ORNETTE COLEMAN / “Lonely Woman”

Ornette Coleman started rap in 1959 with a record called The Shape Of Jazz To Come. I don’t mean he literally invented rap, but aesthetically (in terms of the three main elements of music from a Western perspective) what Ornette did in jazz is analogous to what rap did in popular music. Western music is based on a triad of melody, harmony and rhythm. Popular Western music emphasizes melody. The high-art music emphasizes harmony. None of it swings too tough. And in all of it, a premium is placed on composition and technical correctness, i.e. adherence to various, abstract ideal standards that a specific performance is measured against. What we call Black music is a different aesthetic. Hell, we can do away with harmony, simplify the melody, hit a groove and ride for days—like Mr. Dynamite recording a nine minute song without ever crossing a bridge. You know what I’m saying? By Western standards a lot of James Brown songs technically aren’t songs. Plus, recordings both spread the music and froze the music, enabled cross-cultural (and cross-time, cross-place) study and appreciation of the music), but at the same time, the recording device locked the music into a static/processed thing, whereas in Black music one factor that is certain is change. It’s always changing. A record don’t never change. So in one sense while the record enabled the world to hear Black music, it also encouraged people to think that “one” way was “the” way. (I’m coming to Ornette and rap, right now. Stay with me.) ornette.jpg Well, Ornette thought, Suppose you didn’t have to adhere to a standardized harmony? Suppose you could play whatever note you wanted to play at a given moment? Suppose your progression was based on your imagination and not a set of predetermined codes? Wouldn’t the music sound fresher? So, that’s what he did. Chord changes? The changes were no longer predetermined ahead of time. For those reared to work off of changes, this freedom was anarchy of the most despicable sort. Hence, when Ornette hit New York in 1959, a number of seasoned musicians, not to mention the corps of jazz critics, thought Ornette was crazy (and that is their assessment when they were being charitable and giving Ornette the benefit of the doubt). In the early Sixties, I was just getting into jazz and I didn’t know that Ornette was supposed to be controversial, not supposed to be considered in the jazz tradition. Of course, once I started subscribing to Downbeat, I quickly found out how wrong I was. I will never forget Downbeat giving no stars (zero, nada, zip) to Meditations by John Coltrane—but that is another story. Anyway, because I didn’t know any better I could dig Ornette. He sounded like he was preaching to me. I mean, in my estimation, he sounded like a preacher. And then when he did his trumpet and violin thing with his then nine-year-old son on drums (the record was Empty Foxhole), well, something was definitely happening that hadn’t happened before. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your point of view) Trane was happening at the same time and at that time Trane was the Einstein of harmony. I used to walk out the room when Trane came on the radio because I couldn’t hear it at the time (circa 1963, early ’64). By 1965 I was deep into Trane, but again that’s another story. What I’m saying about Ornette is that his emphasis on melody and rhythm, on preaching over a beat regardless of how he hooked the words up, that strongly appealed to me. And of all of Ornette’s large body of work, the composition that most strongly appealed to me was “Lonely Woman.” So what’s the connection between Ornette and rap? Well, rap took the popular song form, obliterated the harmony part, and emphasized preaching over a beat. And that was a revolutionary development, a development foreshadowed by what had already happened in the jazz world. Meanwhile, over the years, Ornette’s revolution was absorbed by the jazz world. By the mid-Sixties, even Trane adopted and adapted Ornette’s approach—late period Trane is generally appraised as an acquired taste of the rarest sort, and again, that’s another story. Trane is another story. But a converging story in that Ornette’s approach became Trane’s approach. By the mid-seventies, James Brown had saxophone players wailing like Trane—listen to “Superbad”—but it was really an Ornette Coleman approach: preaching over rhythm. Which is part of the reason that James Brown’s music is so often sampled, copied, appropriated, imitated, re-created, etc. in rap music. Whether the beat-meisters know it or not, it’s not simply the beat; it’s an entire aesthetic that they are plugging into. An aesthetic that does not come in a linear fashion from Ornette Coleman to Dr. Dre, but rather a shared aesthetic that represents different ways of drinking from the same well, the water of African musical aesthetics liberally laced with African-American blues elements, the melancholy inside of our joy, the joy inside of our melancholy. The dialectic of getting down in order to rise above. I, of course, contend you can hear all of that in “Lonely Woman,” and even if you can’t hear it, that don’t mean those elements are not there, just might simply mean, you ain’t hearing it—I’m aware it could also be that I’m hearing haints, i.e. hearing stuff that’s not there, but I doubt it: the scream, moan, shout, and cry manifests