Ornette Coleman

Details, details.  When you specialise in something, when it’s “your thing”, it’s always about details.  There are books , step-by-step guides, making sure the details are right.  You get from one note to another this way, but…might it be better changing those two notes?  Here, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  Now, listen to it this way (sound of a scale going up and down).  These details are important, of course.  After playing scales up and down a lot, and eventually learning how to vary the direction and anatomy of these scales, and patterns, and phrases handed down from other people older and more famous, one becomes drawn to the finer points.  And a lot of art is about finer points, refinement, it keeps the artist motivated to work; such adjustments are not always perceived by anyone else, but…it becomes like a painting not straight on the wall, a chair in the wrong corner, a constant source of irritation that needs to be “fixed”.  The scale needs to come down that way, the mirror needs to face the windows, you get twitchy when the order is ruptured.  Jazz is littered with people who have a system, a way of relating everything to every other thing, every note has its place.  Grids, tables, pretty pictures, justifications for every note, except for those that don’t fit, which are wrong.  All preparation for music, not the music itself.  To become immersed in this is, for certain types of musician, something akin to a religious faith.  It is an unearthing of the truth, a discovery of the divine light, the system that underpins all possible combinations of notes.  All possible combinations, that is, except those deemed undesirable; the wrong notes, the notes that are only played out of carelessness, lack of knowledge or technique, sheer disrespect.  Most jazz musicians are not quite at this level of fundamentalism, but most are touched by it, and it enables us to function.  Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who died on June 11th, took wrong notes and redefined them, making heroes out of villains.

It’s not that he didn’t have a system.  He referred to it as “harmolodics” and, whilst there are many more qualified than myself to explain it, the general gist is that it’s almost impossible to really say what it is.  This might help.


If the tendency to reduce music to a tangible system seems fundamentalist at times, Ornette is jazz’s Zen Master, demanding that we experience it directly and, as the interview with Philip Clark above shows, wrong footing any attempt at a concrete definition.  Many personal accounts of meeting him, of which there are many, testify to his openness with complete strangers, and he lives this in his music.  A B natural on a C minor 7 chord is to some an illegal note, a mistake, to others a complex dissonance to be justified and derived from some complex pattern of associations; to Ornette it always seemed like a stranger to be greeted as a friend.  He would famously bend these notes until they squirmed out of the reach of the alphabet, like the great blues artists, there is just a gesture, a sound.  His early music dispensed with harmonic instruments like the piano and guitar, in order that these “sounds” could exist for themselves, and yet in the seventies, he let these instruments back into the fold with a vengeance, often having two guitars at once who remained gleefully at cross purposes.

In 1985, Ornette made a record with Pat Metheny called “Song X”.  Metheny was a hugely respected improviser and a master of the specific in music, the elegantly turned composition, exquisite details below a veneer that to many non-jazz fans might seem “smooth”.  You could almost see him as the Donald Fagen of jazz, perhaps; and like Fagen, he has subversive tastes.  It was re-released in 2005 on its twentieth anniversary, and included in this new edition was a track called “Police People”, omitted from the original session.  I wonder why?  It’s a masterpiece, a perfect illustration of what makes Ornette extraordinary. Here it is.


Listen to the opening; bassist Charlie Haden sets up a groove, loose and twangy, but a clear set up for Ornette, who comes in at a different tempo, and in the wrong place, not in a clever way, not displaced by some mathematical algorithm, just wrong. Delightfully wrong, uninhibited, unaware of the wrongness.  But the sheer conviction with which he does it galvanises the whole band.  Conviction is a big, cloudy kind of word; it doesn’t reduce, it expands.  Sound, feel, inflection, it’s all of these, experience, awareness, finely tuned nuance, how are we to explain these words?  Again, these things are present in all great jazz musicians, all great musicians, but Ornette seems to strip everything back to these qualities in order to draw attention to them.  So then we get the tune, a three chord trick, a bit like Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, chords a beginner could play on the guitar, shuffled around a bit. This is unusual for Coleman’s music, whose compositions rejected chord sequences in favour of a looser and more improvised approach.  Pat Metheny is steaming on this tune, finding brilliantly swooping shapes in the timeless chords and responding brilliantly to the prods and jabs of the band. Then Ornette comes in.  At first all seems well. These are chords, remember, where all the white notes on a piano will fit very nicely on the top.  It’s difficult to mess it up.  And yet Ornette does it throughout, he makes it feel good; gradually, he takes charge, the chords become not redundant, not ignored, but just another part of the soundscape to be played with, against, across and around.  Like two views of a single subject, his lines touch, flirt with, the underlying chords, only to veer off into glorious clashes.  It sounds like “Tune a Day” reflected in a cracked mirror.    And yet his line follows perfectly the contour of the piece, the band respond; I think Ornette was the first musician brave enough to rely so much on response, on dialogue.  Like John Cage, he shook things up without demanding people view him as an iconoclast, and like Cage there was a sense that he thought it was all perfectly “normal”.  And it’s so likeable.  That’s his genius.

