LATE TRANE by JACK COOKE January 1970 – Jazz Monthly Issue 179 (UK publication)
JOHN COLTRANE’S contribution to jazz, as an instrumentalist, bandleader and innovator, over the years of his career and in the hundreds of recordings he made, is too great to be covered in any detail by one writer or in one article. Nevertheless it’s important to try to write about him, I think, if only because it does present this challenge: he’s getting too big to write about at all in an easy way, his performances often taking on too large a scale to deal with comfortably, so that like so many others of the big names in jazz his gifts are often acknow-ledged in a generalised way without anyone trying to sort out what they were or how they worked, though there is the exception and this should be mentioned, of Max Harrison’s excellent and concise analysis of Trane’s work in Jazz on Record. Here I want to deal with some aspects of Trane’s later work, to indicate some, though maybe not all, of the things he seemed to be doing in the eighteen months before he died.
His last group existed for a period of rather more than a year, the personnel sorting itself out over a period of six or seven months prior to this as changes in the attitudes and directions of his work became more certain and obvious; a balance of choice, chance and influence in many ways typical of Trane. Historically, these changes started with Ascension, recorded in June 1965, and carried on until with a recording done in February 1966 the new group emerged in its finished form. Between then and Trane’s death they produced two more albums; there may of course be other material that will come to light at a later date.
The musical roots of this new group perhaps go further back than any documentary evidence can tell us, however, back in fact to December 1964 and the recording of A love supreme, which in turn takes us deeper into Trane’s methods and style.
A random sampling of his work over the length of his career will reveal a wealth of detail, a variety of invention and construction, but it will also show consistent application to the fundamental principles of his style, will show how carefully and exhaustively he followed up whatever avenues of expression were open to him at any particular time. A little more listening would show that a couple of times in his career, times that coincide with periods of great ferment within the music generally, his work has come close to perfection within the form in which he was at the time involved, and that this signalled a change in his attitude and musical circum-stances, a further extension of his music and methods into a new area of interest. This brings us to an important and basic point: that Trane was never concerned with perfection for its own sake; that the act of exploration was more important than the discovery itself, some sight of perfection within a form signalling not the end of the search but the imminent discarding of that form and the start of a fresh search, extending what had been learned in the previous phase.
THE FIRST time this happened was in 1959 with Giant steps. Trane had recorded on a casual basis as a leader before, but there had never been this absolute authority over both the material and the men, and after this album there is a certain inevitability about his becoming a leader on a full time basis. The second time was with A love supreme, and here all the elements of the music he had worked on with his quartet almost since its formation, the modal obsessions, the close relationship with Elvin Jones, the lengthy explorations of minimal amounts of basic material, were fully expressed and sustained here. Each of these albums heralded not only another step forward in Trane’s own personal voyage of discovery but a considerable change in the way his work was surrounded: that is, his personal style developed, his group style, the way in which his band worked, altered quite considerably.
On the recorded evidence we have of his last group they didn’t achieve quite the consistent expressive power, the near-perfection within its form, that the earlier quartet had come to possess. But this doesn’t matter within the broad context of Trane’s music; after all between the first My favorite things and A love supreme there’s a period of nearly five years, and in this time the group produced a really amazing body of work. What is important is that Trane was yet again exploring, seeking once more to redefine his music.
The transitional period, from Ascension to Meditation, tells us some-thing of what he was at and how he went about it. Certainly these records would seem to indicate a series of controlled experiments, merging some known elements of Coltrane’s work with deliberate steps into territory as yet unexplored by him. On Ascension, the first of these, he organised a large orchestral force for what seems to be a deliberate attempt to increase the already large scale on which many of his best performances had been built. The extra horns — adding musicians on a casual or semi-permanent basis is part of Trane’s bandleading method that goes all the way back to Ole, in the early days of the original quartet, though he’d newer added as many as this before — produced an amazing noise in the ensemble blowing sections used between solos, though the weight of numbers involved eventually lessened its impact to some extent, as details of textures and lines were swamped in the vast overall sound. The basic material, a simple minor blues, was again a trusted situation from Trane’s past development, and the soloists were free to follow or move away from this, as they wished.