itself too consistently in Black music to be an accident. The element of trance, riding a groove to an altered state of consciousness, is a constant in this ever-changing music. So, finally, what I’m saying is that there is cultural unity or commonality to all forms of our music that address the basic aesthetic of saying something over a groove, of inducing a trance as a way of transformation. And that’s what I liked about Ornette Coleman. Obviously, I was not the only person who felt that way. In 2004 the San Francisco Jazz Festival commissioned Joshua Redman to lead a small band who would perform both original compositions and a program of compositions by a selected jazz composer. The inaugural year featured composer was Ornette Coleman. It’s a brilliant idea, wonderfully executed. A limited-edition 3CD set of music was released—one CD is all Coleman interpretations and the other two CDs feature one composition from each of the eight band members.   miguel zenon.jpg “Lonely Woman” is on the recording and features the excellent alto work of Miguel Zenon. In fact, they ought to release the Coleman interpretations as a single CD—it’s just that good. “Lonely Woman” is undoubtedly Coleman’s most covered composition, but usually by instrumentalists, and so I close with a gem of a vocal interpretation by the Boston-based Titilayo Ngwenya. Her version of “Lonely Woman” is one part of a seamless composite composition titled “Male Drug.” (The Beatles’ "Lucy In The Sky" is also included). Hearing how Titilayo works Coleman into the Western song form is instructive and indicative that ultimately Coleman’s revolution enriched rather than replaced the musical tradition. titilayo.jpg Titilayo’s interpretation is on a broad-ranging debut release that covers the gamut of jazz from early swing compositions such as “Savoy” and “Ain’t Misbehavin” to original dramatic songs. Trained at the New England Conservatory, Titilayo has the technical adeptness one would expect from such an educational background, but, via her Nigerian mother and Mozambican father, she also has a grounding in an African aesthetic. Listen to the original recording by Ornette Coleman, the heavy jazz arrangement and blowing by the SFJazz Ensemble, and then follow with a quiet listen to what Titilayo does. After checking all that out, I think you will begin to appreciate how many different tastes you can get from the water out of Black music’s sacred well—and, hopefully, you can also make the aesthetic leap and begin to appreciate that the Coleman approach has found it’s most popular manifestation in an entirely different discipline, i.e. rap. Additionally, I strongly urge you to check out a video documentary called Freestyle, The Art of Rhyme by Kevin Fitzgerald. Why? Well, because the art of freestylin’ in rap is aesthetically the same approach as Ornette Coleman. Ornette and rap, for me it’s not a case of one leading to the other, or even one coming before the other, it’s simply what happens when the same sensibility is manifested by different individuals in different eras and different contexts. So actually I should have said: Ornette Coleman is a pre-rap manifestation of rap and rap is an Ornette Coleman approach to popular music. Seen? Heard? —Kalamu ya Salaam Click here to listen to an NPR interview with Titilayo. Titilayo Ngwenya website: www.titilayo.com               no way, jose           James Brown, absolutely. Ornette Coleman, no way. By no way, I mean that there is no direct line that you can point to that connects Ornette Coleman to hip-hop music. Are Ornette’s musical developments and his unorthodox approach to harmony and rhythm analogous to some of the things hip-hop musicians did with popular music? Of course. But as you accurately point out, that similarity has a lot more to do with the African Aesthetic as a whole than it has to do with Ornette Coleman specifically. I would doubt very seriously if any of the cats who were instrumental in creating and/or popularizing hip-hop music have any idea who Ornette Coleman is beyond ‘a jazz cat.’ I can guarantee you, on the other hand, that every one of them knows James Brown…by the book, chapter and verse. The problem isn’t so much that the argument makes no sense (it doesn’t, but that isn’t the main problem) as much as it’s that the argument obscures the real point. (The same point you yourself make later.) The real point is that there are certain, specific methods of music-making that ALL forms of Black music (at least in their early, non-commercial forms) rely on. As for James Brown, without him, there would be no hip-hop. (At least there would be no hip-hop as we know it.) And that’s it for that. I dig the Ornette Coleman version of “Lonely Woman” a lot. A whole lot. To my ears (ears that really aren’t well-educated or acclimated to jazz), it sounds a lot like a Miles Davis tune named “Fall.” (Not literally, I’m talking about the technique. The repetition of the melodic line, with each horn playing the melody slightly differently, coupled with the frenetic rhythm.) Of course, I wrote that backwards: it would be “Fall” that sounds a lot like “Lonely Woman,” given that the Miles tune came out a good eight years after Ornette’s did. Of course, my ultimate reaction is the same as it always is when Kalamu posts one of these classic jazz tracks that I’ve never heard: I’ve got a lot more listening to do. —Mtume ya Salaam

