Ornette Coleman's harmolodic theory:
Robert Palmer,
from the liner notes to
Ornette Coleman, Beauty is a Rare Thing: the Complete Atlantic Recordings

Ornette Coleman, the early advocate of a "free jazz" that some conservatives confused with chaos, has emerged as a theoretician and a structuralist, originator of the difficult-to-define but widely-discussed discipline he calls harmolodics....

Coleman is a painter as well as a musician, and sometimes one gets the impression that he is "seeing" melody or sound. His penchant for developing musical ideas doesn't always work in sequences of theme-and-variation. Sometimes it's more like he is visualizing a note or phrase as a three-dimensional construct, to be studied at close range and at arm's length, turned this way and that, examined from a variety of angles. This effect is intensified when the music involves a group of players improvising collectively. Each musician is relating to and drawing from a theme Coleman has written out in advance, but each individual hears it, and plays it, somewhat differently. And from Ornette's point of view, each contribution is equally essential to the whole. One tends to hear the horn player as a soloist, backed by a rhythm section, but this is not Coleman's perspective. "In the music we play," he said of the performances collected in this box, "no one player has the lead. . Anyone can come out with it at any time."

This is a typical utopian ideal, but as a concept--as a goal--it is absolutely fundamental to the music herein. Every time Coleman apparently takes the lead, pulling the bassist and drummer along in his wake, you can be sure that a moment of synergy, an unequivocal dialogue of equals, is right around the corner. Even when Coleman and [trumpet player Don] Cherry are playing a written theme together, the same notes and phrases in the same register, they play it as individuals. The fine points of each player's phrasing and inflection are deliberately invoked to render each one's voice distinct.