Altogether Ascension was never more than half successful; it owed a lot in its overall conception to Ornette Coleman’s Free jazz as well as to Trane’s own tradition, but it never achieved the clarity, purpose and future potential or Ornette’s work. Yet as an experiment it could be entirely justified: it produced results that could be studied and from it some lessons could be learned for the future. The most serious flaw it revealed was in neither the ensembles or the solos, but in the failure of Trane’s rhythm section to con-tribute anything really striking in this setting, for these men, the regular members of the quartet, were at the heart of Trane’s music; but where A love supreme showed how capable they could be at sustaining the group style, Ascension showed up the high degree of specialisation this had come to entail and what problems were involved in adapting to a new, if admittedly difficult, set of circumstances. Particularly, Ascension signified the first movement in the breaking up of the Coltrane-Elvin Jones partnership. This had been, no doubt of it, one of the great partnerships of jazz and the keystone of the quartet’s success. It had led Coltrane to explore his style more throughly than ever before, while he in turn had drawn from Elvin the finest and most consistent work he had ever produced.
THE NEXT experiments took place three months later, in October 1965, and seem to show some lessons learned, whether consciously or intuitively. One definite step towards the formation of the new group had been taken: Pharaoh Sanders was now with Trane on some kind of regular or semi-permanent basis, in much the same way that Eric Dolphy had been for a large part of 1961.
On Om and Kulu se mama, the two performances recorded in this period, the front line was never more than three strong. The extra weight this time round was carried in the rhythm section, which reached a maximum of piano, two basses and three drummers, and this produced a rich but uneasy mixture of ideas. Beyond doubt the idea of Coltrane’s rhythm section that had built up in the past, dominated by the resourceful and distinctive drumming of Elvin Jones, disappears here beneath this tidal wave of well-intentioned but indecisive rhythmic construction.
These performances are, if anything, less successful in the end than Ascension, and certainly they lack the overriding emotional force that drove it along, but they are by no means without interest. At this stage something of the now-familiar sounds of the Trane-Sanders polyphony begins to emerge from the ensembles, deriving perhaps from the ensembles of Ascension and not yet possessing all the direction and movement of later attempts; so that however unsuccessful on the whole, as further documentary evidence of this period of experiment and transition they are useful, and for the student, necessary.
Meditations, recorded in November 1965, marks the final stage of Coltrane’s experiment, with the new shape of his music now becoming clear. In therhythm section for the first and last time his old and new regular drummers overlap; the rhythmic movement produced is dominated by Rashied Ali’s looser kind of time, rich in rhythmic suggestions but resistant to making any definite metric statement or taking and stabilising one particular rhythmic direc-tion. This was the kind of drumming that Elvin Jones’s style had held in implication, within its distinctive facets, throughout his career with Trane, more important to the music than any actual values of style. Of the two drummers, at least at this stage of development, Elvin is undoubtedly the greater, yet it’s Ali’s ideas that are important here and Elvin’s the style that has to be modified to fit. Yet even so his drumming is superb, and histori-cally of course his position is secure, but music and history are not always the same things, and it’s obvious on Meditations that Elvin is being asked to do more than he could, to rethink his style and perhaps destroy some part of a hard won originality in order to extend his musical continuity with the group. Not surprisingly he couldn’t do it, few people could, and here he and Trane reach the end of their road together.
Not only Elvin: McCoy Tyner had made a solid, largely self-effacing contribution to the success of the quartet; here he was being asked for yet another modification of his work to fit in with a new rhythmic ideal; this was the last time he appeared on record with the group. It’s perhaps not surprising either that in his solos, in the familiar atmosphere, Elvin’s work once again temporarily dominates the rhythm section.
