Wednesday, July 13, 2011


John Coltrane was one of the most significant saxophonist of all time and along with Charlie Parker the most influential. An important moment in his evolution was when he saw Parker play in 1945. " The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes."

Coltrane played with many people in the 40s and early 50s including Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges. In 1955, while living in Philadelphia he received a call from Miles Davis which lead to the forming of the first great Davis quintet. They recorded many influential albums in this period including Davis' first Columbia album 'Round About Midnight. Four other albums came out of two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956. These records were titled Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin'. The line-up was Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor saxaphone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

In 1957, Coltrane also played with Thelonious Monk at New York's legendary jazz club, The Five Spot. A high-quality tape of a concert given by the quartet surfaced and in 2005, Blue Note released the album, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnagie Hall to wide acclaim.

Also at this time, Coltrane made several recordings for Prestige including Dakar and Soultrane, but the most important recording was made for Blue Note entitled Blue Train in 1957.

Blue Train featured Lee Morgan on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Coltrane wrote four of the five pieces and Moment's Notice and Lazy Bird have become standards. Both tunes employed the first examples of Coltrane's chord substitution cycles, which became known as Coltrane Changes. 

Coltrane rejoined Davis in 1958 and took these innovations into the group that had now expanded into a sextet that included Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans. This period produced the great album Milestones and one of the greatest and most innovative albums of all time Kind of Blue which experimented with modes - scale patterns other than major and minor. Coltrane as well as Adderly and Davis produce many distinguished solos on these albums and the group dynamics are amazing.

Also in 1959, Coltrane recorded Giant Steps which was a watershed album that delivered musical innovation to a large audience. It was one of his first albums for Atlantic and there would be several more to come. Giant Steps exemplifies Coltrane's melodic phrasing that came to be known as sheets of sound and features the use of a new harmonic concept that employed a peculiar set of chord progressions which often move in thirds and became a gateway into modern jazz improvisation. His playing was compressed with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. The ability to play over the Giant Steps/Coltrane cycle remains to this day one of the benchmark standards to which a jazz musician's improvising skill is measured. Giant Steps is also considered Coltrane's farewell to bebop. It contains the jazz standards Naima, Giant Steps, Cousin Mary, and Countdown.

My Favorite Things was also a great Coltrane album on Atlantic and it included McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. It clearly marked Coltrane's change from bebop to free and modal jazz. The album introduces complex harmonic reworkings of the jazz standards My Favorite Things and But Not For Me, and Coltrane played the soprano saxaphone at a time when it was used infrequently in jazz. The title track is a modal rendition of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Sound of Music. The melody is heard several times in the 14-minute version, with both Tyner and Coltrane taking extended solos over vamps of the two tonic chords, E minor and E major. Tyner's solo is famous for being extremely chordal and rhythmic,  as opposed to developing melodies. Coltrane turned the populist song into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance.

In 1961, Coltrane's contract with Atlantic was bought out by the newly formed Impulse! Records. At this time Reggie Workman replaced Steve Davis on bass and a second horn player Eric Dolphy joined the group. The quintet had a residency at the Village Vanguard in November 1961, and it demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. The stint was extensively recorded and it featured Coltrane's most experimental music up to this point. He was inspired by Sun Ra's saxophonist Jon Gillmore after seeing them perform. This new sound was influenced by Indian ragas, and the recent developments in the modal and free jazz movements. This new approach to jazz which was also being played by Ornette Coleman and Dolphy was perplexing and controversial and was not universally accepted by jazz critics. Some even accused them of playing Anti-Jazz. Eventually, Impulse would release the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions and the music is radical, intense, and powerful, and includes the amazing tunes Impressions, India, and Chasin' The Trane.

In 1962, Dolphy departed and Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman on bass. This solidified into the classic quartet which now included Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, and Jones, and started to produce searching and spiritually driven work. Harmonically complex music was still present and onstage Coltrane was constantly reworking his standard repertoire with rhythmic and melodic improvisations.

In contrast to the radicalism of the Vanguard recordings, Coltrane's studio albums in 1962 and 1963 were more conservative and accessible. He recorded an album of ballads and collaborated with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. The one exception was the album Coltrane which featured a blistering version of Out of This World. The live albums of this period balanced the standards with the more exploratory approach which can be seen on Live at Birdland and Coltrane at Newport.

The classic quartet produced their most famous record, A Love Supreme in 1964. Coltrane struggled with drug addiction and was inspired to write A Love Supreme after a near overdose in 1957 which lead him to a more spiritual existence. The album also melds the earlier hard bop influence with the more free and modal jazz style of his later periods. The album is a four-part suite - Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. It is representative of a personal struggle for purity and there is both a gospel and eastern quality to the music. There is a four-note motif that structures the entire movement. Coltrane solos upon variations of the motif and at one point repeats the four notes over and over in different modulations. The final movement is a musical narration of a devotional poem included in the liner notes. Coltrane plays the words of the poem on saxophone and does not actually speak them. It ends with the cry Elation, Elegance, Exaltation. All From God. Thank You God. Amen. A Love Supreme is one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.

A Love Supreme opened the door to more spiritual and exploratory records which were also influenced by avant-garde players like Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and especially Albert Ayler. Coltrane was becoming increasingly abstract, and incorporated multiphonics, overtones, playing in the altissimo register, and mutated versions of his sheets of sound. The evolution of this sound can be traced through the records Coltrane Quartet Plays, Living Space, Transition, New Thing at Newport, Sun Ship, and First Meditations.

In 1965, he went into Rudy Van Gelder's studio with ten other musicians including Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, Marion Brown, and John Tchidai to record Ascension a 40 minute piece that included adventurous solos by all including Coltrane and had collective improvisation sections that separated the solos.

Coltrane invited Pharoah Sanders to join his group who was one of the most abrasive, virtuosic saxophonists playing. Coltrane used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, but Sanders would opt to overblow his entire solo resulting in a constant screaming and screeching in the altissimo range of the instrument which gave him a unique sound that would influence Coltrane.

Rashied Ali joined the group as a second drummer, but Tyner and Jones left at this point, and Coltrane's second wife Alice Coltrane entered the group on piano. The live performances now included 30 minute to one hour performances of the repertoire with Coltrane and Sanders virtually speaking in tongues, while the rhythm section was now more relaxed and had a meditative feel. There are several live albums from this period including Live at The Village Vanguard Again!, Live In Japan, and Live In Seattle. 

In 1967, Coltrane went into the studio several times and they produced the albums Expression, Stellar Regions, and a duet album with Rashied Ali called Interstellar Space.

John Coltrane died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967 at the age of 40. His funeral was opened and closed by the Albert Ayler Quartet and the Ornette Coleman Quartet. 

John Coltrane produced an amazing and ever-evolving music in a relatively short period of time. He explored the saxophone to its full effect and influenced all musicians who encountered his music and innovative and powerful style.

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