BY BENSON IDONIJE
THE soprano saxophone had been in existence since the New Orleans jazz days — with Sidney Betchet as major exponent. The instrument was later adopted in the modern jazz style and context by Steve Lacy. But it was not until John Coltrane took it over in 1959 that the it became widely known, taking Coltrane himself to a new level in his career by placing him so firmly in the public eye that he received a feature story in Newsweek, something which rarely happens to a jazz man.
The irony of the whole thing was that it all happened and began by chance, without planning for it. “Three of us were driving back from a date in Washington in 1959,” he said in that magazine interview. “Two of us were in the front seat and the other guy, a saxophone player, in the back. He was being very quiet. At Baltimore, we made a rest stop, then got back in the car; and thirty miles later, realised that the guy in the back wasn’t there. We hoped that he had money with him, and drove on. I took his suitcase and horn to my apartment in New York. I opened the case and found a soprano saxophone, I started fooling around with it and was fascinated. That’s how I discovered the instrument.”
Eventually, Coltrane got himself a soprano saxophone and settled into it. Said he. “It helped me get away — let me take another look at improvisation. It was like having another hand.”
His use of the saxophone not only brought him greater popularity, it helped make him an influence so powerful that the praises and superlatives previously heaped on Sidney Bethet were being reviewed, with all eyes now on Coltrane.
THE first Coltrane recording to employ the soprano was My favourite things. Some idea of the effect it creates is indicated by the experience of pianist Ceil Taylor, who heard Coltrane play the piece in a club and was unable to convince several young musicians present that it was a Rodgers and Hammertein song made famous by MaryMartin, rather than the East Indian musician, Ravi Shankar. Although he was not what he called “an astute observer of the music,” he had found much of what he had learned of it applicable to the sort of jazz he wanted to play. Indian music is based on ragas, Indian scales which ascend differently than they descend.
There are countless ragas, and each has a particular significance, concerned with religion, time of day, etc. Coltrane had found My favourite things could be played almost as a raga. His next soprano recording, Greensleeves, also played on the principles of the raga, was an even more eeringly hypnotic performance, Coltrane had been fascinated by the Indian water drum, essentially a drone instrument which keeps a steady tone going while others improvise around it. To simulate this, he used two bassists because he “loved music to be heavy on the bottom.” One of the bassists was virtually imprisoned while the other remained almost completely free.
Coltrane was quite pleased when he later discovered that Ali Akbar Khan, considered the greatest Indian musician liked to play Greensleeves. “I wish I could hear him do it,” was his disarming remark. “Then I’d known if I was playing it right.
“Most of what we play in jazz”, he continued,” has the feeling of just that one raga. The Indian musicians don’t play the melody, they just play their scales. But may be that’s the melody to them. But what they do with it, the little difference, that’s the improvisation.” For a time, Coltrane pursued this so far that he would call off a chord sequence for his sidemen to play on, rather than an actual tune. They would then improvise on the mood suggested by the chord sequence and the tempo. “Yeah, I did that,” he admits somewhat ruefully.
To be able to keep the feeling of the raga, but yet not play just chord changing (“I want to play tunes, he said, “want to play the feeling of the song”), he began looking through old song books for folk tunes, perhaps turning to folios rather than recordings so that he would not be influenced by another’s interpretation. He came up with Ole, based on the Spanish Folk song, Venga Jaleo.
It is a remarkable synthesis of Indian elements, ideas propounded of Spain, and a growing concern with multiples of 3/4 time. Coltrane contributes one of his most famous solos, and Art Davis plays some of the most intricate, superbly musical bass that has ever been heard on a jazz record. In another song book, he found a piece he called spiritual, which he played with the irreducible minimum of one chord.
COLTRANE’s approach may owe as much to Miles’ Davis as to India. Davis had become preoccupied with “modal” jazz, based on scales rather than chords. As he remarked to renowned critic, Nat Hentoff in 1958, “When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of 32 bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve just done-with variations. I think a movement in jazz is beginning away from the conventional string of chords, and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variation. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.” Davis thus predicted the development of both Coltrane and, to a lesser degree, the more extreme, more melodic Ornette Coleman.
Coleman, who is also interested in the music of India, had, conversely, been an influence on Coltrane. It was not surprising that Coltrane’s insatiable curiosity and insistence on fewer chords should have led him to Coleman’s music. For Coleman, who has all but done away with traditional harmony, had taken the step which Coltrane’s deeply harmonic sensibilities might not allow him to take. As the composer George Russell put it, “Coltrane, it seems to me, is just bursting at the seams to demolish the chord barrier, and because of this, he is enlightening everyone to what can happen on a single chord.”
Coltrane and Coleman were good friends, and when they were working a few blocks from one another in New York, each would leave his own club between sets to hear the other man play. Coltrane said of Coleman to French jazz writer Francois Postif, “I have only played with him once in my life; I went to listen to him at a club and he asked me to join him. We played two pieces — twelve minutes to be exact — but I think that was the most intense moment of my life.”
WHILE displaying an ever more voracious appetite for all things new, Coltrane still managed to combine commerce and art; although his playing is basically the same on both tenor and soprano saxophones.
“I think you have to have musical conviction, rather than let the instrument dictate to you”, his soprano saxophone is primarily responsible for a popularity that, in 1961, enabled him to appear at all four of New York’s major jazz clubs. He judiciously combined the elements of his success. Early in an evening, he would feature the soprano on pieces like my favourite things and Greensleeves. Afterwards, he might as to a friend, “The next set will be different. The next set I’ll play all my non hits.” The soprano disappeared, to be replaced by the tenor and long, furiously impassioned and basic blues. This was in the early ’60s, the year following his Downbeat rating as best combo and instrumentalists in 1961. The situation was different in the mid-sixties, done to his death, in 1967. He faced his art squarely, recording such furiously atrocious sounds as Ascension, infirmity and A love Supreme.
However, off the stand, Coltrane became the shy, friendly man whose cigar was the only indication that he knew he was a success. His main concern with his constant work on the road was the protracted absence from his wife, Alice who played piano in some of his last sessions alongside McCoy Tymer. “She really know me, and understands the problem I have as a leader,” explained Coltrane, who loved his wife greatly .
Ravi Shankar, named after Coltrane’s Indian teacher, Ravi Shankar, was not even two years when his father died in 1967. Ravi Coltrane is already making an impact as a new tenor voice.