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 near-missing.

“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 concerts.)

“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.

by Ben Ratliff
Source: The New York Times

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