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7 Responses to “ORNETTE COLEMAN / “Lonely Woman””

Rudy Says:
January 9th, 2006 at 12:48 am

I always find Kalamu profound. If he says something I usually allow that it’s true. Musically, I’m stupid. I know nothing of the technical aspect of music, not even the basics of melody, harmony, and rhythm.

I am familiar with Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and free jazz. I think Ornette used a plastic horn. I don’t know, I don’t recall what effect that was supposed to have on the tonal quality of the music. I haven’t played my lps in decades and its been years since I read Downbeat. . . .

But I like that metaphor of preaching over the groove. I can see that coming out of the negro’s folk music–the spirituals and the blues. I still don’t quite understand how all of that relate to an African aesthetic.

In any event I’m enjoying the music. Most of it l seems rather seamless. And that’s good — Rudy

D Thompson Says:
January 9th, 2006 at 11:37 pm

Loved Titilayo’s music and the NPR review. Do you know if she is still performing?


          kalamu says       

unfortunately, i don’t know, but i certainly hope so.


Qawi Says:
January 10th, 2006 at 12:30 pm

Preaching over the groove…How Profound! “Embellish on the Cut” is how Tribe Called Quest (HipHop) called it. I say this because not since the JAZZ history special that was on PBS years back, did us new cats get exposure to what Ornette Coleman was doing. For the time that he was doing it, they called it Avant Garde Jazz. Now the nomeclature is Free Jazz. The Avant Garde term is more fitting of Ornette, because one would assume that Jazz is FREE (as in expression).

Dizzy, Miles, and several other accomplished jazz musicians didn’t call it Avant Garde, or Free. They called it MESS. I believe one of the quotes from the special was that you could’ve given “drunks” instruments and the sound would come out better than Ornette Coleman.

Which brings me to the selection. If anything, “Lonely Woman” was a SAFE choice Kalamu. I mean, if you really wanted to capture the often chaotic arrangements of Ornette Coleman, there is literally a pleathora of tracks. Tracks like Song X, where if you didn’t have a trained ear, the song would literally drive you mad! I like Lonely Woman because it really just sounds like a sax solo/embellishment over a consistent baseline and drums, though. It actually does give me another almost melodic appreciation for Ornette Coleman’s music.

Ms. Berry Says:
January 11th, 2006 at 9:57 am

Technically, I am probably not educated enough in music but I can say that this song hauntingly articulates the emotions associated with the title.

Thank you for introducing Titilayo. That girl has a voice on her!

