How Sound Grammar continues to influence 21st Century jazz harmony

Aditya Roy
4 min readNov 29, 2020
Photo courtesy: Amazon

Whoever has watched the classic adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson or read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl knows how much early Beat literature, soaked into Ornette Coleman’s imagination during the 1950s. For those unfamiliar to Beat writing, it comes from the term beatnik.

The Genius Behind Coleman’s Message

With a no-nonsense narrative, the cocktail of copious drugs and visceral descriptions of hallucinations that were common to such literature, jazz always had the front-seat reserved. Ornette Coleman seemed to celebrate free jazz to the point that his playing was called angular through the 50s to the 70s. Suffices to say some of the Beat Literature rubbed off on him. So, Sound Grammar may seem like an album with its fair share of those drunken-paroxysms laced with jarring minor ninth intervals, suitable only for die-hard Coleman fans. But it was a slight aberration from the rest of his catalogue.

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

When Ornette Coleman and his quartet played the set in October 2005, they had something different in mind. For a live album in Germany, Sound Grammar had no qualms about expressing its conceptual art. Moreover, most of the complex changes seemed tailored to the maestro’s capricious improvisation over diatonic chords. But, if you listen to it closely, it was a well-weaved, structured, and technically-challenging live set with an intent to solidify the ardor for free jazz at the cost of ruining his reputation as a jazz musician.

In short, he meant for all audiences, including modal purists who were looking for a foothold in an abstract art form to enjoy his brand of unrelenting, uncompromising musicianship. To this day, jazz musicians continue to learn from the novel instrumentation featured in the album, which featured a lot of the blistering pace and instinctual play based on bebop. But, by October 2005, Ornette Coleman was anything, but a copy-cat of Charlie Parker.

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

Since, the 1950s, Mr. Coleman had a history for being hard to listen to, however by 1959, some contemporary jazz musicians were already dismissive of his affinity to taking on The Bird, note-for-note, which he could flawlessly.
But, earlier albums were so challenging to listen to that some passed it off as some form of snobbery that was beyond their dainty appetite for jazz. But, free jazz isn’t supposed to be easy to hear unless it is in a pulsating live setting. When it came for Ornette Coleman to shine, people launched into disputes over his playing. Such contention led to affirming one of the most delicate sounds that an alto saxophone ever produced into one of the most recognizable ones.

Do not Fear Mistakes, There Are None

Bottom line, the deconstruction of jazz much like a grammatical analysis of literature, is the pivot for Sound Grammar’s leap into non-conformist rhythm and improvisation. The drumming of Denardo Coleman, Ornette Coleman’s son, managed to merge all of the loose constituents of free jazz and incorporate them into Coleman’s collective vision for a driven album, albeit abstract.

If the use of Richard Rodger’s, ”If I Loved You” and Stephen Foster’s, “Beautiful Dreamer,” didn’t surprise you, then take a look at the eloquent snare-drum patterns juxtaposed with the electrifying bass ostinatos picked by Greg Cohen. Ornette wrote many of the standards as quiet meditation. Still, some were to challenge the musicians beyond classical theory by extrapolating the results into jazz harmony and modal blues.

What is even more astonishing that the bassists being classically-trained musicians kept impeccable tempo on Sleep Talking, based on Stravinsky’s, “Rite of Spring”, and this allowed the quartet to swing momentously with a snatches of modality.

The “New” Language of Music

Also, translating Stravinsky into jazz is ambitious. But bringing trained-musicians to see eye-to-eye with an ear-trained bandleader on such an intricate piece accounts for a lot of the controversy and mistrust, Ornette Coleman faced. But, his commitment to exploring new sounds and going beyond musical conventions allowed him to revise the rules of the jazz vocabulary.

Photo courtesy: uDiscover Music

With the abstruse classical orchestration in Sound Grammar, the skills of the virtuosos spoke for themselves. They made the standards rather refreshing by employing a smooth, ascending sound almost like Coltrane’s Giant Steps. At no point of time do the inflexions in Ornette’s melodic counter-play, and the quartet’s groove ever clash. They seem to know what to play, never outperforming or outplaying the other, thus speaking the same language and producing a dynamic sound we hadn’t heard in ages and probably won’t.



Aditya Roy

I’m a copywriter with a passion for learning and playing chess. I write on fashion, technology, and literature. Do enjoy my work and leave any suggestions.