Rambling on 3: A kind of blues

(attributed to many others too)

If I replay what the four musicians did in that studio in Hollywood a little more than sixty years ago, what do I hear? Answering that means plunging into the quicksand-ridden realm where words are a substitute for the sensation triggered by sounds, and language is more than usually inadequate. But people keep trying, so I’ll have another little go too, to start things off. The plan is to return to these few minutes, and their elements, lots of times. So let’s begin as straightforwardly as I can.

It’s not an immediately familiar sound, but it’s not that wild, either. The composer had a little to say about it in the extensive sleeve notes to the LP in 1961. The note, from a man later famous for wonderfully gnomic, and sometimes playfully unhelpful, utterance, is unusually clear – presumably because what is printed is “as told to” Gary Kramer who I’d guess cleaned up his transcript a fair bit. In his version, Ornette tells us “Ramblin’ is basically a blues, but it has a more modern, independent melodic line than older blues have, of course.” He elaborates, linking back to the more general manifesto stuff that takes up the main body of his notes: “I do not feel so confined to the blues form as do so many other jazz musicians. [But] Blues are definite emotional statements. Some emotional situations can only be told as blues.”

This last is true and is something Stanley Crouch or Albert Murray might have written. It’s also true that the roots of Ramblin’ lie in the blues, for all its disregard for the twelve bar form. But it’s a breezy, bouncy sort of blues. There is blues feeling here, but also a kind of jauntiness that isn’t usually what the word conjures. A blues at a hoe-down is what people often say to sum up this piece. Sounds right. It lopes along, in a good-humoured way. You could dance to it.

So it begins with four irregularly shaped phrases, of unequal length – played in perfect unison by the two horns. The bass and drums keep up the heavily swinging beat in the spaces in between. A repeat, with subtle differences in timing and accent, and then a solo from Coleman’s alto saxophone starting at 47 seconds. The two minutes that follow have been analysed plenty of times. But suffice for now to note that they are a kind of meditation on the blues, taking stock blues licks and turning them over or twisting them around, salting them with occasional growls and smears (as blues players are wont to do too), and adding one or two small phrases that come from somewhere else entirely as afterthoughts or extra decoration. I find these minutes riveting without any analysis. And like the small written part at the start, the whole thing is eminently hummable.

Don Cherry on pocket cornet solos briefly in similar vein, his opening phrase echoing Coleman’s final one. Charlie Haden contributes a short, simple but masterly bass solo (We’ll come back to the bass solo). Then the band repeat the written tag, there’s a little moment of musing on what they’ve already played by the two horns together, and a neat, rehearsed ending. And we’re done.

There must be plenty of other ways to try and give some impression of this music in words. Here’s one, from Michael Stephans’ 2017 book Experiencing Ornette Coleman: A Listeners’ Companion.

Ramblin’ “has an appealing rhythmic bouyancy from the first note to the last. Haden and Higgins maintain a fat, swaggering, medium-tempo ramble. Reminiscent of A New Orleans syncopated second-line funky groove. Coleman, totally immersed in the rhythm, creates a solo that is soufully raw and at times, raspy, just like the human voice can be sometimes. He twists and bends notes as if they are made of rubber, and wails mightily throughout. Cherry follows these hoots and hollers by bulding his own solo slowly, adding a note here and a phrase there, until finally his ideas coalesce into a lively, funky statement that is all his own”.

“Haden picks up the thread and creates a stunning bass solo that recalls his folk and country music roots. He strums the big acoustic bass as though it were a guitar and plays what sounds one minute like a bluegrass riff and another like an old church spiritual. The context is perfect and, goven his personal history and musical gifts, Haden shines like a harvest moon over a Missouri wheat field. Once he finishes his solo, the alto and trumpet return to the theme without missing a beat and take the tune home.” 

I quite like that as it has some things in common with my effort, and adds a few elements, notably the vocal effect that Coleman himself often mentions. As Ben Ratliff wrote, about a different recording from this period, “He seemed to hear music in a light, high register, and his music came out like speech”. (Ratliff also finds the Atlantic recordings “unreasonably beautiful”.)

