Top-Down #2: Phrase Length, Strength, and the Third Dimension

There’s nothing wrong with strict song form, standards, blues, etc., and I have no objection to chord progressions – some of my best friends have strong resolutions. But, jazz music’s two big building blocks, song form (4-8-12-16 bar structure) and chord progression, your two most important resources, can also inhibit you.

Please see my earlier post about writing for the players and playing like a writer, where I talk about group improvisation – a musical gesture from one player influences another player, and the resulting interplay is composed improvisation, written from the top down (as opposed to being from the ground up, like blowing over a tune or a groove).

Miles Davis and Bill Evans gave us modal and non-harmonic playing, Ornette Coleman was among the first to fully liberate jazz from set phrases lengths, structures and chord changes.

So, for a moment, let’s say that we want to write without such restrictions. How long should a phrase last? As long as it has to. Think of an improvising group: one player starts something, another reacts. Then, instantly, the first player hears the reaction and gauges his response, looking ahead and adapting what he’s playing to what’s going on around him. The others then adapt….and so on…when does either player finish their idea? When it’s over. They decide in an instant, then move on.

Composers can do this by writing from the top down. Your first musical gesture, if you listen to it in hard in your head, might imply a response – a contrasting gesture, accompaniment, counterline, groove – and then maybe a third. Maybe more. Then it might feedback to the first and stimulate another gesture, and so on…inside your head…planned and controlled (hopefully).

This is why it’s good to not worry to much about phrase length – think of any gesture lasting only as long as it has to. Maybe don’t even worry about barlines until you can get the texture happening. Think of a blank page that’s only blank on the future side of your piece (the right-hand side), set a target for the end of the phrase or passage, but only a vague one. I had a teacher tell me to “let your counterpoint guide you”. He was a smart guy. I wasn’t. It took me a while before I could apply this to my writing.

There is one more thing to consider, which is a third dimension of sound, a prominent feature of jazz performance.

A new dimension of interest and musical richness springs from interplay and unexpected results, from grinding against the groove and from going with it. Again, it’s the feedback loop, where players communicate their intent, react, and change the energy and flow. Our expectations as fellow performers and listeners are the target; performers can change the length of a phrase, expand or contract a melody, vary a riff or groove, and by doing this cause moment in other parts, provoking a chain reaction of changing energy.

Now some 3D examples:

In “Souls” by the George Russell Sextet from the album Trip to Prillarguri, phrase length and strength are plastic. The melodic bass ostinato is the foremost idea element, at least at first. When the horns enter, counterpoint of the two elements invoke an upside-(top)-down texture. There’s a natural push-pull, but it always comes back to the ostinato – that’s our melody, that’s our home base, our reference.

I love how everything sounds like it’s in time, but isn’t.

The variety of phrase lengths and note durations in “Souls” makes for compelling musical textures and tensions. When the upper melody phrase is long and slow, it feels at one with the groove. When it’s faster and more aggressive, it grinds against the bass creating a different musical effect, and the players react accordingly. That’s the third dimension:

  1. X axis: the bass groove, the horn line, all the “notes” of the tune. It moves forward in time.
  2. Y axis: the resulting tensions that come out of phrase length, durations, figures, rhythmic/harmonic rubs and resolutions, counterpoint and players’ improvisation.
  3. Z axis: the players’ and the listeners’ reactions to Y and X as it all goes down.


Now back to the master, Ornette. Listen to him and learn. Phrase length, interplay and counterpoint, accompaniment and texture, dynamics and performance arc – all things that writers struggle with – these guys made most of it up on the spot, fifty-plus years ago.

My music doesn’t have any real time, no metric time. It has time, but not in the sense that you can time it. It’s more like breathing – a natural, freer time. People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural. Even in love.

– Ornette Coleman

In Ornette’s music, everyone follows the lead. Or not. All elements are equal; a phrase plays until it ends; everything’s a melody. It’s top-down playing. Check out the iconic tune, Lonely Woman by Ornette Coleman:

While you’re at it, check out an article explaining some of Ornette’s Harmolodic concept; it’s a musical universe where all sound is equal. I lifted the following from – he’s talking about his quartet with Geri Allen, Charnett Moffett, and his son Denardo, and what he says is really cool: The Harmolodic Manifesto.


OK, I understand writing from the top-down without phrase length restrictions. My question is: how can a composer capture and control this third dimension of which you speak? Definitely. I’m thinking about a few ways, I’m sure there are more:

  1. First, write from the top-down, whether the “top” is a high or low instrument or sound. This will open up the sound, maybe loosen everything up a bit. We spend enough time building tracks from ground up with layering.
  2. Vary phrase length, go against the “grid” of the meter, or against what the rhythm section is playing. Are you creating a depth, a tension, a third dimension?
  3. Listen to your counterpoint or accompaniment. Does it/can it affect what’s happening above? Are you giving it full attention, as if it were an independent voice or player?
  4. Play against the expectations of the listener – it can be as simple as adding a bar or two, or writing a cool counter melody to pull focus. Something unanticipated
  5. Write in looseness using ‘ad lib’s and improvisation.
  6. Write like a listener, then listen like a writer. Are you getting any reaction from your music? Is it having the intended effect?

Then there’s a related topic: Transparent Orchestration. This idea involves creating the third dimension of sound in the ensemble, so our ears can “see” depth in sound texture.

More on top-down and phrase length in the next installment.

About Scott Healy

LA composer and performer.
This entry was posted in Free Jazz, Jazz Composition and Analysis, Theory and Harmony, Top--Down Writing, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Top-Down #2: Phrase Length, Strength, and the Third Dimension

  1. Scott Healy says:

    Reblogged this on Professorscosco and commented:

    To commemorate the passing of the great Ornette Coleman I’m re-posting below an overly academic article from 2012. At the end is a link to Ornette’s famous “Harmolodic Manifesto”. No words, prose, or geeky analysis of free jazz can begin to explain the power of the multi-dimensional approach to jazz that Ornette inspired, and which still sounds fresh and interesting some 50+ years later. Just skip right to the Ornette link. Unfortunately they took down my bootleg soundcloud posting of “Lonely Women”, but that’s easy enough to find. That is, if for some reason, it’s not in your record collection.

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