John Coltrane

By: Patrick Cates
September 23, 2009


Until 1964, JOHN COLTRANE (1926-67) was a virtuoso, blasting out bebop as wing-man to the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and later leading his own hard bop lineups, where he is probably most famous for deconstructing sugar-coated classics like “My Favorite Things” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.” But beginning with Ascension in ’65, and continuing with Om, Meditations, and other exploratory albums, Coltrane stretched out his arms and, bathed in a heavenly glow, launched himself upwards in search of a different plane, one where music could be the “whole expression of one’s being.” He left many jazz fans behind, but this metaphysical act made him so much more than a great saxophonist and composer. In the frenetic mash of these recordings, against a primal rumble of bass and drums and a mid-register wall of piano (and whatever other instruments may have been ushered into the studio), his saxophone becomes the Coltranograph — a precision piece of medical apparatus that charts, in painful detail, the real-time emotional and spiritual state of Coltrane’s heart and head. Listening to the impossible runs and unpredictable chord sequences, the spine-chilling screeches and winsome wails, the punctuation of pause and breath, you begin to believe in something, anything, that exists beyond the real.


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What do you think?

  1. most famous for deconstructing sugar-coated classics like “My Favorite Things” and “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”

    Uh. Not. “Giant Steps”? “Naima”? “A Love Supreme”? “Blue Train”? “Chasin’ the Trane”?

    This narrative–Coltrane suddenly leaves traditional jazz behind and becomes free–is belied by the chronology, in which much of his most out playing (Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961; Impressions, 1963) is side by side with his more melodic and even traditional side (Ballads, 1963; Crescent, 1964; A Love Supreme, 1965, Welcome,” 1965). It’s precisely his refusal to abandon either low or high, “pretty” or “noisy,” traditional or avant-garde, that makes him such an interesting hilo figure, I think.

  2. Just a couple of things in response. Firstly, I wasn’t focusing on his free jazz dabbling in the early 60s. As you say, that sat alongside a lot of “straight ahead” stuff. I was focusing specifically on the music he started making after the dismantling of the classic quartet, after which he never returned to any of his more conventional composition or playing. I regard this departure as immensely significant and transcendental. But, of course, that’s a personal take (as is any view on the music that John Coltrane is most famous for and as is any view on what “hilo” actually means).

  3. Thanks for the kind response. I respect your take on the post-quartet recordings, and I’m sorry to have disagreed somewhat obnoxiously on the fame question (but, c’mon, “Chim Chim Cheree” is not the emblematic Trane piece). But there’s a certain, as I say, narrative out there about Coltrane that fits well into both the sixties frame and some kind of heroic Modernist frame but which is, I think, somewhat misleading. It goes something like this: Coltrane kicks heroin, obsessively practices his sax for many hours a day, develops an intense spirituality and as a result begins making an uncompromising new kind of music, in which he moves beyond traditional categories etc. etc. In fact, those things happened in a much more random way, and his earlier experiments in free jazz, in partnership with Eric Dolphy and others, had a lot in common with Ascension, only in a more secular spirit, and what’s significant, I think, is that unlike, say, Cecil Taylor, he didn’t abandon his ballads or or his more lyrical playing or his hard bop roots–instead he treated all of them as facets of a complex musical whole. You can hear him trying to synthesize it all on Crescent. Even in the post-quartet days he had many moments that were very much in that spirit of earlier work. I think one of the struggles that characterizes jazz in the 60s–Coleman, Dolphy, Miles, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders as well–was the struggle to create genuinely new music without buying into a “high art” mode, as that stodgy bastard Anthony Braxton would eventually do.

    That said, your perspective on the later stuff is valid, I think. He was an uncompromising and I think somewhat obsessive man, determined to follow every thread to the end. I just don’t see it as the radical break that it’s often taken to be.

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