THE GLORIOUS JOHN COLTRANE PT 2
In Part 1 we looked at Trane’s early days - the Philly scene, early sideman gigs, his first stint with Miles, his Prestige recordings, the legendary Five Spot engagement with Monk and his return to Miles’ group with Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans. All of these events were simply preparation for his ultimate destiny as the profound musical and spiritual visionary whose incredible career not only epitomized the Sixties, but also provided a deep and permanent inspiration for future artists in all disciplines.
Always a man searching for Truth, John Coltrane began his spiritual education in the late 40s. His continued studies of Sufi philosophy, the Koran, Krishnamurti and various philosophies and religions, coupled with a burning curiosity toward other musical cultures and creators like Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan, Bartok and Stravinsky all contributed heavily to the struggle for enlightenment that would dominate the remainder of his time on this planet and make him one of the most influential men of all time.
On the inside liner of John Coltrane’s incomparable classic “A Love Supreme” is his deeply moving poem dedicating the music to the Creator. He also speaks of a spiritual reawakening in 1957, setting him on the proper path once again, an oblique reference to overcoming his demon dependencies, but more importantly to conquering the spiritual malaise that makes those dependencies so powerful.
From that point on, Trane’s music began an ascension of unprecedented and nearly unfathomable transcendence. While his playing with Monk in 1957 gave clear evidence of his spiritual reawakening , continuing in his final Prestige 1958 recordings and more so with Miles’ Sextet in 1959, things came to a head with the release of his classic “Giant Steps” in early 1960. As wonderful as it is, the fact that he had “outgrown” even the extraordinary sidemen on that album was undeniable.
From 1958 to 1960, Trane’s experiments and search brought him together with other Truthseekers like George Russell, Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry in his quest for further clarity and direction. His 1960 recordings (mostly bootlegs) of various European and U.S. live dates with Miles display the restlessness and intensity of a man trying to free himself from an inexplicable confinement. His volcanic solos, burning with a feverish passion and filled with stunning flurries and clusters of notes confounded many listeners and musicians, resulting in the now-legendary exchange between Trane and Miles.
Responding to Miles’ complaint about the quantity of notes and length of his solos, Trane said that it just came out of him and he couldn’t stop it. Miles’ raspy response: “Take the horn out of your mouth.” Fortunately for all of us, Trane didn’t listen to him, but it was clearly time to move on and find the right collaborators for his search. Later that same year two of the pieces fell into place with pianist McCoy Tyner and the amazing Elvin Jones, who would become his most important musical partner, a virtual alter-ego whose poly-rhythmic intensity and vision were the perfect match for Coltrane’s ardent explorations.
For their first recording, “My Favorite Things,” Coltrane also added a new instrument that would become a permanent part of his future work, the soprano saxophone. Eschewing the warmth and vibrato of Sidney Bechet for the sinuous and snake-like intensity of Eastern double-reed instruments like the shenai of Indian Master Bismillah Khan, Trane brought the little-used instrument into a prominent position in Jazz. It also made “My Favorite Things” a huge hit.
Like newfound soulmates unable to leave the bedroom for anything other than the most basic sustenance, this group was unable to leave the studio, producing two more albums over the same six day period, “Coltrane’s Sound” and the delightful “Coltrane Plays the Blues.” The latter clearly indicating that no matter how far his quest had taken him, Trane remained a master of the Blues form, as pure and essential as a heartbeat.
Despite the new personnel, these recordings were only a subtle departure from his previous recordings. Abetted by the security of sympathetic and committed collaborators, Trane decided to add another voice. After consideration of both trumpeter Lee Morgan and guitarist Wes Montgomery, he chose the astonishing Eric Dolphy. With his explosively personal voice on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, electrifying virtuosity and adventurous vision, Eric had been terrifying fans, critics and musicians alike. Employing impossible intervals, scalding passion and brain-scorching intensity, Dolphy was the perfect addition to the ensemble, spurring Trane to unimaginable heights over the protests of many, including some of his own sidemen. Nevertheless, Dolphy’s presence on Trane’s wonderful final Atlantic recording, “Olé” and his startling arrangements for “Africa/Brass,” Coltrane’s s first recording for the new upstart label Impulse, proved that something original and deeply exciting was on the way.
With Reggie Workman on bass, this devastating new quintet began to leave a trail of scorched earth, critical outrage and changed souls throughout America, culminating in a week at the New York City landmark, the Village Vanguard. In preparation for their European tour, most of the week was recorded by Impulse and is now available as “The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings,” a beautifully produced 4-CD set.
Many recordings of the European dates have surfaced over the years - some legit, others not; some with good sound, others not - and it’s fascinating to hear the nightly development of this heavenly group. Though Dolphy stayed with Trane less than a year, his impact was extreme, pushing Trane to the furthest reaches of his unsurpassed creativity. Taking the notion of call and response to its maximum with extended solo exchanges that built into a white-hot frenzy of dervish-like fervor, this music is pure joy and totally accessible. Bizarrely, critics branded this music of love and spirituality made by a group of extremely gentle men as angry, demonic, arhythmic, chaotic and anti-jazz. Nothing could be further from the truth.
With Jimmy Garrison taking over on bass and the departure of Dolphy in early 1962, the incarnation of one of the most potent forces in the known history of Art occurred - the classic Quartet. Working similar territory and playing many of the same compositions, the Quartet commanded both popular and critical acceptance. This was due partly to the era of the Sixties, where innovation, adventure, spiritual awareness, cultural enlightenment, ecumenism and general reassessment were the way of the day. But even more so, the sheer majesty of the music became undeniable. Although some were crushed by the sheer weight of the music’s content, everyone who heard it was touched in some deep and exceedingly meaningful way.
Again, as with the earlier quintet, the development of the Quartet can be traced through a series of live recordings, EVERY one (with levels, of course) a masterpiece of brilliant musicianship unparalleled power, resounding Truth and passionately indescribable joy. The immediacy and urgency of the live performances aside though, during these same years the recording studio of the great Rudy Van Gelder was permanently transformed into a cathedral through a continuing series of Impulse recording sessions.
Including everything from the breathtakingly beautiful “Ballads” to the impossibly perfect “A Love Supreme,” along with gems like “Crescent” “Sun Ship,” “Transition” and “First Meditations”, “The Classic Quartet - Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings,” a magnificent 8-disc set is absolutely positively and unquestionably essential.
But perfection ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. In Part 3 we will look at the Quartet experiments and Trane’s final stage, which would leave even some of his most loyal followers behind.
Recommended CDs :
A Love Supreme Giant Steps My Favorite Things Coltrane Sound Coltrane Plays the Blues Olé The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings Ballads Crescent Sun Ship Transition First Meditations The Classic Quartet - Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings