A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Rob Ryan, author, journalist, and jazz aficionado to co-host with him an early evening session devoted to John Coltrane’s classic 1957 recording Blue Trane. The event took place at a local pub, The Dartmouth Arms, as part of a monthly programme of music sessions. We both shared our reflections on Coltrane and played excerpts from his immense volume of recorded work.
Blue Trane, Trane’s only recording as a leader for the fabled Blue Note label saw Coltrane fresh from a six month “apprenticeship” with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in New York and a few weeks into his return to Miles Davis’s sextet. At the very cusp of his recognition as a jazz giant.
At the time Blue Trane was recorded Coltrane had just turned thirty, had finally quit his addiction to hard drugs-the reason why Davis sacked him from his band the first time around, and had barely 10 years to live. Between this recording and the launch of his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums, Trane recorded numerously for the Atlantic label. These recordings- all of which are now regarded as classics allow us to track Coltrane’ musical development from his “sheets of sound” era to laying the ground for the freer, deeply spiritual, intensely dynamic set of recordings he made with his quartet between 1960 and 1965.
John Coltrane Event, London, May 23
In preparing for the event, I organized my thoughts under the following headlines,
A Long Apprenticeship
Unlike Miles, Rollins or Max Roach, Coltrane was not part of the jazz aristocracy. Born in North Carolina and raised in a deeply jazz-imbued Philadelphia his early career as a professional musician took place largely out of sight. Early work with R&B-tinged bands led by Earl Bostic and Eddie Vinson led to Trane being hired by jazz leaders of very different generations and temperaments, namely Johnny Hodges during his brief period away from Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie one of the founding fathers of bop with a deep interest in Cuban and African influences. Coltrane only really came to the attention of the wider jazz public when he joined Miles Davis in 1955. By the time he left Miles Trane was a star in his own right.
Sheets of Sound
Jazz critic Ira Gitler famously characterized Trane’s aesthetic at this stage as “sheets of sound”. In an interview in 1960 Coltrane himself described his approach as follows,
“About this time, I was trying for a sweeping sound. I started experimenting because I was striving for more individual development. I tried long, rapid lines that Ira Gitler termed “sheets of sound”. But actually, I was beginning to apply the three-on-one chord approach at that time the tendency was o play the entire scale of each chord, they were usually played very fast and sometimes sounded like glissandos”
c.f. John Coltrane by Lewis Porter P. 133
Trane’s quote underlines his determination to apply a rigorous and intellectual approach to discovering radically new jazz harmonies and improvisational possibilities. It could only be achieved by an ultra-dedicated practice regime designed to hone his prodigious technique. To achieve the technical demands that he set. He became known for extraordinarily fast tempi and, in live performance, unusually long solos. However, at this stage and throughout his career Coltrane had a deep affiliation with ballads, both his own compositions such as Naima, Lonnie’s Lament and Crescent and jazz standards.
Coltrane did not lace his solos with references to other tunes in the manner of say, Sonny Rollins. You will find little humour in his solos. For him music was a deeply serious matter, (as it was too of course for Rollins), requiring hours of daily practice, right up to the end. His main focus was to expand the theoretical and harmonic possibilities that would provide the context for his improvisations. By 1957 he had begun immersing himself in a profound study of spirituality which added a yearning quality to his playing over his last decade. However right throughout his career he displayed a laser like focus on musical theory and harmony, often testing these deep and hard-earned understandings to the point of destruction. His original compositions always began with the harmony with the tune emerging almost as an afterthought. A good example is to be found on Giant Steps on the playlist with its highly complex harmonies, so complex indeed that the great pianist Tommy Flanagan is heard to struggle with them on the recording.
To my ear Coltrane’s distinctive sound was relatively light in tone, certainly by comparison with tenor players of his era. He was a master of building to improvisatory crescendos. His playing embraced multiphonics and the search for notes and timbres that most players could not find on their horns. Listen to Harmonique for a good example. He had a very distinctive yearning, exploratory dimension to his sound. He single-handedly re-introduced the soprano sax to the jazz, to the extent that most contemporary tenor players now double on soprano. All of these features combined to establish his enduring greatness in the history of music in the 20th century-not solely jazz.
Coltrane’s enduring Influence
Coltrane’s influence is everywhere in jazz and not just among saxophonists. All saxophonists, however, with any aspirations to achieving professional status must study and aim to master Trane’s harmonic innovations. Becoming fluent in, for example Giant Steps is a mandatory requirement for any jazz musician. As an amateur player it is a mountain that I still need to climb! So, the jazz world since Coltrane is replete with Coltrane imitators, many of whom have sharpened their jazz chops in conservatoires. Only a very few, Joshua Redman, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, or Alan Skidmore can also lay claim to having established their own unique credentials based on Trane’s onerous legacy.
Here are 2 videos which popped up in the last few days which underline the continuing influence of Coltrane today. . A blistering performance of Mr. P.C. live streamed from pianist Emmett Cohen’s Harlem apartment with young alto star Patrick Bartley, Cohen’s regular drummer Kyle Poole and world class bassist Larry Grenadier from a later jazz generation – think Brad Mehldau.
The core of my playlist, as you might expect is the album in its entirety. It is worth mentioning that Lee Morgan on trumpet was 19 at the time and already a fixture in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. His playing alone, particularly on the high temp numbers is worth the price of admission. It is also worth name checking the fleet and thoughtful contributions of Curtis Fuller on trombone and the stellar rhythm section of Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chamber on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, the latter two members with Coltrane of Miles’s sextet.
You’ll also find examples of Coltrane’s playing at slower tempi, his classic version of My Favourite Things, a 3 minute version of which became an unexpected single hit and a few tracks from Coltrane’s musical associates in the late 50’s
I’ll finish with an evocative quote from McCoy Tyner, probably Coltrane’s closest musical associate;
“The length of time he was playing didn’t matter. It was a minor concern because what he had going on musically.”