Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of my lessons with Chris Batchelor looking at Ornette’s playing and trying to find ways of describing what he’s doing that make sense. I’ve loved his playing since I first heard him a couple of years ago but have always been nonplussed as to exactly how he gets the sounds he does. I think Ornette is one of those people whose playing people avoid talking about by talking about it. The same bits of received wisdom – time-no-changes, based around a key centre, bluesy – tend to get trotted out when he comes up for discussion.  The problem with these descriptions is that they’re not very useful as tools in the practice room. They tend to end, rather than begin, a real investigation of his music and certainly lack the detail and cogency of his own lines. Given this state of affairs, I’m even more grateful to have had Chris teaching me about Ornette, as he’s somebody who has really investigated his methods deeply.

Chris’ first point is that form is still very important to Ornette, particularly in the early records. A lot of his approach on these albums is based on playing off a set form, even when the changes within it are more or less improvised. Take this solo from ‘Face of the Bass’ off Change of the Century:

Face of the Bass Solo.mp3

I hadn’t realised previously that this is actually following rhythm changes form exactly. You might think this obvious in listening to it, but the fact that I hadn’t realised this until now might illustrate how descriptions of music can foreclose our ability to listen properly to it (or maybe it just illustrates my inability!). Time no changes is such a pervasive description of Ornette, that the fact that there was more going on in the music than freely improvised melody had stayed hidden to me. Re-listening to this solo with the form in my ear answers a question I always had about Ornette’s improvising, which is how he created so much tension, release and structure in music that was (nominally) free.

The crucial harmonic feature of rhythm changes is the contrast between the tonic based A sections and the jump up a major third at the bridge. Ornette reduces the harmony to this essential binary opposition, (or what Chris calls the ‘thing and not the thing’), generalising the smaller scale harmony in order to focus the improvisation on the form.  Having made the contrast between the different sections of the piece the point of his solo, he then disguises the joins between them with his phrasing. Listen back to the solo and notice how four bars before the second bridge he starts a new phrase that suggests the bridge is already starting. It actually doesn’t start for another four bars (and the harmony he is playing confirms this) but the effect is to disguise the communication of clear form to the listener, although Ornette himself is clearly aware of it. 

A lot of the freedom in Ornette’s early music comes from this way of playing with and against the forms by using unusual phrasing. An interesting implication of this is that Ornette’s early records may well have been the main influence on Miles’ band’s approach to standards in the sixties. Miles was not particularly kind about Ornette’s music, but the extent to which standard forms remain preserved, yet heavily disguised in Miles’ music of the time certainly has a direct precedent in Ornette’s approach. (The asymmetrical articulation patterns and chromatic lines in Don Cherry’s playing on the same records are also echoed strongly in Miles’ own playing). A final point to make about this solo is the extent to which a traditional 2-3 clave underpins so many of the phrases – clapping this through against the solo, one is struck by the frequency with which it occurs. I don’t know enough about this to speculate on its implications, although it provides a lovely example of jazz’s ‘Spanish tinge’.

This is all well and good, but it was not long before Ornette stopped playing pieces with set form. We need to try to find ways of talking about how he plays so effectively when this is removed. There are many examples of great solos on formless tunes (‘Congeniality’, ‘Humpty Dumpty’, ‘Mr and Mrs People’) so how does he keep the coherence of form based improvisation in these open settings without simply staying at the tonic? An answer might be that it is his use of harmony, specifically the relationships he creates between consecutive harmonic areas, which allows him to improvise a form as he proceeds. Whilst this does not have the objective symmetry of rhythm changes, it does manage to create a sense of formal coherence through the logic of the harmonic progression – by allowing the content to create the form.

I wanted to come up with a way of recreating this approach as something that I might practise – it is best shown visually rather than verbally. (Click on this link to see the diagram – you’ll need adobe reader as it’s a PDF file):

Ornette Free Diatonicism 0001

Simply put, Ornette is using particular pivot notes (or sometimes chords) to get from the original key centre to alternative key centres and back again. He tends to play a phrase in the original key and subtly emphasise the pivot note so that our ears are prepared for the modulation, which is often where the end of the phrase moves to. It’s a unique way of playing very out and very in at the same time (Simon Purcell’s nice phrase for this is ‘Free-Diatonicism’). What had always puzzled me about Ornette’s playing was how he managed to sound so harmonically free and yet so diatonic at the same time, and this is the best description I’ve come up with that answers the question and recreate that sound world. It’s a fascinating approach and is different to post-Coltrane derived ways of playing out that are based more around substitutions, shapes or patterns. Some of Ornette’s later music (for example the double album In All Languages) takes this approach to an incredibly condensed degree, using carefully placed pivot notes to gradually change the tonality almost imperceptibly over time. As somebody who enjoys ambivalence and multiple possibilities of meaning, I find this kind of playing extremely attractive, particularly in the way that it ‘keeps the door open’ (another Chris phrase) to the other musicians in the band.


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