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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' -
[IMAGE_RIGHT]
View: http://youtu.be/dCoGXMr-FOI[/IMAGE_RIGHT]

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 -
View: http://youtu.be/gkVuU6G9h6o

and a selection of stuff from the 'Ballads' album which showed that Coltrane wasn't serious and heavy all the time -
View: http://youtu.be/rA1EZAZCq4Y


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 -
View: http://youtu.be/DL1G7JbEztg
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 -
View: http://youtu.be/1mZ8F1Y56Gg

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' -
YouTube
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 that he can really play the thing and isn't just dabbling -
'India' from the album 'Impressions' John Coltrane Sextet at the Village Vanguard - India
this was 6 years before the Beatles made indian music trendy.

... Part 2...

Interest in non western culture amongst artists and musicians had been growing in the 50's, a decade before hippy culture emerged, and for musicians interested in modes, Arabic and Indian music is an area rich in interesting scales (eg What is a Raga? Scales in Indian Classical Music - Sadhana's Raag-Hindustani), not to mention interesting rhythms.
The accompanying interest in non western spirituality may be explained by a quest to find something more sustainable and wholesome than the drink and drug abuse that had blighted the lives of so many jazz musicians, as well as trying to enter into mental states of calmness conducive to being creative.
Some folks seem to find it a bit off putting to have music with quasi mystical sounding titles, but it's only music, it can't harm you or force you to start burning incense, wear sandals or hug trees

Something that may have you getting out the smelling salts is the latter few years of Coltrane's playing when the influence of 'free jazz' made itself felt.
'Free Jazz' is a complete misnomer since almost all of it has written themes and organisational structural devices of some kind, but it's the name which has stuck, so for lack of any other term, I'll use it to denote a certain way of playing. To clarify, the musicians involved were seeking more freedom to improvise and express themselves in different ways, but it was not meant to be total chaos - you still have to play something that fits in with what everyone else is doing and suits the mood of the piece, so more listening and responding and less staring at The Real Book.
Free jazz evolved in the late 50's and 60's in response to the limitations of the bebop methodology - the great american song book and repetitive chord changes were all very well, but once you've done it thousands of times it all starts sounding the same and there comes a point where something else might be more rewarding.
Ornette Coleman discarded all that and went back to the melody as the structure - if the tune's called 'Lonely Woman' let's improvise on the theme of loneliness - I'm simplifying, but I think that's the kind of thing he was up to, each tune would be improvised on as a tune and not just be formulaic scales over chords ad nauseum. The musicians were free to improvise their own harmonic, melodic and rhythmic responses to the written music, which takes a lot of skill and ingenuity to do well.
This freer approach shook up the jazz world and people like Leonard Bernstein could be seen kneeling on the front of the stage listening intently to what Ornette's band were up to and most of New York's elite jazz musicians went to find out what was going on. Some like Miles and Mingus were publicly disdainful, while they quietly adopted some of Ornette's tactics for their own music.
Coltrane was fascinated by the avant garde, he recorded an album in 1960 with Ornette's band and 3 of Ornette's compositions are on it. Here's 'Focus On Sanity' - John Coltrane - Focus On Sanity
and here's Ornette's version - Ornette Coleman - Focus On Sanity.
Coltrane supported the avant garde in other ways by letting younger musicians sit in with his band, frequently hassling his record label to sign them up and even supporting some of them financially.
Another influence on Coltrane at that time was John Gilmore of Sun Ra's Arkestra. It's possible Coltrane may also have met Ra a couple of times and got some advice from him.
Despite all this, Coltrane was hesitant to play free jazz, maybe he felt that it might not go down well and he had the responsibility of keeping his band in regular employment. 1965 seems to have been the time when he started to move into that area, at least in public -
here's the quartet in April 1965 at the Half Note - John Coltrane Quartet, Half Note, April 2, 1965

