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Who's Afraid Of John Coltrane?

Who's Afraid Of John Coltrane?

The subject of Coltrane comes up on here every so often, so I thought it best to provide a place to air those opinions instead of us cluttering up other folks threads..
This is purely my own idiosyncratic viewpoint, I'm not trying to be populist here and give you a general introduction to his music, just pointing out some aspects of his playing that may not be immediately apparent. I'm not trying to convert anyone to Coltrane fandom, just showing that there's more to him than you may be (un)familiar with.... feel free to disagree (and I'm sure you will)

When people say they don't like John Coltrane I sometimes wonder if they've just not heard the right bits of his lengthy discography. Of course it's not compulsory to like him and there are many other sax players to like, and even fans like me don't like everything he's done over his varied career, nor am I familiar with every recording he's made -
John Coltrane Discography
The Recordings of John Coltrane: A Discography
But it does occur to me that some folks just don't know much about Coltrane and might find his legendary status a bit off putting. The fervid 'you must listen to Coltrane' attitude of some of his devotees is enough to put anyone off.. He does have his place in jazz history though and the list of famous players who've been
influenced by him or think highly of his music is long and illustrious. I wish I had admirers of my playing like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dave Liebman, Jan Garbarek, Charles Lloyd and Wayne Shorter...

I've gone though periods of not listening to Coltrane at all, the pervasive influence of his style hangs over too many sax players and I don't want to head down that path. Recently I've realised that I just can't phrase like Coltrane, so it's not in me to be a Coltrane clone - phew.....!
If Coltrane is considered to be important it's because he was an innovator. This may not be apparent to us now, so much of what he did has become commonplace and is now part of the general jazz vocabulary. At the time it was shocking to some and critics accused him of playing 'anti jazz' as they did with Charlie Parker. Nowadays you wonder what all the fuss was about

My introduction to JC's music came early on in my interest in jazz, I'd heard about him playing with Miles Davis, so I borrowed an album from the library. I can't remember which one it was, but I do remember thinking 'whoa, that's a bit fast' - I couldn't keep up, but boy could they play. I've always liked good drummers and I was an aspiring bass player at the time, so there was plenty to get my teeth into and I realised that trying to follow every note didn't work for me and I was better off just listening to the general shape of what was going on and soaking up the energy and spirit of the music.
More digging in the library ensued, (I was heavily into ECM at the time and there was plenty of Jan Garbarek to distract me) 'The Gentle Side Of John Coltrane' compilation album seemed promising, but was partially spoilt by the inclusion of recordings with vocalist Johnny Hartman.
There was however 'After The Rain' originally on the album 'Impressions' -

here we have the slow side of Coltrane's work (and perhaps the template for much of Garbarek's future career?)
The same album also included 'Alabama' from the 'Live At Birdland' album, dedicated to the victims of a racist bomb attack on a black baptist church -

and a selection of stuff from the 'Ballads' album which showed that Coltrane wasn't serious and heavy all the time -

Unlike some people, I've never found Coltrane's sax sound to be unattractive, maybe because I'd not heard Ben Webster or Dexter Gordon back then, so I didn't know what a jazz tenor sax player was supposed to sound like.
Yes his sound is harder and edgier than most of the tenor players of the 50's, but I don't see people complaining about players like King Curtis sounding hard or edgy -
so maybe it's just a matter of context, what's acceptable in R'n'B isn't acceptable in jazz
We should remember that Coltrane was an alto player first and only took up tenor to play with Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson and Earl Bostic, from whom he learned a lot. He also suffered from dental problems for most of the 1950's. so this may have affected his embouchure.
Jazz critic Stanley Crouch has this to say - "I know the difference between the sound of someone in person and the recorded sound of an engineer. Coltrane's tone was much darker and thicker than the sound on those Impulse records engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. But maybe Van Gelder chose that sound because he could hear that Coltrane was an alto player first before switching to tenor. I think the sound Coltrane was looking for came from the one you hear Charlie Parker using on "What's New," which was recorded in performance at a dance and released on Bird at Saint Nick's."
I think he's wrong to put the blame on Van Gelder, Coltrane sounded the same on radio and TV broadcasts and concert bootlegs -
Birdland 10-02-62 -

Jazz Casual 1963 - john coltrane quartet in Jazz Casual

I don't see many Coltrane critics moaning about Coltrane's playing on 'Kind Of Blue' - probably the most popular jazz album ever made, or some of the other recordings with Miles Davis. Check out this TV broadcast from that era -
The Sound Of Miles Davis - YouTube
Some jazz fans took a while to grow accostomed to Coltrane's playing with Miles, there was some booing at Paris Olympia in March 1960 -
Miles Davis - All of you (live Paris 1960)
Miles loved Coltrane, he liked his harmonic explorations and he liked the contrast he provided to his own more sparse style... he probably also liked the long solos that allowed him to nip off for a drink and a cig and to chat up some beautiful women.

Coltrane's sound was his own, he couldn't have sounded any different if he tried, maybe he wanted to sound more like Dexter Gordon or his mate Sonny Rollins, but he always sounded like Coltrane. It isn't the kind of sound you'd expect from a (modified?) Otto Link and a Selmer Mk VI, but that's what came out of his horn. Maybe the early years as a Parker fanatic alto player and the early exposure to gospel music had an effect - there's a tradition of gospel sax playing which has informed a lot of blackl music - eg Vernard Johnson
"What Is This"- Vernard Johnson
there's certainly a seriousness to Coltrane's playing that some people find a bit 'preacherly' and off putting, but in those days jazz was serious stuff and his grandfather was a baptist minister.

Back in the old days, it was considered essential that you had your own sound and your own style or you'd be dismissed as being a mere copyist.
Jazz developed in an intensely competitive atmosphere of playing 3 sets a night and then going to after hours jam sessions to see if you could outplay the other guys and then getting up the next day and practising more. The melodic improvisation of early jazz became more and more complex as people strove to find solutions to the problem of 'how can we modify these chords and what new things can we find to play over them.'
This early recording with Johnny Hodges in 1954 shows Coltrane playing in a variety of styles including rhythm and blues on 'Castle Rock' -
John Coltrane with Johnny Hodges 1954
He found opportunities to forge his his own path in 1955 when Miles Davis hired him, like on this version of 'Salt Peanuts' from Miles' album Steamin' -
and 'Two Bass Hit' from the 'Milestones' album - YouTube
where he's slowly getting out from under the all pervasive influence of Parker that hung over hard bop.
Hard bop had it's limitations and the 32 bar structure and chord changes became restrictive for some. Miles' popularisation of modal improvisation meant that players could improvise for as long as they wanted on a set of scales instead of having to follow the changes and keep resolving every 32 bars. Prior to this Coltrane had been trying to cram in as much in as possible before the next chord came along, leading to the dense, stacking chords on top of chords, 'sheets of sound' style that reached it's zenith on the albums Giant Steps and My Favourite Things - 'Summertime' illustrates this approach well - John Coltrane - Summertime
and here's the more modal approach from Africa/Brass -
The John Coltrane Quartet - Africa

it was also around this time that Coltrane got into the soprano sax and the 'indian snake charmer tone' evolved.
I have to say that I rarely listen to Coltrane on soprano because I've got thoroughly sick of so many other the soprano players adopting the same nasal tone. In Coltrane's case it's an extension of his tenor sound - slow it down to half speed and you'll hear the similarity between his soprano tone and his tenor sound.
Listening to him now, 'Trane at least shows...
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How come I missed this? This is great, many thanks.
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