Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ornette Coleman
I remember hearing a very well respected jazz educator say this about  "free jazz" alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman:" Yeah, I would like to listen to Ornette Coleman...if he didn't play so OUT all the time!" I remember thinking even then, the little I had heard of Coleman's music, that this sort of statement didn't add up. I don't hear Coleman's music as being "out" all of the time. I think much of it is tonal, and much of it is quite beautiful. Obviously, Coleman's music and concept doesn't work for everyone, and for a variety of reasons. Some people just don't like the idea of "free jazz"; in order to feel like the music has validity, the "chord changes" need to be addressed. And yet, isn't it interesting that most people, including some musicians, can't even hear chord changes? Harmony is the most elusive of musical elements. Most people can identify melody, rhythm, lyrics, form, and so forth; however, we need to study theory and ear training in order to hear even simple harmonies. So at a certain point, why are the "changes" so important?

Don't get me wrong; I love to play chord changes. And the concept of harmony, while elusive and abstract to many, is key(no pun intended) in many of the emotional moments of music. We say a major chord is "happy" and a minor chord is "sad". (Diminished chords are "annoyed", and Augmented chords are "cautiously optimistic." Ha Ha.....)Take the harmony out of a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto or a Beethoven Symphony or a Bill Evans ballad and you have a completely different emotional experience. All this being said, we as musicians and music students spend a lot of time on harmony and playing the changes. And eventually, the more wrapped up in the pursuit of better "change" playing, the less attention we give to melody(we can't play the melody correctly of these tunes), rhythm(our solos become run on sentences of eighth notes, devoid of any phrasing or variety), lyrics(please, we have no idea that these songs even HAVE lyrics), and musicality(our music becomes flat and introverted, a mere exercise in plugging in our licks and scales into chord sequences. Oy, my students are going to be confused after reading this....).

I recently gave a lesson to a bass player. I was trying to get him to make his walking lines more relevant and "outlining" the chords. I enlisted a guitarist who was practicing out in the hall to come in and play with us. I played drums, so we had a trio session. We played "The Days of Wine and Roses" a few times. Yes, the "spelling" of the changes got better, but the better it got, the less interesting the music became. We were no longer playing together;instead, we were all focused on form and changes, as if we were hunched over a desk working on a math problem.

So, I said, " Hey, you know what? We aren't communicating at all. We aren't making music. We are going through the motions. Let's just throw away the song, the chords, and the form, and just play free, and see what happens." Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle: the whole vibe of our little trio changed dramatically. Now that we didn't have this math problem to attend to, we could finally LISTEN to each other and make something happen. We played something that you might actually want to LISTEN to, that you might actually pay 99 cents to download it on Itunes! Now, my contention is that advanced players can make music regardless of whether the tune is no changes or Giant Steps in all keys. But forcing these students to play "free" was a real eye opener.

Getting back to Ornette Coleman; I recently transcribed a tune off of "Something Else!!!The Music Of Ornette Coleman", the first album from the then unknown saxophonist. The tune is called "Invisible". I transcribed it because Jack DeJohnette says he wants to play it when we play the Newport Jazz Festival next week. So I learned it and made a chart.(You can take a look here if you want.)It's a really cool melody, and what's really fascinating is that there are fairly conventional chord changes underneath the melody. However, it's a real clash between the solidly conventional bebop comping of pianist Walter Norris and the wild abandon of Coleman's alto shredding.

Walter Norris
I had a SKYPE rehearsal with DeJohnette a few days ago, and we went over the tune, and talked about it a bit. "It seems like Ornette isn't playing these changes at all," I remarked. DeJohnette replied that "Yeah, well, Ornette was probably playing the changes but in a different key. I actually spoke to Walter Norris about it, and Walter said that on that when they were in the studio, Ornette told him:"Play the way you play.'" It's fascinating to hear this information from a source close to those who were making the history. 

I think this is a great tune and I'm surprised that I don't hear people playing it more often. This tune should be in the fakebooks! I'm going to try to get people in Portland to add it to the repertoire. I think it's a cool tune because it does have that Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry vibe to it, but it's not that far off from being a bop, or hard bop tune, especially if you decide to address the changes, which are basically bebop changes without a clear tonal center. Many tunes are melodious on the surface, while the changes underneath are moving more fluidly than the melody might imply. However, this melody is really giving you the sense that every bar is a new key. And there's even a "shout chorus!" I can't say that I love Coleman's approach on this tune, but I think it's very musical, and he plays what he plays with a lot of energy. It is pretty "out". However, if it wasn't this way, it wouldn't be "Something Else!!!!" They would have had to call it "The Same Old Stuff"......or something like that.....