'Ascension' is usually hailed by critics as a landmark album in Coltrane's development John Coltrane - Ascension (full album) (1080p)
the addition of avant garde sax players players Marion Brown, John Tchicai, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders certainly upped the ante, but I find it to be an unsatisfying listen. The shortage of rehearsal time results in a lack of group unity and the cooperative collective nature of some of the best free jazz isn't really there.
I prefer 'Selflessness' from the 'Kulu Se Mama' sessions with Juno Lewis on percussion, Pharoah on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass clarinet -
John Coltrane - Selflessness
Coltrane continued to add Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Carlos Ward and others to his band on gigs, but the addition of an extra drummer, Rashied Ali, was too much for Elvin Jones and he quit, followed by pianist McCoy Tyner. Coltrane's wife Alice, an accomplished pianist, joined and Pharoah Sanders became a permanent member of the group. From what I've read, I think Coltrane was hoping to have a group that encompassed both the older 'classic quartet' style of playing and the newer free jazz stuff, but when Elvin and McCoy left he only had the free jazz band.

I don't know when Coltrane found out that he had cancer of the liver, but it's my suspicion that the frantic nature of some of his playing in those last 2 years may be due to an urgent desire to play as much as possible before the end.
There is a feeling that he's trying to play more than one solo at the same time on some of his last recordings, Interstellar Space gets a bit like that -
John Coltrane - Leo
and there are hints of it here on the sessions that came out as 'Stellar Regions' - John Coltrane - Sun Star
He died in 1967 aged 40. Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler played at his funeral - Albert Ayler Quartet - Love Cry, Truth Is Marching In, Our Prayer

John Coltrane seems to have been a nice bloke, somewhat at odds with the image some people seem to have of his music sounding angry. He just had a lot he wanted to say and too little time to say it in. Intensity isn't always angry or painful, but some people can't deal with that amount of sincerity.

One anecdote I like about him is related by Anthony Braxton in the book 'Forces In Motion' -
"I saw a woman come into a club and with the hook of her umbrella try to grab him around the arm while he was playing with the quartet. I could have killed that woman!! But after the set, when she came up to scold him for playing this loud crazy music, he was so kind to her, so understanding. I could not believe it"

if you're interested in more...
here's an old documentary about Coltrane -
http://youtu.be/BOJj4YXWPLI

and Dave Liebman's article is worth a read - http://www.daveliebman.com/webyep-s...emanager/files/documents/Liebman_Coltrane.pdf

this transcript of a talk given by Evan Parker is interesting -
Evan Parker on John Coltrane
Evan Parker on John Coltrane

I'm loathe to start recommending albums to listen to, your tastes will differ, but here's a few that I like -
Blue Train, Africa Brass, Ballads, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, Live At The Village Vanguard, Live At Birdland - if you really get into his live performances, Live At The Half Note is good and the various radio recordings from european tours are worth a listen. I like the one's with Eric Dolphy in the band - he provides a nice contrast to all the seriousness from Coltrane
There's a live album from the 1960 European tour with Miles Davis from Stockholm on the 22nd March that I remember being excellent. This stuff gets reissued on so many different labels I couldn't say what the currently available release is.
I prefer First Meditations to A Love Supreme and Sunship is also a nice album from that period, before the free jazz thing got too intense
Kulu Se Mama is about as far as you may want to go in the free jazz stuff. If you can get through all 4 discs of Live In Japan, you're doing well, or are on heavy 'medication'.. or you're just a free jazz fanatic like me - I look forward to the Live At Temple University 1966 double disc coming out in september..
if you have an aversion to all things spiritual, you may want to avoid Om or Cosmic Music in case the chanting brings you out in a new age rash

I'm not too familiar with many of Coltrane's 50's recordings for Prestige - he played on a lot of stuff - the Miles albums from that era can be good - Steamin,' Cookin,' Relaxin' etc - and I think 'Whims Of Chambers' by Paul Chambers is worth a listen.
I think a lot of that 50's stuff may be out of copyright now, so you can probably pick it up cheap or listen to it on Spotify or Youtube etc

Enjoy... (?)
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