It is a lot easier to lose yourself in the roaring joy of Ornette Coleman’s music than it is to explain why you shouldn’t be afraid of it. The saxophonist’s code name for his strategy of composition and group improvisation, harmolodics (a pidgin mix of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic), sounds more formidable than the music itself. In fact, everything you need to know about the luminescent polyswing of Coleman and his electric double quartet, Prime Time, is in Tone Dialing‘s “Bach Prelude,” a playful melting of the German master’s elegant precision into a quicksilver rush of elastic guitar chatter, rich bass-and-percussion argument and Coleman’s effervescent alto sax. There is no strict tonal hierarchy; hooks, beats and tearaway improv kicks rip around you. Dig one or drown in them all.
Boiled down to its essence, Tone Dialing — Coleman’s first album with Prime Time since 1988’s Virgin Beauty — is a record of high spirits and lively, colliding ideas, like the raucous cross talk of a Mississippi roadhouse combo and the breathless locomotion of an African high-life orchestra. For all of the old free-jazz notions attached to Coleman’s music since the late ’50s, he and Prime Time now cook with a force akin to that of George Clinton and P-Funk’s: jamming in tongues with unity of spirit. On “Street Blues,” Coleman’s horn soars like a lunch-hour whistle over the band’s rush-hour rumble and Chris Rosenberg and Ken Wessel’s slinky guitar tangle. Tabla player Badal Roy and drummer Denardo Coleman (Ornette’s son and producer) vigorously recalibrate the palm-tree sway of “Guadalupe,” while “OAC” and the title piece are short, hot blasts of mosh bop.
Amid the clamor, Ornette Coleman remains a sublime melodicist. “Kathelin Gray,” reprised from his 1986 Song X, with Pat Metheny, is a fine, dark beauty rendered with simple, radiant soul. Coleman maintains a mournful purity in the rubbery maelstrom of “Sound Is Everywhere.” And in a band of ostensibly equal instrumental voices, the best part about “La Capella” is the way Coleman’s bright, bittersweet sax flies over Prime Time’s Indo-funk gallop.
The rap track “Search for Life” is a rare Coleman misstep (the cluster-groove effect mutes rather than elevates the vocals), while some of the instrumental tracks are too concise, shutting down just as you expect the band to slip the reins. But despite almost 40 years of rejection and misunderstanding of his music, even by old fans who consider the Prime Time concept a sellout to electric pop, Coleman is still (to paraphrase one of his album titles) dancing in his head. There’s plenty of room for the rest of us.