What else to say? Well, it can all be annotated, up to a point, and has been. Putting Coleman’s solo, say, into conventional musical terms can be done. The result looks like this.

Transcription of Ornette’s solo – page 1

This representation of the beginning of Coleman’s solo comes from a 1989 Master’s thesis by Micheal Cogswell that analyses four Coleman tracks.

A different effort by guitarist Jimi Durso was published in Downbeat in 2013. He summarises the same solo thus:

“Ramblin’” is in D major, and during the solos, there are open drone sections on a D7 with the option of moving to a G7 or A7. The drone sections are separated by swing sections that are basically blues forms constructed around the I, IV and V chords.”

In the solo:

Most of Coleman’s playing is in D, vacillating between Mixolydian (measures 3–5, 13–17, 30–36, 67–68) and major pentatonic (23–29, 47–50, 55–56). All this major-sounding material does give a folksy quality to his improvisation, but the places where he deviates from these sounds add a lot of spice to his improvisation. One variation that’s close to the sound and vibe of the song is D minor pentatonic. Though this might be the predominant scale choice for some players, Coleman only ventures here twice, in bars 53–54 and 65–66. Curiously, Coleman does not use this scale against the D chord, where it would create a bluesy effect, or even on the G7, where the F natural brings out the dominant nature of the IV chord. Instead, in both instances he uses this scale choice when Haden is implying an A7. Another bit of spice Coleman adds is B b, the flat-sixth of the key. It only appears six times, but with all the B naturals that appear in his major pentatonic and Mixolydian licks, when this flatsixth does occur, it stands out—especially in measures 19, 42 and 69. In these measures, it’s at the top of a D major line (played over the D7 chord). Putting the flat-sixth into these major licks creates an ethnic, almost Middle Eastern flavor. Two techniques heard often in this solo give the rest of the ensemble a clearer idea of where Coleman is going. One is his use of repeated notes. Some great examples are in measures 34–37, where Coleman leans on the F natural (the minor third of the key but the b7 of the G7 chord); measures 47–50, in which we have repeated staccato quarter notes and where he mirrors the descending third (D to B) with another descending third (from F# to D); and in measure 62, which does an effective

The repeated A naturals on the G7 set up the D7 coming up. They don’t function so much as the ninth of the G (an extension) but more as the fifth of the D. And to make no mistake of it, Coleman repeats it twice in the next bar, when the harmony resolves to D. Another thing Coleman does to make his direction apparent is a simple but effective idea: his tendency to descend through the same scale he ascended on. He does this every time he plays the D Mixolydian b13 scale (bars 7, 18–20, 42–43, 69–70).”

And so on…

Now here I have to check back to my motivating question. Why do I love music, and in particular this piece of music, so much? And these encapsulations of Ramblin’, intended for musicians’ use, aren’t really helping me answer that.

Nor, for now anyway, does this:

That’s just one of the outputs from a database of jazz solos’ characteristics compiled by some dogged researchers in Hamburg on the Jazzomat project, “an extensive research project, which sets out to explore stylistic, cognitive, and aesthetical aspects of jazz improvisation”. Thanks to them, I could offer you yet another transcription, and also tell you things like the number of notes in the solo, the mean tempo, the “event density”, the median swing ratio, and the syncopicity.

It’s a big project* that will deserve another look, but at this point I don’t see their analysis chiming with how I’m hearing Ramblin’ either. I think I need to take a different tack, for now. The piece certainly does all the things these various accounts, analyses and data extracts depict. But why is it so good? The question remains. Meanwhile, time for another listen.

*Lots more on Jazzomat here (pdf) It is the first of a bunch of recent projects that take computer-assisted jazz studies into the era of “big data”. One needs to decide if it falls foul of the tendency of some big data projects to assemble a bunch of solutions looking for a problem. I’m keeping an open mind about that for now, but there are other bits of research I want to spend time on before looking into this a bit more.

This is No 3 in a series of posts that starts here.

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