| THE GLORIOUS JOHN COLTRANE PT 3 |
In Part 2 we looked at John Coltrane’s departure from mainstream Jazz in 1960, his highly productive two years at Atlantic, the controversial quintet with Eric Dolphy, his signing with Impulse Records and the development of the profoundly important Classic Quartet.
Although this amazing ensemble of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums (with Roy Haynes subbing for Elvin whenever it became necessary), was only together for four years, their output was truly astounding. With nearly three dozen legitimate studio and live albums and dozens more of dubious origin, hardly a two week period of the Quartet’s existence is undocumented.
While the perfect masterpiece “A Love Supreme” was recorded in December 1964, it does not represent the culmination of the Quartet’s magnificent creativity, but rather John Coltrane’s entrance into a dimension of the Sublime - beyond category, above criticism or even question, as a Messenger of ultimate objective Truth.
For another nine months, this incomparable Quartet would continue its evolution to unimaginable levels, while bringing its grandeur and splendor to hundreds of thousands of increasingly devout fans. Casting a previously unseen beacon of light upon the wisdom and beauty of creation, he filled the souls of the multitudes who experienced his music with a spiritual transcendence that will remain with them always.
By the time they entered the studio in August of 1965 for their penultimate recording, “Sun Ship,” they had achieved a level of empathy, communication and understanding among themselves that was well beyond telepathic. It was no longer about compositions, solos, time signatures or any other music fundamental. This was Art of the highest order, a true Music of the Spheres, promising and illuminating an infinity of potential.
In essence, it was the true soundtrack for the Sixties - a time of unlimited possibility marked by a fervent quest for spiritual understanding of the most important questions and issues that have tantalized human intellect for eons.
Experimentation and revolution were fundamental to an era of such overwhelming transition, and like any great transformation, real leadership is essential. Not in the sense of “here’s what we do next, folks” but in the solidity and strength that true Vision provides, establishing a firmament to build upon. Coltrane became that ideal to a new generation of artists in all genres. But even more importantly, he reached beyond artists and the Jazz audience into the general population who often had no basis for comprehending the tradition from which he emerged, but were simply touched very deeply by the power of his message.
To the new generation of Jazz artists working in the area known as the avant-garde, Trane became The Messiah. As an unquestionable master, his embracing of so much of that form’s methodology gave a validity to it, helping to open opportunities for many of its finest purveyors, as well as clearing some otherwise deaf ears. But Trane was learning from the avant-garde as well.
Like all great artists and wise men, Trane had to keep evolving. The perfection of the Quartet aside, as long as Trane was Earthbound, the Quest had to continue. About to enter a phase that would leave even many of his most devoted fans behind, he began experimenting with additional musicians and conceptual ideas both in the studio and in live performances. His addition of avant heavyweight tenorman Archie Shepp for the Chicago Playboy Jazz Festival in August of ’65 raised even greater outrage and confusion than the controversy over Eric Dolphy four years earlier.
Both “Sun Ship” and the final Quartet studio recording, “First Meditations,” were not immediately released. Instead some experimental and audience-perplexing albums were issued, considerable departures from the “standard” Quartet fare. “Kulu se Mama,” “Selflessness” and “Om” featured multiple percussion , chanting and horns added to the Quartet. But most incendiary of all, “Ascension,” a fascinating orchestral onslaught of hardcore collective improvisation and blazingly ardent solos, included some of the most outstanding avant-gardists like Shepp, John Tchicai, Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders among its personnel. All of these extraordinary works have been collected by Impulse in a 2-CD set called “The Major Works of John Coltrane.”
Sanders, who is present on all of these sessions, was soon added to the Quartet. His eyeball-rattling screams, gurgling runs and nuclear blasts of sheer sound made the Dolphy controversy seem gentle. The new quintet’s first release, “Meditations,” showed precisely what Trane had in mind. A great recording, it’s only one of two with this group, the other being “Live in Seattle,” an outstanding 2-CD live set that also features some additional personnel.
More and more frequently, additional musicians kept showing up on gigs to perform with Trane, upsetting promoters and audiences. In truth, more often than not, these were players well below Trane’s level of virtuosity. But that wasn’t what he was looking for. To be pushed, stimulated, driven by some unexpected idea or color or some intangible other, that was the desired effect.
By early 1966, both Elvin and McCoy had departed, leaving Garrison and Pharoah plus Rashied Ali on drums and wife Alice on piano. Performances could go on for hours. Pieces of 50 and 60 minutes in length would meld into each other in a seamless tapestry of overwhelming emotion and mind-blowing intensity -- a juggernaut of unprecedented force and insistence. “Live in Japan,” a 4-CD set on Impulse captures this blazing ensemble at their fiercest and most confrontational. Yet even at its most extreme, Coltrane is still totally musical and in utter, spectacular control.
It was during this Japanese tour, the only one of Trane’s career, that Ali relates an event of extreme significance. At the end of Coltrane’s final solo one night, he put down his horn and began pounding on his chest and howling. When Rashied asked him about it later on, Trane responded simply “I couldn’t think of anything else to play.” One year later, on July 17, 1967 John Coltrane left us.
Since his passing, new materials have continued to surface. The release of the final recordings, “Expression” and “Cosmic Music” have been followed over the years by some extraordinary recordings like “Interstellar Space,” a duet with Rashied; “Stellar Regions,” the first of a promised series of Alice’s’ private recordings, and a seemingly (and hopefully) endless stream of live performances. Each and every one of these recordings are invaluable.
Despite his intention to leave a foundation of freedom to build upon, a void was created by his departure. His unflagging commitment, intensity and spirituality became too daunting in his absence, placing him at a level too unreachable for mortals, and so to too many young Jazz artists he has become a symbol of the unattainable instead of an illuminator of the true path.
Outside of the Jazz world, John Coltrane has become a symbol of enlightenment and a cultural icon to a myriad of creative artists and music listeners. Filmmakers, painters, authors, poets, choreographers, Classical composers, rock musicians, philosophers, along with men and women in all walks of life have drawn deep inspiration and realization through the legacy of this most blessed individual. His message of love, peace and understanding, along with his deep humility in spite of his magnificence. has made him a spiritual leader of biblical proportion. A church in San Francisco has been founded in his name, and to countless others he represents spirituality in its purest essence. The joyous gravity of his musical legacy is the substance of immortality, making him one of the most important men of the 20th century, and in this writer’s opinion, the history of our planet.
Recommended John Coltrane CDs:
A Love Supreme Sun Ship First Meditations The Major Works of John Coltrane Meditations Live in Seattle Live in Japan Expression Cosmic Music Interstellar Space Stellar Regions