AumRa Says:
January 11th, 2006 at 2:25 pm

Together with Don Cherry, Charlie Hayden and Billy Higgins, Ornette peeped where this thing called jazz was headed. The Shape of Jazz to Come and, ultimately, the harmolodic approach is the logical conclusion of a consciousness unbound by man-made constraints yet somehow still manages to remain rooted in tradition This music has universal swing.

Whereas the swing of Sun Ra’s insight proceeds from a , lets say, ‘behind the sun’ kind of circumspection, allowing the listener to experience the music of planets revolving, Ornette seems to share that perspective however the cycle of progression proceeds from inside the performers(s) experience and expands outward in concentric circles until the music trascends the sonic realm enveloping both performer and listner in emotional communion. While both ultimately expand sonic awareness, one goes from plan to planet and the other goes from earth experience and proceeds to cosmic consciousness – pretty much the same thing albeit two different approaches.

With gems like Focus on Sanity and Congeniality having become part of the standard jazz lexicon, the piece that seems to stay with everyone is Lonely Woman. I cannot say for certain Ornette’s motivation for composing this song but Lonely Woman has been dancing in the heads of many men ever since it was released in 1959.

When listening and considering the the intent of the piece I wonder if a conversation with a lonely woman would be as eloquent as Ornette’s alto, as sexy or possess a voice as melliflous? Would her stroll be as rhythmic as Billy’s bounce, filling spaces in my head while creating voids in my imagination as I try to count the ways in which her polyrhythmic saunter has redefined time and made me temporarily redefine logic? Would I have the ability and awareness to realize that the basis of her existence is the tonic nourishing the foundation upon which the continuity of soul depends? Would I be ready, at a moments notice, to develope both the strength od character and the selflessness of ego to lead her in dance and/or trumpet her strength as she sings her song? Ornette’s interpretation is one man’s sympathetic glimpse into the pathos that sometimes descends upon us all; a snap shot of this chaotic life frozen in song.

The composer alludes that this energy is feminine in nature The song, Lonely Woman, also reveals the aspect of Ornettes person accessed when conceiving, composing and performing this tune. The creative aspect of the person, also responsible for harmonizing forms and ideas is also depicted as being feminine in nature.

Ali Farka Toure, the master guitar and multi-string instrumentalist from West Africa, acknowledges that the essential blues form has been played in Mali for centuries. That being so Ornette, through harmolodics , has added a valuable dialect to the language of the blues. Ornette tapped into an age-old tradition with new modes of conveying experience. The way I hear it, Ornette – through his theory – seeks to reveal the underlying unity hidden in chaos; much the same way a good sociologist would do writing of the role of women in society.

Ornette challenges musicians and listeners to realize the rhythmic and melodic equivalent inherent in the underlying structure of the song form. It is the reaffirmation of achieving a personal experience from music and that requires something from all parties involved.

Ornette has a unique way of expanding one’s sonic palate and thereby uncovers hidden nuances not only in the song but in our emotional references as well. This is not so much a shift in paradigm as much as it is mostly an appendage that expands the approach to composing, improvising and accompaning as harmolodics is also a method of giving equal weight to both rhythm and melody.

Play it again.

Allen Hicks Says:
February 15th, 2006 at 4:32 pm

Enjoyed your exposition and I espcially liked the weave to Titilayo Ngwenya. I have seen her perform in so many Boston venues. She is a great improviser, and her voice is sexy with a personality.

googly Says:
September 4th, 2015 at 9:02 pm

I think that what you posted made a bunch of sense.
But, what about this? what if you wrote a catchier post title?
I am not saying your content isn’t solid., however suppose you
added something to maybe get folk’s attention? I mean breath
of life ORNETTE COLEMAN / Lonely Woman is a little plain. You should peek at Yahoo’s front
page and see how they write news headlines to get viewers interested.

You might try adding a video or a pic or two to get people excited about what you’ve
got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog a little bit more interesting.

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