[JPL] Coltrane 101: Echoes of a Giant

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 8 16:25:14 EDT 2006


September 8, 2006
Critic’s Notebook
Coltrane 101: Echoes of a Giant 
JAZZ AT LINCOLN CENTER’S more ambitious concerts,
while playing to an audience impressed by flash and
smoothness, never completely lose their pedantic side;
they’re always functioning in part as lessons. But
sometimes that doesn’t sound so appealing. The cost of
living is rising faster than salaries, and now even
pleasure is work? And whose jazz history is this,
anyway? Doesn’t jazz activate a loose, adaptable kind
of intelligence that teaches you to be suspicious of
someone else’s agenda? 

I guess the pedagogical aspect can be a drag if you
don’t feel close to what’s being played, or if the
momentum of the performance falls off. On the other
hand, that teaching mission is always a great strength
of Jazz at Lincoln Center. It reminds you, in an
increasingly sponsored-up arts environment, that there
are goals beyond corporate branding. 

So let’s approach Jazz at Lincoln Center’s opening
concerts of the new season, a series of shows based on
the music of John Coltrane on the 80th anniversary of
his birth, as beginner classes. If you buy a ticket,
you’re likely to learn something no matter what.
You’ll learn much more if you do a little preparation.
Jazz at Lincoln Center has provided us with a working
list of the music to be played; think of this article
an annotated homework assignment, to be supplemented
if possible with some extra-credit listening on your
own. Don’t be alarmed. You have a week to prepare.

The Legacy

Next week, Thursday through Saturday at the Rose
Theater, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln
Center Orchestra will present “Coltrane,” a program of
his pieces originally recorded between 1957 and 1963.
Some will be expanded for big band; in the concerts’
second half some pieces will be played by smaller
breakout units within the orchestra. 

Meanwhile, at the Allen Room in the Jazz at Lincoln
Center complex, Kevin Mahogany will be singing
nightclub sets with a backing quartet, drawing from
the album “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman.” And in
the following months various other nightclubs and
concert producers will be putting on worthwhile
concerts built around Coltrane. 

The repertory for the Lincoln Center shows has
doubtless been chosen to break down Coltrane into his
various strengths: his kind of blues, his kind of
modal jazz, his ballad styles and his superstudious
paradigmatic pieces, stuffed with quickly moving
chords. This encapsulates the official Coltrane, the
period that brooks few arguments about its merits. 

As far as Coltrane’s later work — mid-1965 to 1967
(when he died) — that music is alive from within and
mysterious from without, and perhaps it’s better
celebrated by other musicians anyway. (The
accompanying list of highlights includes other
concerts, including one by his widow, Alice Coltrane,
that might do the job.) But let’s not get hung up on
this issue. The works to be played next week are
suggestive pieces that have meant a lot to the last
few generations of jazz musicians, and there is much
to make of them.

The Early Works

Born in 1926, Coltrane grew up in Hamlet and High
Point, N.C., moving to Philadelphia after high school;
the top of the second-tier jazz towns in the
Northeast, it was his home base as he worked through
roadhouses across the country, apprenticing with
bandleaders like Eddie (Cleanhead) Vinson, Johnny
Hodges and Dizzy Gillespie. 

When Coltrane made the album “Blue Train” in 1957, for
Blue Note, he was 30 and had only one album out under
his own name. By that year Sonny Rollins, the
saxophonist perceived as his rival, had already made a
dozen, and he was four years younger. “Blue Train” was
the newly pulled-together Coltrane, after an
entanglement with drugs and drinking, and a long
period in music spent learning, faltering and

“Moment’s Notice,” a piece from “Blue Train” on the
Rose Theater program, is an unusual and quickly moving
set of chord changes, and soloing through it can
challenge improvisers. Double that for “Giant Steps,”
which has also made it into the Rose Theater set list.

In “Giant Steps” the chord changes arrive even faster:
once every other beat. Coltrane worked obsessively on
“Giant Steps” and the whole harmonic theory behind it.
But he had his doubts about it, finding it too
mechanical, and seldom performed it thereafter. The
tune has accrued weight over time as a finger-buster,
an étude to prove one’s facility with harmony. 

A clip that appeared on YouTube last month shows the
song apparently being played by a robot, blowing air
through the tenor saxophone, with machine hands
fingering the keys. The robot, if it is a robot,
sounds pretty good playing it. 

At a certain point, about 1961, Coltrane’s name became
shorthand for the idea of cultural rarefaction. You
might remember Coltrane references in movies like
Woody Allen’s “Alice” or Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better
Blues,” or from books like Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a
Great Notion”: they propose Coltrane as a kind of
sacred mystery, an unparsable source of enlightenment.
But he was a down-home character too, and the raw
country sound was always with him.

That’s the unique and spooky thing about Coltrane: his
stolidity, and his deep countryness. In photographs,
distinct from the hard-shell hipster urbanites around
him, his eyes register the same note of guileless
concentration that you see in Walker Evans’s pictures
of farm families from the 30’s. 

