BY BENSON IDONIJE
FORTY two years after his death in 1967, John Coltrane’s popularity has continued to grow and assume legendary proportions, while his saxophone technique remains a relevant source of inspiration to emerging generations of musicians.
Even though he lived for only 41 years, his popularity should have been more widespread and deeply rooted if he had gone his separate way early enough in his career like Miles Davis and Chalie Parker. Instead, he spent years as a sideman because he was in great demand. And it was not until the remarkable experience with Miles Davis in Kind of Blue that he began to come into his own. And, left to shift for himself, the facets of his style that made him a candidate for greatness were immediately recognisable.
As a matter of fact, Coltrane has many sides to his art; and is so controversial that critics like me will continue to write about him as long as they have something interesting and fresh to say.
The tenor saxophonist first came to prominence in the middle fifties, reflecting compulsion, anxiety, anger, and fear, what pianist Cecil Taylor called “the realities of the day.” For all its chaos, the music had deep and direct emotional meaning for many listeners; and some insiders began to mark Coltrane as “the man.”
But it did not become Coltrane’s year until 1961, when he won three divisions in Down Beats International Critic’s Poll as best tenor saxophonist of the year; and, in the ‘New Star’ division, “Miscellaneous Instrument” (for soprano saxophone); and New Combo. He had come up with the quartet of outstanding musicians featuring Elvin Jones, drums; Jimmy Garrison, bass; McCoy Tyner, piano; himself on saxophones (tenor and soprano).
It behoves a musician to take such honours with a grain or two of realism, considering the situation in which he found himself at the time. For, as often as not, some of the same writers who made a current victory possible were those who once maintained that their favourite did not know how to play his instrument.
The experience of Sonny Rollins at the time indicated that it could be detrimental to read one’s own press notices, or so it seemed. It would have been disastrous for Coltrane too, had he taken his to heart, for his early notices were frequently negative, and he had been under fire several times since. That he continued to progress in the inexorable glare of a scrutiny that invested his most casual acts with significance was evidence of unusual conviction. Coltrane was probably the first major soloist of that contemporary era whose development largely took place under such scrutiny, and it should be of some value to examine that development.
On the back liners of one of Coltrane’s Blue Note albums, Robert Levine speaks of Coltrane’s “spearing, sharp and resonant sound that creates an ominous atmosphere,” and of his “veering, inconsistent lines.”
Those phrases, to my mind, characterise Coltrane about as well as it could be done, and highlight the qualities of original thinking that have made him the first major new saxophone innovator since Sonny Rollins, who in turn was the first since Charlie Parker.
But change is not always progress, and to a large degree, Coltrane contained within himself the elements that made his kind of jazz the most exciting that was played; and the elements that often seemed to be leading it (and him) down a blind alley.
Excitement is there, certainly, of an incomparable nature, and surprise. Most often, at the beginning of a solo, Coltrane enters from the unexpected place, creating a shock effect in the first phrase that leaves the listener limp for two or three choruses. Listen to him on Blues by Five on the Miles Davis Cookin album on Prestige. Coltrane is also possessed of an unmatched energy by which, in two choruses, he can lift an average flaccid bop record out of its rut and into the realm of major jazz. Hear his solo on Light Blue in the album, Interplay for two trumpets and two tenors.
Of his role as everybody’s recording sideman, Coltrane later said, “I wouldn’t do it now.” At the time, he needed the money. The result was that he appeared on a few records on which his was the only music likely to last. He also played on many others on which he merely juggled his own stock of pet phrases from one tune to the next, justifying his own assessment of himself as not “playing anything new or different.” On two of Gene Ammons’ records, he even reverted to the alto saxophone, his initial instrument.
Aside from his regular work with Davis, his best musical opportunity at that time was the chance he got to record an album of Tadd Dameron compositions with the composer on piano.
The major turning point in Coltrane’s career seemed to have come in the summer of 1957, when he left Davis, who was temporarily dissatisfied with his group, to join Thelonius Monk. “Working with Monk,” Coltrane once told Down Beat, “brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way through the senses, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would sit at the piano and show me the answers just by playing them. I could watch him play and find out the things I wanted to know. Also, I could see a lot of things that I didn’t know about at all.
“Monk was one of the first to show me how to make two or three notes at a time on tenor… It’s done by false fingering and adjusting your lip. If everything goes right, you can get triads. Monk just looked at my horn and felt the mechanics of what had to be done to get this effect.”
However, in the fall of 1957, Coltrane, a greatly improved musician, returned to Miles Davis, who was now beginning the modal experiments which were, in their use of fewer and fewer chords, to affect Coltrane greatly. The saxophonist had also changed. He had previously fallen prey to self destructive practices that lurk in the jazz world but had, by now, suddenly and definitely stopped. An interview he granted the press at the time reflected his new attitude. “Live cleanly… do right… you can improve as a player by improving as a person. It’s a duty we owe to ourselves.”
Not surprisingly, it was at this time that Coltrane began to be an influence on other players. He had also become a careful student of his own work, analysing it to a point that once caused him to remark, “I’m worried that sometimes what I’m doing sounds just like academic exercise, and I’m trying more and more to make it sound prettier.”
In Down Beat, Coltrane was able to dissect his style in a way that he had never done before. About this time, he wrote, referring to his second stint with Davis, the one that culminated in Kind of Blue, “I was trying for a sweeping sound. I started experimenting because I was striving for more individual development. I even tried long, rapid lines that critic Ira Gitler termed “sheets of sounds” at the time. But actually, I was beginning to apply the three-on-one chord approach, and at that time, the tendency was to play the entire scale of each chord. Therefore, they were usually played fast and sometimes sounded like glisses.
“I found there was a number of chord progressions to play in a given time, and sometimes what I played didn’t work out in eighth notes, sixteenth notes, or triplets. I had to put the notes in uneven groups like fives and sevens in order to get them all in.
“I thought in groups of notes, not of one note at a time. I tried to place these groups on the accents and emphasise the strong beats — maybe on 2 here and on 4 over at the end. I could set up the line and drop groups of notes — a long line with accents dropped as I moved along. Sometimes what I was doing clashed harmonically with the piano —especially if the pianist wasn’t familiar with what I was doing- so a lot of time I just strolled with bass and drums.
“I haven’t completely abandoned this approach, but it wasn’t broad enough. I’m trying to play these progressions in a more flexible manner now.”
In the summer of 1959, the growing critical and public dispute over whether Coltrane or Sonny Rollins was the most influential modern tenorman was settled, at least temporarily, by Rollin’s retirement.
Coltrane, once maligned, was now indisputably on top. Early in 1960, he made the obvious move, he left Miles Davis to form his own group, a situation that gave him the freedom to create those ‘Sheets Of Sounds.’