The Dead, Ornette Coleman, and Harmolodics

Coleman

Another completely off-topic item for this environmental blog.  (Hey, we could all use the break).  Among other things, I’m a huge fan of jambands like the Grateful Dead, Phish, Widespread Panic, Stringcheese Incident, moe., etc., and their shared improvisatory idiom with the wonderful world of jazz.  I was lucky enough to take a jazz history class via Stanford this spring and got an “A” with my paper, which I’ve posted below.  Enjoy!  (or not.)

“Harmolodics is music for “people who can dig that there is more than one possibility…That’s what Ornette Coleman always represented to me.”[1] –Jerry Garcia, 1989.

After nearly thirty years as a touring band, by 1993, the Grateful Dead were predictable, and had been for years. But that’s not to say that they weren’t still a rollicking good time for a majority of its audience who were adoring and indiscriminating. Even younger fans – pejoratively dubbed “In the Darkies” for getting into the band via its only Top Ten hit, “Touch of Grey” (from their 1987 “In The Dark” album) – knew the routine by now: a short, hour-long first set of composed songs that were a mere warm-up for the more spacey, improvisational second set. Sure, a second set would always be bogged down by the obligatory “Drums”[2] interlude and a drum-less, free-form “Space” jam, featuring somewhat contrived instrumental noodling that hearkened back to the Dead’s historic early days as the house band for Ken Kesey’s legendary 1960s Acid Tests. But, really, though, because of the sets’ predictability, “Drums” and “Space” was the pre-planned informal intermission to hit the bathroom or grab another beer. That’s how by-rote the band had become. The Dead were an over-sized, sluggish touring machine that had to keep going to feed the Dead’s business organization and expanded Dead “family” payroll, even if that meant putting lead guitarist Jerry Garcia in harm’s way; he tended to go back to his drug use while on the road.

But there were still glimpses of promise, innovation, and hope in those final Jerry Garcia years. And many of them involved special guests who could push the musicians in ways that the internal band members could not. Garcia was always a fan of all types of music: bluegrass, funk, and Americana, for instance. But, arguably, he and the Dead were probably the most influenced by the jazz idiom. It’s what gives the Dead their certain– je ne se qua – their whole jam-happy, improvisatory, acid-y 60s mindset. Indeed, rhythm guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir, and bassist Phil Lesh, have often mentioned how they were struck by legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, his approach to “modal jazz style,” and, especially, his memorable take on “My Favorite Things,” a breath of jazz cool from the decidedly un-cool musical “Sound of Music.”[3]

The Dead were blessed to have some modern day jazz masters join them onstage during these final years. One guest was young sax-man Branford Marsalis, who turned the Dead’s joyous “Eyes of the World” into a sacred version on 3/29/1990 at Nassau Coliseum that has become a treasured near-sacrament. The fans noticed how such a fresh infusion inspired the band – and so did Marsalis: “Jerry and I hit it off. He noticed that a lot of things I was playing were based on things I heard him playing. He was grinning,” Marsalis has said.[4]

Another jazz musician who was influential on the band was the legendary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Garcia had already been a long-time devotee of Coleman[5] and played guitar on three songs on Coleman’s 1988 album. Coleman had originated a musical philosophy he called “harmolodics,” which he defined as, “The use of the physical and the mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.”[6] To Garcia that meant, “No matter what direction you go in, there’s always going to be other possibilities.”[7] Naturally, Garcia could easily have been sweeping his own band into such a definition.

Coleman joined the band for their February 23, 1993 show at Oakland’s Coliseum Auditorium.[8] Rolling Stone Magazine named this gig as Number 5 of the “11 Greatest Guest Jams at Grateful Dead Concerts.”[9] But listening to the show again after many years it’s a mixed bag of tricks from an older unabashed Deadhead’s perspective.[10] It being the final night of the three night 1993 Mardi Gras run, the band on this Fat Tuesday seem tired in a fairly typical, standard first set (without Coleman). Garcia, as was becoming more normal in those years, forgot lyrics on occasion, and there wasn’t much jamming in this warmup, which was customary. The set-closing “Johnny B. Goode,” of which Garcia once remarked with historical significance, “This is what it’s [rock and roll] all about,” was a boisterous set coda, however, that foreshadowed the possibility to come.

To start the second set, a faux Mardi Gras parade snaked through the auditorium that featured a cool, mellow, long, percussion accompaniment. This teased into a crowd-pleasing, Crescent City-themed “Iko-Iko” that includes Garcia experimenting on his new toy, the MIDI[11] guitar/synthesizer, affectionately named “Wolf.” A couple more crowd-(un)friendly new songs followed, along with a seventeen minute rather conventional “Drums.”

But the synthesizer-heavy “Space” that followed is different. About seven minutes in, a squeaky, reed-thin voice playfully sings over the aural, wordless soundscape. Of course, that’s Coleman’s sax, frolicking like a kite in a heady breeze, in complete incongruence with what’s musically cruising beneath him. One critic noted that this infusion of Coleman’s free form jazz harmolodics into the Dead space “was a pickles-and-ice-cream mix at points, Ornette’s alto venture down harmonic culverts that seem totally off-the-grid.”[12] That’s an apt take. As the musicians segue into the final three composed songs of the night, Coleman’s presence “stretches them at a time [in the band’s history] when the band had a tendency to coast”[13]

