(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
I remember hanging out with a drummer friend as a party wound down. All us stragglers laid on the floor together, it was 4 in the morning, and I was feeling pretty playful and really sleepy.
I said to him, “Tell me a bedtime story.”
The guy grinned for a second and began: “Once upon a time in Texas, there was a saxophonist named Ornette Coleman.”
“Yay!” I said with a remarkable lack of situational awareness. “I love this story!”
“I know you do, Matt,” he said soothingly as he patted my head.
“Who’s Ornette?” a voice major said from across the room.
I whipped around way too fast for the very early hour. “The greatest alto player of all time!”
“That is not true,” the drummer piped up from behind me.
This is a constant discussion between me and my friends. How good, really, is Ornette? If you measure the quality of the musician by their versatility of actions, Ornette admittedly suffers a little—there’re only two or three recordings from the late 50’s where Ornette’s holding down the alto chair in the Paul Bley Quintet where he’s playing by the rules of what 90% of musicians who deal with swing operate under (which is, of course, known in the parlance as ‘playing the changes’). But I would argue that Ornette’s internal logic is so sound and developed that we can judge his overall output as incredibly important and influential.
“But Matt,” you mutter, illuminated by the pale glow of a laptop screen with a hand buried in a bag of Cheetos. “Ornette’s music is inherently stream-of-consciousness. There are no rules in free jazz.”
Well, dear reader, I have to say that that’s not at all accurate on three bases.
First of all, all modes or forms of art have aesthetic tenets, even abstract artforms. There’s definitely a way to not paint like Jackson Pollock, the same way there’s a way to not paint like Rembrandt. I’ve been told by some groups that they have no rules. I’d argue, though, that “We have no rules” is in fact a rule in itself, because if you wanted to impose a rule on the music you’d find yourself forbidden to do so. If I went into any given avant-garde group and said ‘Let’s play It Could Happen To You like it is off Relaxin’,” I’d better be real ready to find another gig. A truly limitless group (in terms of emotionally limitless and technically limitless) wouldn’t be unwilling or unable to do that, and so far I don’t know of a single group of players that can do any style of music from all of human history whenever they want. It simply isn’t possible—so rules, tenets, and guidelines always exist in art, no matter how much or how badly we want to liberate ourselves.
This leads into the second point—that Ornette’s music certainly has a rule or a logical system. This is, as verified by a few personal investigations, 110% accurate. When I choose to play like Ornette, I keep several things in mind:
1) Ornette’s unique and multidirectional view on harmony. Yes, Ornette has a harmonic concept—he wouldn’t be able to write for large classical ensembles if he didn’t. The way it works is essentially through understanding each note’s role in a plurality of harmonies. This has been written about often, but it bears repeating. This is how it works with the note C:
C could be
--the root of Cmaj7
--the third of Ab7
--the ninth of Bbmin7
--the seventh of Dbmaj7
--the fourth of Gsus7
--etc etc et al
Because Western music works under the implicit assumption of tonal gravity (eg. This note has happened a bunch, so we can resolve to it), many of Ornette’s pieces have a pitch that serve as a resolution point. Ornette’s concept (which he titles harmolodics—to be transparent, many people see the title as a macguffin) is how one can justify or reason with many of his melodic choices.
For example, Lonely Woman’s resolution point is the note D. Through this method, we can justify having an F or an F# as the third (D being the root of Dmaj or Dmin), and if you listen to Ornette that’s EXACTLY how he treats the harmony, and how he has consistently treated that harmony throughout his career. It’s a qualifiable concept.
2) Ornette, more than any player before him save perhaps Bird, exploits the sound and registers of his instrument. There’s a Downbeat article by Cannonball Adderley where he states something to the effect of “Ornette has discovered that the alto saxophone has 32 available natural pitches”. To Ornette, high Bb is inherently much different than low Bb in terms of emotional content—the basis of which likely arises from the timbre each one has on the saxophone. This means that when Ornette has an idea, it’s one that couldn’t be executed in any other register and mean the same thing—and what a given thing means in a register depends wholly on the instrument playing it and on the sound of the player with the idea.
3) Ornette’s source material is American folk music. His work always draws on it in one way or another, no matter how hairy the harmonic situation or strange the ensemble. This means that by studying things like hymns, Delta blues singers, and early jazz musicians, one can gain a pretty decent perspective on Ornette's music. I think Pat Harbison once used the phrase “blues player but not tied to a key or tempered pitch”—and while I think there’s a little more to it, that’s a great place to start.
So with all these rules, it falls to reason that Ornette’s system can be taught. Having done so with many players, I assure you that this is 100% correct—but also 100% another blog post.