  1. Thanks for sharing the leadsheet, George! Who knows—maybe people'll start calling it at Smalls et al. a couple years down the road...I mean, people already call "Blues Connotation," "Turnaround," etc..

  2. hey George, I hung out with Ornette in New York recently (long story). Ornette said to me a few months ago "Noah, what is the tonic of sound? It has no tonic - it's sound"

  3. Ornette has never sounded out to me. I find it funny that some folks think of him as the "avant-garde" of jazz, even though his music is actually 50 years old! Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Ornette, but IMO he's never been the "out" guy at all, nor is John Zorn or whoever. For that matter, I have a hard time deciphering where the definition of "out" starts and ends. What is "out", is it not playing changes? If then so what? If a musician doesn't want to learn playing changes (and again I love doing that) we should respect that. Louis Armstrong would sometimes navigate changes with a simple melody, and I have been told that he didn't know much music theory. He sure could play "All of me." I find it funny that some musicians still think in those terms.
    Great post George, love the blog!

  4. Thanks George!
    There is a nice version of Invisible By Geri Allen with Paul Motian and Charlie Haden, don't remember the name of the cd....

    There is also a very interesting documentary film around on dvd: Ornette,David and Moffet about the trio with Charles Moffet and David Izenson. They reveal many of their ideas and point of views there.

  5. Thanks George, for writing about this experience you had with your students. It's interesting in light of what you wrote in your May 8th "Cookie Cutter" post where you delineated a choice between "not wanting to churn out a bunch of musical clones" as opposed to churning out "a bunch of musicians who cannot play well enough to work as musicians in the real world."

    I had commented that "the way in which one learns the craft can help one develop a more personal sound." So I'm happy to see you call attention to rhythm, melody and phrasing in this post. Those are the essential elements at our disposal as improvisors, whether on changes or when playing free. Ultimately there is little difference in the improvising process between change playing and free playing. As long as the harmony of the tune has become internalized there are endless creative choices to be made both when practicing and performing tunes. Generally students are so conditioned to meet requirements that it does not even occur to them what kinds of choices they have available to make. Practice is often so compartmentalized (sound, language, technique, time, harmony) that they fail to put these elements together creatively. In some cases I've had students react with surprise to the idea that it's even OK to make certain kinds of choices for themselves, feeling that they have a more important obligation to demonstrate certain skills.

    Your current post points to those elements that I feel we should emphasize in our teaching in order to enable creativity in our students. I appreciated reading it.

    PS I would not agree that we "need to study theory and ear training in order to hear even simple harmonies". But I do agree that it's an area that eludes some. In reading jazz criticism I get the impression that many folks in fact do not really hear this aspect of the music so well. But that's another discussion...

  6. Great post, George. And amen to all the comments...

  7. The comment field here seems to want to call me "anonymous" but I'm actually Bob Gluck.

    I'm glad that you wrote this, George. Lots of people prognosticate about Ornette but few actually engage in conversation. The first thing that I think must be said is that we all, yes all of us, are children of Ornette. There is no way around it. His impact is unavoidable and global, even if not obvious. Next, I hear a large amount of his playing as quite tonal in nature, meaning that it involves pitch relations, and in a serious way. It may be that he starts on an idea, explores it motivically, and then moves on, and this is sometimes (or often?) not about changes, but I find him to be one of the more melodic players ever. Sometimes it is very much about changes and certainly the blues. Next, while Ornette may not be thinking "changes" in a literal way he abstracts very basic ideas about sequences, motives, and what it means to play together--even in unison--and tonality. From this broader perspective, if one plays a melodic "shape" and then explores it as if through a kaleidoscope, that is a form of tonality, albeit somewhat abstracted. If everyone is playing together but not necessarily starting on the same note, that is a unison, albeit from an abstracted perspective (aka harmolodics).

    I've heard the same "play what you play" or "play what you hear" anecdote about Ornette from more than one person recently, and I think that it cuts to the chase nicely--Ornette is really saying "play with me, but your version of this might be different than mine since you are a different person, but if you listen well and are true to yourself, the result will be our playing very much together." The results may not hold closely to a conventional notion of "harmony" but can result in something that is just as "harmonious," if one takes a broad enough perspective. And the ability to imagine that broader perspective is essential to playing well in a context of changes. Otherwise, one is probably just playing scales and arpeggios over the changes, as you, George, wisely note.

  8. Jazz music is so beautiful. It's really under appreciated. We give so much praise to main stream music yet some of these jazz musicians are way more talented then most main stream music artists.


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