But it’s a mind meld that works. From Space’s loosey-goosey sax whines, which almost sound like a downright “plaintive wail” at points,” the free-form gigging leads back into the familiar guitar licks and drumbeats of an older Dead tune, “The Other One,” that slowly builds to an excruciatingly tension-building climax. Coleman’s work here is “out there,” to be sure, but not so much as to be self-indulgent, grating or distracting. Where Marsalis’ sax played with phrases in a bit more conventional fashion in his 1990 cameo, it’s Coleman’s “refusal to merely ‘mesh’ with the band in a conventional manner [here] that makes this [show] so magical.”[14]

The lovely, lilting, contemplative “Stella Blue” follows and features Coleman’s sax in the upper register, almost like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. His sax very-nearly sounds like Garcia’s higher guitar notes, until Coleman gently harmonizes with Garcia’s passionate, soulful, scratchy singing style, adeptly capturing the sadness of the tune, but giving it a bit of a redemptive spark too. Perhaps Coleman is the “broken angel sings” in the song’s first stanza. Or is he the “song that comes crying like the wind” in the second? Whatever it may be, Coleman’s take on the melody is one of an instrument sort of embodying the lyrics, whether it was intended to or not. The logic of his harmolodics here suits the artistry of the tune.

But the somber, serious nature of “Stella Blue” gives way to the upbeat tempos of, and Coleman’s sax accompaniment on, “Turn on Your Lovelight,” a welcome and rousing, if comfortable set-closer.[15] It’s funny how Coleman can turn on a dime in mood and tone musically, from darkly pensive, to almost frat-party-like exuberance. As Rolling Stone summed it up, [Coleman’s] lonely ruminations on ‘Stella Blue’ showed his tender side, and he got downright sentimental during “Turn on Your Lovelight,” blowing like the old Texas R&B honker he once was.”[16]  Branford Marsalis may have been invited back to the stage after his first set song to play an entire second set with the Dead in 1990. But Coleman’s brief, four-song sojourn is almost as memorable.  It was a needed shot in the creative arm at a time when the Dead really needed it.

[1] As quoted in, David Fricke, “Ornette Coleman’s Time,” ROLLING STONE (March 9, 1989) available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/ornette-colemans-time-19890309

[2] Actually titled, “Rhythm Devils” after the bands dual drummer/percussionists. But Deadheads always termed it simply,“Drums” or Drumz” even.

[3] Weir is quoted as saying, “”We felt at that time, when we were listening to Coltrane, that we were hardly fit to grovel at his feet. But still, we were trying to get there – our aims were the same.”  Lesh wrote:  I urged the other band members to listen closely to the music of John Coltrane, especially his classic quartet, in which the band would take fairly simple structures (‘My Favorite Things’, for example) and extend them far beyond their original length with fantastical variations, frequently based on only one chord.”  Author unknown, “DeadEssays,” THE GRATEFUL DEAD GUIDE (July 10, 2011) available at:  http://deadessays.blogspot.com/2011/07/dead-quote-coltrane.html

[4] David Fricke, “Branford Marsalis On His Unlikely Collaboration With the Grateful Dead,” ROLLING STONE (July 10, 2014) available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/branford-marsalis-on-his-unlikely-collaboration-with-the-grateful-dead-20140710#ixzz49R0mB0O0

[5] Ben Djarum, “The Night Ornette Coleman joined the Grateful Dead,” ULTIMATE CLASSIC ROCK (June 11, 2015) available at: http://ultimateclassicrock.com/ornette-coleman-grateful-dead/?trackback=tsmclip

[6] Ornette Coleman at WIKIPEDIA, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmolodics#cite_note-1, citing Prime Time for Harmolodics. Down Beat, July 1983, pp. 54-55. Quoted in Ted Goia, THE IMPERFECT ART REFLECTIONS ON JAZZ AND MODERN CULTURE, 1990, p. 43.

[7] Djarum, supra note 5.

[8] As a distinctive plus of the Digital Age, virtually all of the Dead’s voluminous vault of concerts (and that of many other jambands) is available for free at Internet Archive. A crisp soundboard of the night Coleman joined (minus the catalyzing energy of an “audience tape”) can be found here:  https://archive.org/details/gd93-02-23.sbd.hall.1611.sbeok.shnf

[9] Number 2 being Branford Marsalis on March 29, 1990. See Will Hermes, “11 Greatest Guest Jams at Grateful Dead Concerts,” ROLLING STONE (May 20, 2015) available at:  http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/11-greatest-guest-jams-at-grateful-dead-concerts-20150520

[10] This commentary is based on the writer’s hindsight experience of seeing over 120 live Dead shows from 1987 to 1995, when Garcia died. Virtually anywhere the band played during this time within an eight-hour drive, or a three-hour flight from Los Angeles, usually meant this writer had to attend, living a young, carefree common Deadhead philosophy derived from the catchy marketing slogan from that old Federal Express commercial of the era, “When You Absolutely, Positively Have to Be There – Every Night.”

[11] MIDI stands for “Musical Instrument Digital Interface,” which allows certain electronic musical instruments to connect and communicate with one another. Andrew Swift, “A Brief Introduction to MIDI,”SURPRISE (Imperial College of Science Technology and Medicine) (May 1997) available at: http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~nd/surprise_97/journal/vol1/aps2/

[12] Hermes, supra note 9.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hermes, supra note 9.

[15] Which is maybe not so coincidentally the same set-closer that Marsalis played at the 3/29/90 show, demonstrating this tune is perfectly suited to jazz jamming here. Interestingly, though, the two saxophonist’ respective takes on the song and their improvisation is surprisingly similar.  The writer even played them over each other and they fit seamlessly.  Apparently, lightning does strike twice. See video of the Marsalis gig at: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=lovelight+yout+tube+90&view=detail&mid=03D011C167347BF39C8B03D011C167347BF39C8B&FORM=VIRE

[16] Hermes, supra note 9.

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