As originally published in|
The Atlantic Monthly
What Coltrane Wanted
by Edward Strickland
JOHN COLTRANE died twenty years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work. In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms--blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works.
The closest contemporary analogy to Coltrane's relentless search for possibilities was the Beatles' redefinition of rock from one album to the next. Yet the distance they traveled from conventional hard rock through sitars and Baroque obligatos to Sergeant Pepper psychedelia and the musical shards of Abbey Road seems short by comparison with Coltrane's journey from hard-bop saxist to daring harmonic and modal improviser to dying prophet speaking in tongues.
From Atlantic Unbound:|
Flashbacks: "Jazz at the Crossroads" (February 26, 2003)
Asked by a Swedish disc jockey in 1960 if he was trying to "play what you
hear," he said that he was working off set harmonic devices while experimenting
with others of which he was not yet certain. Although he was trying to "get the
one essential . . . the one single line," he felt forced to play everything,
for he was unable to "work what I know down into a more lyrical line" that
would be "easily understood." Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he
ever to achieve the "more beautiful . . . more lyrical" sound he aspired to. He
complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and
wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In
this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in
success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of
search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.
BORN and raised in North Carolina, Coltrane studied in Philadelphia and after working as a clarinetist in Navy marching and dance bands in 1945-1946 he began a decade of playing with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges, and also such undistinguished rhythm-and-blues artists as King Kolax, Bull Moose Jackson, and Daisy Mae and the Hepcats. He came to wide notice in 1955 in the now legendary Miles Davis Quintet and was immediately acknowledged as an original--or an oddity. Critics who in Coltrane's last years all but waved banners to show their devotion to him were among those casting stones for much of his career. At first many urged Davis to fire the weird tenor, but when, in April of 1957, after a year and a half with the quintet, Coltrane left or was dropped (the truth remains unclear), the reason seems to have been indulgence not in stylistic extremism but in heroin and alcohol, problems he conquered that same year. The controversy had to do not only with his harmonic experimentation, on which Dexter Gordon was initially the chief influence, but with the speed (to some, purely chaotic) of his playing and the jaggedness (to some, unmusical) of his phrasing.
All three characteristics were intensified in 1957 during several months with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, after which he rejoined Davis, who was now experimenting with sparer chord changes, and became fully involved in what Ira Gitler, in Down Beat, called the "sheets of sound" approach. This technique of runs so rapid as to make the notes virtually indistinguishable seems itself to have been a by-product of Coltrane's harmonic exploration. Coltrane spoke of playing the same chord three or four different ways within a measure or overlapping chords before the change, advancing further the investigation of upper harmonic intervals begun by Charlie Parker and the boppers. Attempting to articulate so many harmonic variants before the change, Coltrane was necessarily led to preternatural velocity and occasionally to asymmetrical subdivision of the beat. Despite Davis's suggestion that Coltrane could trim his twenty-seven or twenty-eight choruses if he tried taking the saxophone out of his mouth, Coltrane's attempt "to explore all the avenues" made him the perfect stylistic complement to Davis, with his cooler style, which featured sustained blue notes and brief cascades of sixteenths almost willfully retreating into silence, and also Monk, with his spare and unpredictable chords and clusters. Davis, characteristically, paid the tersest homage, when, on being told that his music was so complex that it required five saxophonists, he replied that he'd once had Coltrane.
Although in the late fifties Coltrane released a number of sessions for Prestige (and, more notably, Blue Train and Giant Steps for Blue Note and Atlantic respectively) in which he was the nominal bandleader, it was really after leaving Davis for the second time, in 1960, shortly after a European tour, that he came into his own as a creative as well as an interpretive force. His first recording session as leader after the break, on October 21, 1960, produced "My Favorite Things," an astonishing fourteen-minute reinterpretation, or overhaul, of the saccharine show tune, which thrilled jazz fans with its Oriental modalism and Atlantic executives with its unexpected commercial success. In it Coltrane revived the straight soprano sax (whose only previous master in jazz had been Sidney Bechet), and in so doing led a generation of young musicians, from Wayne Shorter to Keith Jarrett to Jon Gibson, to explore the instrument. The work remained Coltrane's signature piece until his death (of liver disease) despite bizarre stylistic metamorphoses in the next five and a half years.
