5 tips for playing Ornette Coleman’s music on piano

The alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman wrote some of the greatest music in jazz history, but we pianists face unique challenges when performing his music compositions on our instrument.

For starters, Coleman only rarely included a pianist in his groups. This was because he realized that one of the piano’s main functions in a jazz group is to provide the harmonies, and as one of the pioneers of Free Jazz, he wanted to avoid having a chordal instrument dominate the harmonic sound. In his groups, he wanted the to give the bassist the freedom to imply any harmonies the player chose to play, and for there to be a direct relationship between the soloist and the bass line.

The basic premise behind Coleman’s music, at least with his classic quartet’s music, is that after the main theme is stated, then “anything goes.” Instead of repeating the same chord progression over and over in the way that most jazz does, the musicians in Coleman’s groups would make up the harmonic progression as they went along. While new and innovative in jazz at the time (1950s – 60s), this approach is in fact very similar to how classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven themselves improvised, except that Coleman did it with his group instead of solo.

I find it exciting to play Ornette’s music on piano, since there isn’t much pianistic precedent. Here are 5 tips to get you started:

1. Rely on your instincts
The fact that not too many pianists regularly play Ornette Coleman’s music can be very liberating for us pianists! Because there’s not much to compare our versions to, it’s a little easier to take chances and try new things. Even more than in most jazz, there’s no “right way” or “wrong way,” stylistically.

Do things you normally wouldn’t do, such as changing tempos during your improvisation. In Coleman’s music, the road is wide open; anything goes!

2. View it as a bass/horn duet
In terms of pianistic texture, one approach is to view your left hand as a bass player and your right hand as a saxophonist or trumpet player. Play a duet with yourself!

Since this approach is so close to how Coleman’s own groups played (with the addition of a drummer), you’ll get a lot of ideas by listening to his albums, especially the early ones like The Shape Of Jazz To Come.

3. Remember that the tune’s harmonies are only a guide
You can also use chords, but here it gets a little tricky if you’re trying to emulate the sounds of Coleman’s pianoless quartets. Start by listening to his first album, which included pianist Paul Bley. But you can go way beyond what you hear Bley do there, by playing much freer. Indeed, Bley himself did this in his later work.

The chords that Coleman wrote over his melodies sound great, but they’re only a guide. During your solos, feel free to modulate to different keys, make up your own chord progressions, or abandon a tonal center entirely.

4. Think “out of the box”
Even though we jazz pianists like to think we play with a large degree of freedom, the truth is that we often follow the same processes over and over. Such as playing the melody, then a solo, and then the melody again. Or soling with our RH while our LH provides an accompaniment.

Coleman’s music gives us a chance to go out of this box and experiment. For instance, we can play the melody with our LH only, or solo with it. Or we can freely use motifs from the tune’s melody, without stating it in full. Or, we can use the melody as a walking bass line and improvise over it.

Once we try these new techniques on Ornette’s music, we can bring them over to our usual repertoire as well and freshen up our overall jazzp laying!

5. Personalize your interpretation
Here’s a question for all of us jazz pianists: Do we have to sound like Ornette’s group when we play his music? I don’t mean just the notes, but the overall vibe.

If we think about it, most jazz musicians play tunes in the style of the composer. We play “Giant Steps” like Coletrane did, and “Waltz For Debby” like Bill Evans. Same with Thelonious Monk’s music, for that matter. Many pianists sound great but then play Monk like a bad copy of him. Chick Corea is a great pianist who plays Monk amazingly well because he brings Monk’s music to his own persona, not the other way around. Bill Evans played Monk this way too.

You can do fun intellectual experiments with this, like pretending that Bill Evan’s wrote “Giant Steps.” You’d view it differently, right? It would lead to different interpretations.

Try this with Ornette Coleman’s music as well. Pretend that Duke Ellington wrote it. This isn’t as far-fetched as it may sound, since Ellington wrote avant-garde music with “The Clothed Woman” and played “Summertime” in this way too. But his style is different from Coleman’s and this approach may eventually lead you to playing it your own, personal way.

I’ve used all 5 of these tips in my version of Ornette Coleman’s composition “Chippie,” which is in The Real Book.

Journey Through The Real Book #64: Chippie

Enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”

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