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John Coltrane



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        John Coltrane is my favorite of all jazz musicians.  In my book, it just doesn't get any better than this! Trane is probably one of the 4 most influential saxophone players (along with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins) ever. Trane, unlike many jazz men, did not show his amazing talents when he was young.  He started developing into the phenomenal player in his late 20s and early 30s.  At this time, in the mid 1950s, he joined Miles Davis' first legendary quintet (with "Philly" Joe Jones, Red Garland, and Paul Chambers). Many critics blasted the selection of Coltrane, wanting Miles to choose Sonny Rollins instead. However, Miles being Miles, and not a critic, had insight and saw Coltrane's potential. Coltrane used a style of playing a flurry of notes, which was a nice balance to Miles' use of space (the opposite).

          Miles fired Coltrane from his band because Trane's heroin addiction was affecting his performance on the band stand. Coltrane went back to his home in Philadelphia and resolved to kick his drug habit.  He had his wife and mother lock him in a room and give him only bread and water.  He overcame his drug habit, and had a religious experience, that he never went into great detail about.  All he said is that he experienced God.   He later said that he told God if he would free him from his drug habit, he would try to make people happy through his music.  From this point on, Trane became a man obsessed (Miles commented that he was so focused on his music, that while on the bandstand, you could put a naked woman in front of Coltrane while he was playing and Trane wouldn't notice :).  He joined Thelonious Monk's band for a legendary 6 month stint and learned a lot from Monk.  During this period, Coltrane used a technique that was called "Sheets of Sound."  If you read 100 different sources, it seems like you get 100 different definitions.  One of the best explanations I heard of it, was that a lot of soloist reach a certain intense peak during their solos.  However, Trane would play such a flurry of notes and play  so intensely, that you would think he reached his peak, and then he would hit you with even MORE intensity, and it kept growing, and the effect was like waves of intensity, or sheets of sound, coming at you.

        Miles hired him back, and the group reached even greater heights.  During this time, Miles started using modal jazz, and this greatly influenced Coltrane.  In 1959, Coltrane played on two of the greatest jazz recordings of all-time:  Giant Steps (his own recording) and Kind of Blue (with Miles Davis).  On Giant Steps, Trane took Bebop/Hard Bop to it's natural conclusion, by shoving more (and complex) chord changes into the song than ever before.  On Kind of Blue, the chord changes are very slow, because it is modal, and Coltrane plays some beautiful melodic solos.  His solo on the song Blue In Green is one of the most beautiful slow-tempo solos I have ever heard.  Coltrane was starting to go into a different musical direction than Miles and was looking to lead his own band in order to explore his ideas.  They stayed together for one last legendary concert in Europe, and fortunately, bootlegged copies of the Stockholm concerts were made.  Now, they are available as legal imports.  In this, you can hear Coltrane's solos starting to become longer.  This rubbed Miles the wrong way, since Miles didn't go for long solos.  Coltrane was exploring new ideas on stage, and his solos were increasing because of it.  He once apologized to Miles saying, "I can't stop playing."  Miles responded, "Try taking the horn out of your mouth."  Before they parted ways, Miles gave Trane a Soprano Saxophone.  Coltrane really took to the instrument and in 1960, he recorded another classic, My Favorite Things.   On this recording, Trane went into his modal jazz period.  He also took the title track composed by Rogers and Hammerstein, and turned it into a very hip jazz song, and it became a huge hit for him.  It also sparked a revolution of interest in the Soprano Saxophone and Coltrane became the most influential player on the instrument since Sidney Bichet.  Another milestone on this recording was the use of Indian (not Native American) musical styles in his music.  The result was trance-like at times!

        Coltrane put together a legendary quartet of fellow-visionary musicians:  Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and McCoy Tyner on piano.  They signed with Impulse Records and for 4 years, Coltrane continued exploring modal jazz.  His first recording on Impulse, Africa Brass, used elements of African rhythms in jazz.  Coltrane's groups gave some of the most intense live performances in jazz at this time, as Trane started exploring on the bandstand and stretched his solos out, routinely going over 30 minutes, and one that was reported to have gone on for 2 hours!  He brought on Eric Dolphy, the saxophonist/flutist/bass clarinetist for a short while, and they started pushing the limits of jazz.  Coltrane's music started polarizing the jazz community into those who loved his music and those who loathed it.  In 1963, Coltrane recorded a classic piece, Alabama, which is his musical interpretation of how he felt when he learned of a church bombing in Alabama that killed some young black children.  In 1964, Coltrane's quartet (Dolphy was no longer there) recorded the masterpiece A Love Supreme, which Coltrane called his "thank you gift to God."  During this time, Coltrane did the rare by being a trailblazing artist AND a hugely popular seller of records.

        After 1964, he started exploring free jazz and for the last 3 years of his life, moved musically in this direction.  He recorded another classic, Ascension, which I cannot comment on, since I do not have it.  Coltrane became the figurehead for the free jazz movement, bringing on many young players and giving them exposure.  His support of free jazz players, such as Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler helped legitimize free jazz in the minds of some skeptics.  In his own group, he replaced Jones and Tyner  with Rashied Ali (drums) and his wife Alice Coltrane (piano).  His music continued to polarize the jazz community, but Coltrane, like Miles, was the kind to not rest on his laurels, but rather, was always searching and exploring new forms of music.  He died too young, at the age of 40 of liver cancer.  Many people believe that he did not live long enough to turn out free jazz works that are comparable to his hard bop and modal works.  Personally, I am not much of a fan of Coltrane's free work.  A little bit goes a long way with me.  Also, I really do not like and appreciate Coltrane's sidemen (and woman) after the original quartet broke up.   Many say that when John Coltrane died in 1967, free jazz died with him.

        Coltrane's music is very visceral.  It's hard to describe accurately:  It's not fun, happy music (nor is it dark and brooding).  It's very deep and very intellectual.  It moves me in ways that no other jazz music does.  He had a sound that was very unique.  It wasn't a light, fluffy cool jazz tenor.  It had a harder edge to it.  It was perfect for his blazing fast solos, and he made his horn sound beautiful on ballads.  

        If you are interested in checking out Coltrane's music, here are some tips:  I steer clear of any John Coltrane CD recorded after 1964.  If you flip over any Coltrane CD and look at the back, you will see a recording date.  Very important to look at this date and not the "publishing date" (it looks like a copy write date, except you see a "P" in the circle).  After this year (1964), he started going into Free Jazz, a dissonant type of music that doesn't really tickle my fancy.  Coltrane was no less a phenomenal player, but it can be a hard music to get into, because of the dissonance.  There is too much intestinal "squawking" and random blowing for my tastes.  Any Coltrane CD on the Prestige, Blue Note, and Atlantic recording labels are ok.  On the Impulse label, anything before 1964 is safe.  Some good ones to check out are Blue Train, Soul Trane, and Lush Life.  If you like it, you might try Giant Steps, A Love Supreme, and My Favorite Things.  If you want to hear Coltrane playing slower music, check out his Ballads album. 

To see my John Coltrane collage click here  Feel free to download it.   If you put it on your site, please link my site as the credit.

To learn more about John Coltrane, check out these sites:

The 'Trane Station
A Love Supreme
Trane - sound clips available.

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