The Bluesman

The lovely title track from “Blue Train” was just the
beginning of a family of original blues pieces. The
album “Coltrane Plays the Blues,” recorded a little
more than three years later, has proven weirdly
resistant to age. Lesser known within the Atlantic
Records period that produced the albums “Giant Steps”
and “My Favorite Things,” it is beautiful for its
new-old kind of blues, a more droning, largely
major-key, easy-tempo, antique-sounding kind than the
ambitious bebop blues tunes circulating through jazz
of the 1950’s. (“Mr. Knight,” from “Coltrane Plays the
Blues,” is scheduled to be part of the Rose Theater

“Coltrane Plays the Blues” doesn’t collect all
Coltrane’s blues pieces of that period: among others,
there’s the Moby-Dick of them all, “Chasin’ the
Trane,” from “John Coltrane Live at the Village
Vanguard,” recorded in November 1961. 

“Chasin’ the Trane,” also on the Rose Theater list, is
a blues in F, and a 16-minute spell of off-the-cuff,
cropped statements that eventually roll out into long,
precise, stirring improvisations. Bach-like in
hardness and precision, these lines gobble up the
horn, jumping all over it within single phrases. 

There are bootleg recordings preceding it that give
the general idea — I cherish one from the Sutherland
Lounge in Chicago, eight months earlier — but this
performance is the first well-known indication of the
greatness of Coltrane’s band, with the bassist Jimmy
Garrison and the drummer Elvin Jones. (This is not to
ignore the pianist McCoy Tyner, but he drops out for
“Chasin the Trane,” to make the band a trio.) 

The Romantic

In his time Coltrane had no peer as a player of
romantic ballads; he learned from Johnny Hodges, the
master of that form. For his first wife, he wrote
“Naima,” which is on the Rose Theater set list.
Perhaps it’s the insistent pedal tone, grounding
everything, or the wide intervals, or the rich
harmony; but “Naima” almost reinvented this type of
tune in jazz, building on Hodges saxophone showcases
like Duke Ellington’s “Warm Valley” yet intimating
something deeper, a kind of contemplative,
I’ll-see-you-in-the-next-world feeling. 

Shortly, though, Coltrane moved on and started making
a new and different kind of ballad, hymnlike songs
with ancient and slightly tragic overtones. And in the
tradition of jazz musicians who made sure they knew
the lyrics to a song before playing it on the horn —
Lester Young, for the best example — he began writing
his own texts to base the ballads on, imitating the
rhythm of how the words might be spoken. 

The culmination of this approach was the “Psalm”
portion of “A Love Supreme.” But the Jazz at Lincoln
Center Orchestra has chosen instead something equally
powerful: “Alabama,” which was recorded in the studio
but came out on the LP “Coltrane Live at Birdland.” It
was recorded two months after the bombing of a Baptist
Church in Birmingham, Ala.; within that time the
suspect, a Klansman named Robert Chambliss, was found
not guilty and received a small fine and a six-month
sentence for possessing the dynamite. 

The first part of Coltrane’s “Alabama” sounds as if it
were through-written, its phrases a little unnatural;
it has been long suspected that it is tied to a
written text, though none has been found. At the
middle comes an easy-swinging improvised portion, less
than a minute long, and then the re-entrance of that
strange theme. The music projects a feeling right next
to despair, but still intent on moving forward. 

If anyone wants to know why there’s such a major fuss
still made about John Coltrane, why he is so loved and
referred to, the reason is probably inside “Alabama.”
The incantational tumult he could raise in a long
improvisation, the steel-trap knowledge of harmony,
the writing: that’s all very impressive. But “Alabama”
is a kind of perfect psychological portrait of a time,
a complicated mood that nobody else rendered so well.

“John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” is another mood
record, but one accessible to anyone who listened to
pop music on the radio in the 20th century: the kind
generated by a deep male voice singing heavy-lidded
love songs. It serves as the backbone of the gig at
the Allen Room next week, with the baritone singer
Kevin Mahogany and the Coltrane-influenced tenor
saxophonist Todd Williams, who was part of Mr.
Marsalis’s bands in the late 80’s and early 90’s,
before leaving to play in the Times Square Church. 

It is a supermeditative record, with the drummer Elvin
Jones, elsewhere as forceful as a truck, playing
barely audibly on songs like “They Say It’s
Wonderful,” under Johnny Hartman’s cellolike voice and
Coltrane’s broad sound. As with the best Coltrane
ballad recordings, these songs conjure something
bigger than earthly love. For each listener the record
occupies a distinct imaginary space. 

At Lincoln Center the trick will be to make the music
work in a very real space, a high-rent commercial zone
with glasses clinking and tabs mounting. Come armed
with a version of it in your own memory, and remember
that Coltrane brought a lot of listeners up short 40
years ago. If we do our homework, we might be able to
catch up to him now.

Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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