ‘Theme’ that Coleman chooses as the main compositional framework for this Prime Time debut is a theme from his symphonic work Skies of America, presented as “The Good Life” on that recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. His Prime Time take on it is a rollicking, rolling march of a second line band with incredible energy. Or, as someone once said of Albert Ayler, like a mariachi band on LSD. 

Dancing In Your Head is music as a joyful celebration, music as ceremony, things that are often lost in the intersection of art and commerce that is the music business. One unfortunate aspect of the ousting of free jazz and fusion from the jazz canon in the 1980s is that the later careers of musicians like Coleman and Ayler unfolded largely ignored, lying in dusty record bins awaiting discovery by a future generation.

Not too long after Dancing In Your Head guitarist James Blood Ulmer, who had studied Coleman’s harmolodic concepts extensively, and who played with Coleman in a group that was never officially recorded, moved on to a solo career. Ulmer kept working at the harmolodic method as well as interspersing blues, rock, and guitar noise into his sound. His Odyssey band featured Ulmer’s guitar as well as violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow and utilized harmolodics to create a wide-open Americana sound that incorporated the sound of bluegrass, blues, jazz, and psychedelic electric blues-rock guitar. Ulmer’s work with Oddysey was infused with the energy of punk and sonically it fit in with the sounds being created by post-punk bands as well as the No Wave movement, a New York City movement of musicians and artists that exposed such artists as John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, James Chance, and John Lurie. 

In 1978 Ulmer released Tales of Captain Black on Ornette Coleman’s Artists House record label. The record featured Ulmer along with Coleman on alto sax plus bassist Jaamaladeen Tacuma and drummer Denardo Coleman (Ornette’s son), both of Prime Time. This was the first non-Ornette-led recording to utilize the harmolodics system to govern the interaction of the musicians. It’s a great record, one that is eye-opening for fans of both Ulmer and Coleman, and it’s frustrating that they received so little attention for their groundbreaking work, but the influence of Prime Time and Ulmer has become more clear with each passing year. In 1980 Ulmer released Are You Glad To Be In America? which was issued in the UK and Europe by post-punk label Rough Trade and was a minor hit. 

A series of CDs for Joel Dorn’s Hyena Records (all now out of print) in the early 2000s included Memphis Blood, Spoonful, and Bad Blood in the City and represented a career revival and a move towards blues interpretation. All three albums featured the guitar and production work of Vernon Reid. Reid, a guitar virtuoso, is also a founding member of the band Living Color and the organization Black Rock Coalition. 

Coleman definitely found the guitar to be a better harmonic/melodic instrument than a piano, an instrument that never featured prominently in his music. I imagine part of the reason for this is that the guitar can leave more harmonic overtones implied but not explicitly played, leaving more room for the listener’s brain to fill in the gaps. He recorded the album Song X as a collaboration with Pat Metheny along with Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette as well as Denardo. Song X took Coleman back into a more straightforward jazz ensemble, one that emphasized melodicism, a strong suit for both Coleman and Metheney. 

In 1988 Coleman recorded Virgin Beauty with Prime Time as a double quartet–terminology also used to describe various incarnations of King Crimson. Two guitarists, two bassists, and two drummers. Plus, Jerry Garcia sits in as a third guitarist on three tracks: the opening track “3 Wishes” that sounds like an outtake from Blues for Allah, as well as “Singing In The Shower” and “Desert Players.” Prime Time opened for The Dead at one of their Mardi Gras shows at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on February 23, 1993. In addition, Ornette joined The Dead onstage during their second set, and played with them through “Drums,” “Space,” “The Other One,” “Stella Blue,” “Turn On Your Lovelight,” and “Brokedown Palace.” 

In 2003 James Blood Ulmer collaborated with French guitarist and singer Rodolphe Burger, who first came to prominence as a member of the band Kat Onoma. Though Kat Onoma never became well known in the U.S. they recorded several prominent albums in France between 1988 and 2001. As a solo artist, Rodolphe Burger has played in a variety of settings, from organic rock to heavily processed electronic sounds. In 2013 he released an album of Velvet Underground covers entitled This is a Velvet Underground Song That I’d Like to SingGuitar Music, the record he cut with Ulmer, is marked by solid playing from both guitarists on songs that range from the funky “Blues Allnight” to a remixed version of “Are You Glad to Be in America?” and a cover of the Stones’ “Play With Fire.” 

So there we are, and it all started with Dancing In Your Head, a record that I heartily recommend for anyone wanting to get into Ornette Coleman but maybe not getting the hang of his earlier Atlantic free jazz recordings with his classic trio. Prime Time succeeded in using the beat and electric guitars to help advance Coleman’s musical ideas and James Blood Ulmer has continued the experiment and demonstrated how Ornette’s musical ideas can be incorporated into music as diverse as jazz, free improvisation, blues, and rock and roll. 

One thought on “Ornette Coleman/Dancing In Your Head

  1. You wrote “Coleman definitely found the guitar to be a better harmonic/melodic instrument than a piano, an instrument that never featured prominently in his music. I imagine part of the reason for this is that the guitar can leave more harmonic overtones implied but not explicitly played, leaving more room for the listener’s brain to fill in the gaps.”

    I think the radical simplicity of transposing, a central feature of harmolodic playing, on the guitar is important too.

    And a lot of guitarists want to show of their melodic chops while jazz pianists, … well, you know 🙂

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