Coltrane signed with Impulse Records in April of 1961 and the next month began rehearsing and playing the long studio sessions for Africa/Brass, a large-band experiment with arrangements by his close friend Eric Dolphy. This was in part an extension of the modal experimentation in which he had been involved with Davis in the late fifties, notably on the landmark Kind of Blue. The modal style replaced chordal progressions as the basis for improvisation, with a slower harmonic rhythm and patterns of intervals corresponding only vaguely to traditional major and minor scales. The modal approach proved to be the modulation from bop to free jazz, as is clear in Coltrane's revolutionary use of a single mode throughout "Africa," the piece that takes up all of side one of the album. Just as his prolonged modal solos were emulated by rock guitarists (the Grateful Dead, the Byrds of "Eight Miles High," the unlamented Iron Butterfly, and others), so the astonishing variety Coltrane superimposed on that single F was, according to the composer Steve Reich, a significant, if ostensibly an unlikely, influence on the development of minimalism. The originator of minimalism, La Monte Young, acknowledges the influence of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" on his use of rapid permutations and combinations of pitches on sopranino sax to simulate chords as sustained tones.
From the start, and especially from the opening notes of Coltrane's solo, which bursts forth like a tribal summons, "Africa" is the aural equivalent of a journey upriver. The elemental force of this polyrhythmic modalism was unknown in the popular music that came before it. Coltrane experimented with two bassists--a hint of wilder things to come, as he sought progressively to submerge himself in rhythm. He was later to employ congas, bata, various other Latin and African percussion instruments, and, incredibly, two drummers--incredibly insofar as Coltrane already had, in Elvin Jones, the most overpowering drummer in jazz. The addition of Rashied Ali to the drum corps, in November of 1965, made for a short-lived collaboration or, rather, competition between Jones and Ali; a disgruntled Jones left the Coltrane band in March of 1966 to join Duke Ellington's. But it was the culmination of Coltrane's search for the rhythmic equivalent of the oceanic feeling of visionary experience. Having employed the gifted accompanists McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison during the years of the "classic quartet" (late 1961 to mid-1965), Coltrane tended to subordinate them, preferring that his accompanists play spare wide-interval chords and a solid rather than showy bass, which would permit him a maximum of flexibility as a soloist. Coltrane would often take long solos accompanied only by his drummer, and in his penultimate recording session, which produced the posthumous Interstellar Space, he is supported only by Ali. Solo sax against drums (against may be all too accurate a word to describe Coltrane's concert duets with the almost maniacal Jones) was Coltrane's conception of naked music, the lone voice crying not in the wilderness but from some primordial chaos. His music evokes not only the jungle but all that existed before the jungle.
COLTRANE'S spiritual concerns led him to a study of Indian music, some elements of which are present in the album Africa/Brass and more of which are in the cut from the album Impressions titled "India," which was recorded in November of 1961. The same month saw the birth of "Spiritual," featuring exotic and otherworldly solos by Coltrane on soprano sax and Dolphy on bass clarinet. Recorded at the Village Vanguard, the piece made clear, if any doubts remained, that Coltrane was attempting to raise jazz from the saloons to the heavens. No jazzman had attempted so overtly to offer his work as a form of religious expression. If Ornette Coleman was, as some have argued, the seminal stylistic force in sixties avant-garde jazz, Coltrane's Eastern imports were the main influence on the East-West "fusion" in the jazz and rock of the late sixties and afterward. In his use of jazz as prayer and meditation Coltrane was beyond all doubt the principal spiritual force in music.
This is further evident in "Alabama," a riveting elegy for the victims of the infamous Sunday-morning church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Here, as in the early version of his most famous ballad, "Naima," Coltrane is as spare in phrasing as he is bleak in tone. That tone, criticized by many as hard-edged and emotionally impoverished, is inseparable from Coltrane's achievement, conveying as it does a sense of absolute purity through the abnegation of sentimentality. Sonny Rollins, the contemporary tenor most admired by Coltrane, always had a richer tone, and Coltrane himself said of the mellifluous Stan Getz, "Let's face it--we'd all sound like that if we could." Despite these frequent and generous tributes, Coltrane's aim was different, as is clear in his revival of the soprano sax. Rather than lushness he sought clarity and incisiveness. As with pre-nineteenth-century string players, the rare vibrato was dramatic ornamentation.