I always imagine him practising, wondering what he did.  Can one practise responding, expression, hearing music a different way?  Maybe he played long tones to keep that formidable sound in working order?  Because that’s the thing we all need as musicians.  At two minutes thirty, when Ornette sounds like he’s been playing all day, all year, his whole life. That sound is in his head, in his body, and from that sound comes his feel, and the feel finds the notes.  He comes in like an old friend knocking over the furniture; I laugh every time I hear it.

“Music is work.”  That’s John Cage, near the end of his life when, having tried many ways of making it, he was asked finally for a definition of music.  Work takes many forms, it’s just time filled with activity.  Sometimes it’s just living in the sound, making it move, thinking about how much it needs to move to get people to feel good.  Ornette took care of the details; shapes and sounds from jazz history, a huge dollop of the blues, things that make the music go.  But there’s that point when the player merges with the instrument, inhabits the sound and takes off….

Victorian Jukebox

There’s a pub in Soho where they still have a piano player.  This guy is not there to colour the silence and chit chat in the way a pianist does in a restaurant.  He plays Beatles songs, and show tunes, and things even people under thirty might recognise.  And people listen and sing along.  When his list runs out, there’s no music, but it never runs out.  And most of it is stored in his head.  He has fingers that play a real instrument, and every song he plays has to work on a piano or it doesn’t work at all.   And he has a head for a hard drive.

There was a time when all music in the home was like this.  If you were lucky enough to be in the rising middle class of Victorian England, you might have had a piano in the house.  And that was the source of all music.  A Victorian Jukebox.  All music was live.  And if no one played the piano, there was no music.

Just silence and conversation.

And we all know how awkward that can be.

Having no pianist would be like having no wifi, or 3G, or 4G, E4 or Dave.  People inevitably understood something of how music was made, because everyone who had a piano knew a pianist, and saw at close hand what was involved.

I remember a few years ago, I went into my son’s pre-school to play for their Christmas sing song.  They had no piano, so I brought a keyboard.  Children gathered around as I hauled the case down flat on the floor, flipping the catches as an assassin might before removing and demonically cleaning his weaponry du jour.  As I prized open the lid the kids, far from experiencing some kind of recognition, “oh he’s a musician, cool, music, wow it must be great to just sit down and play an instrument” kind of reaction, they were perplexed.  And it was tinged with that slight anger of not understanding, of feeling stupid, left out. They had no idea what this object was.  As I set it up, plugged in and sat behind the keys, they looked on in wonder.  It wasn’t the kind of wonder that Spielberg might have filmed, that kind of bathed angelic luminosity kind of light with its warmth and its fuzziness.  It was more like, I wonder why the hell we are here light.  It was more like Dogme-style, natural light, cold stares.  “Festen” for juniors.  Icy silence and tumbleweed in one uncomfortable mixed metaphor.  I was not at that point believing, contrary to the opinion of George Benson, that the children were our future.

So I played my first chord.  Resisting the jazz urge to hit them with all my musical neurosis of chromaticism and darkness, I went for C major.   A safe option, I thought, the universal language of music I thought, a vibration that reaches out to all without discrimination.  Almost instantaneously the entire group burst into uncontrollable laughter.  That weird, nervous laughter like when you and your mates got caught stealing useless crap from a supermarket.  An entire social history of music making, from the royal courts to the Victorian sitting room and the East End pub, friends who could sing and play, daughters who were encouraged to play the piano because their legs were tucked safely away from prying eyes, it all ended here.  It all ended on a cheap carpet with the worst audience I have ever had.

Well they were only four years old but, you know, once they’re over five there’s no changing them.

I’m quite fond of the piano as a music making machine, as an instrument of reproduction, reduction, representation.  Music used to work on the piano, most things were reducible to two hands, ten fingers and some sleight of hand stuff…aided, of course, by the imagination of the audience.  Pianos were often required to conjure the sound of an orchestra at full tilt, much as Turner’s paintings of water might almost make you feel the shock of the spray against your face.

So how would a piano cope with the incredible breadth of musical styles, genres as sounds today?  There is nothing to be gained by an accurate reproduction, but the sound of the attempt is what interests me.  Jazz for me sometimes involves hearing something you like, whether it’s more jazz or a Ugandan singer with a balaphon, and trying to use it for the purposes of improvisation.  Using a piano to do this is like playing playstation with a real tennis racket.  In other words, it’s perversely enjoyable.  It’s the best kind of enjoyable there is.  When I hear Bud Powell, or Duke Ellington, or Monk, or John Taylor, it’s partly a fight to prize something out of that instrument that was once a symbol of polite, middle class society.  It’s such a forgiving instrument, sometimes you have to really give it something to get upset about.  It’s that or it’s back to the kindergarten.