Coltrane's religious dedication, which as much as his music made him a role model, especially but by no means exclusively among young blacks, is clearest of all in the album titled A Love Supreme, recorded in late 1964 with Tyner, Jones, and Garrison. The album appeared in early 1965 to great popular and critical acclaim and remains generally acknowledged as Coltrane's masterpiece. In a sense, though, it is stylistically as much a summation as a new direction, for its modalism and incantatory style recall "Spiritual," "India," and the world-weary lyricism of his preceding and still underrated album, Crescent. Within months Coltrane was to shift his emphasis from incantation to the freer-form glossolalia of his last period--a transition evident in a European concert performance of A Love Supreme in mid-1965.
Meditations, recorded a year after A Love Supreme, is the finest creation of the late Coltrane, and possibly of any Coltrane. It may never be as accessible as A Love Supreme, but it is the more revolutionary and compelling work. While some of the creations of Coltrane's last two years are all but amorphous, Meditations succeeds not only for the transcendental force it shares with A Love Supreme but by virtue of the contrasts among the shamanistic frenzy of Coltrane and fellow tenor Pharoah Sanders in the opening movement "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" and elsewhere, the sense of stoic resignation and perseverance in the solos of Garrison and Tyner, and the repeated, spiraling phrases of yearning in Coltrane's "Love" and the concluding "Serenity." This unity, encompassing radical stylistic and affective diversity, is the unique feature of Meditations, even in relation to its Ur-version for quartet, which has an additional and quite obtrusive movement. Nothing that came after Meditations approached it in structural complexity and subtlety.
These may be the missing ingredients in the music of Coltrane's final period. The drummer Elvin Jones said, "Only poets can understand it," though maybe only mystics could, for until his final album Coltrane seemingly forsook lyricism for an unfettered quest for ecstasy. The results remain virtually indescribable, and they forestall criticism with the furious directness of their energy. Yet their effect depends more on the abandonment of rationality, which most listeners achieve only intermittently if at all. In fact, it may be the listener himself who is abandoned, for it seems clear that Coltrane is no longer primarily concerned with a human audience. His final recording of "My Favorite Things" and "Naima," at the Village Vanguard in 1966, uses the musical texts as springboards to visionary rhapsody--almost, in fact, as pretexts. All songs become virtually interchangeable, and there is really no point any longer in requests. The only favorite thing he is playing about now is salvation. Coltrane's second wife, Alice, who had by then replaced Tyner as the group's pianist, has remarked, "Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions." This may be their glory and their limitation, the latter progressively more evident in the uninspired emulation by the so-called "Coltrane machines" who followed the last footsteps of the master, and also in the current dismissal of free jazz as a dead end by both jazz mainstreamers and the experimental composer Anthony Davis (who nonetheless recently used Coltrane as a model in the "Mecca" section of his opera X).
The last album that Coltrane recorded was Expression, in February and March of 1967. The album has an aura of twilight, of limbo, particularly in the piece "To Be," in which Coltrane and Sanders play spectral flute and piccolo respectively. The sixteen ametrical minutes of "To Be," which could readily have added to its title the second part of Hamlet's question, are as eerie as any in music.
The most striking characteristic of the album is its sense of consummation, which is clear in the abandonment of developmental structure and often bar divisions, and in the phantasmal rather than propulsive lines that pervade the work. There had always been in Coltrane a profound tension between the pure virtuosity of his elongated phrases and the high sustained cries or eloquent rests that followed. The cries, wails, and shrieks remain in Expression but they are subsumed by the hard-won simplicity that predominates in the album--the lyricism not of "the one essential" line he had sought seven years earlier and never found but one born of courageous resignation. Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. Coltrane seems to suggest here that music in turn aspires to the condition of silence.
Those who criticize Coltrane's virtuosic profusion are of the same party as those who found Van Gogh's canvases "too full of paint"--a criticism Henry Miller once compared to the dismissal of a mystic as "too full of God." In Coltrane, sound--often discordant, chaotic, almost unbearable--became the spiritual form of the man, an identification perhaps possible only with a wind instrument, with which the player is of necessity fused more intimately than with strings or percussion. This physical intimacy was all the more intense for his characteristically tight embouchure, the preternatural duration and complexity of his phrases, and his increasing use of overblowing techniques. The whole spectrum of Coltrane's music--the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalic shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet--is at root merely a suffering man's breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is "breathing upon." This country has not produced a greater musician.
Copyright © 1987 by Edward Strickland. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1987; "What Coltrane Wanted"; Volume 260, No. 6; pages 100-102.