The spacious layout of Meditations is somewhat similar to A love supreme, and there is too the same overt emotional force. But the style and texture of the music is very different. In their speed of movement the horns reflect the ceaseless shifting of time values in the rhythm section, and though Coltrane is overwhelmingly the dominant figure one begins to get some idea of.the growing value of Sanders’s work. His unique tone, the shapes of his phrases, begin here to make a distinctive complement to Trane’s work and it’s possible to see emerging, in solos and ensembles, what Trane maybe saw all along from the time he brought Sanders into the group.
WHEN ELVIN and McCoy Tyner left, Trane brought his wife, Alice McLeod Coltrane, into the group on piano, and employed various second drummers to work alongside Rashied Ali. In San Francisco in February 1966 the new group recorded privately, two performances being released lately on the Cosmic music album. On these Alice Coltrane’s valuable contributions are under-recorded but the tenors and drums come through well. They make a good point at which to go back some way and consider Trane’s own work and what he was perhaps trying to get at in these last years of his life. What seemed to be going on was some sort of return to first principles. Up to 1957, in his original ‘sheets of sound’ period, Trane struggled hard if not very successfully to express some very complex ideas on the relationships between harmony and melody, melody and rhythm, and to express what he was doing within established terms, the harmonic relationships of the chord sequences in use at the time and the rhythmic set up of the hard bop rhythm section. In this period his solos tended to be undifferentiated, quite massive constructions often relating less to any particular performance or theme in which he might be involved at any point than to his own personal and more private musical situation, his phrases not carefully or perhaps even consciously shaped, as they came to be later, but generally long, involved; controlled mainly by the shapes that emerged almost at random from his furious races through the harmonic content of the piece and qualified by the pacing of the rhythm section. It all sounded a little stiff some-times, but there was no doubting its power or originality, there could be no doubt either of the similarities between this method and the methods Trane was using from Ascension up to, and including, the Cosmic music session. But if there was similarity in method there was a vast difference in the way these methods were applied.
From mid-1957 onwards it’s possible to see a new quality emerging in Trane’s playing, a growing sense of organisation, a feeling for phrases and shapes and composition in which the sheets of sound were used as an effective part of the whole, though the striking detail similarities of the solos on West 42nd Street and Like Sonny recorded some eighteen months apart, do suggest that this organi-sation wasn’t achieved without an occasional loss of spontaneity in his improvising. This change of direction found its best expression on Giant steps; the formation of a permanent group tended to lead back to a revival of earlier methods as a free harmonic-rhythmic situation began to establish itself. The search was on again, this time guided by a greater sense of form in the leader and within a more specialised and controlled environment.
What the sheets of sound consistently tried to do was to slow down in some way the automatic rate of development imposed on the music by the harmonic-rhythmic axis; in his early work Trane was sometimes regarded as trying to cram as many notes as possible into a bar, and in a way this point is reasonably valid. But it wasn’t simply this; he was trying to break out of the pattern, to put off the next bar line, the next chord, to expand the whole routine so that it could be more fully explored. Within the conventional hard bop format he hadn’t much chance; with the cross rhythms and harmonic economy of the quartet he was much more success-ful. For most of the time with the quartet there was still conscious organisation and shape in Trane’s work, though towards the end of the group’s life these began to break down more and more con-sistently under stress from new non-European influences and came to assume much less importance, most obviously in his work after A love supreme.
Something else should be noted here, and it goes along with the previously noted willingness to develop his work beyond any simple stylistic perfection: that is Trane’s ability to absorb influences, accept the challenge of another man’s ideas, perhaps even his need to do so in order to maintain his development. Several people had a strong and direct effect on his early work: Parker, Hawkins, Dexter Gordon; later there was Monk, Miles Davis, then Ornette; beyond this his new group reflected many of the ideas thrown up by the post-Ornette ferment in jazz, and perhaps these influenced his whole-hearted return to the ideas embodied in the sheets of sound, most particularly in the rhythmic and harmonic freedom they offered.
His solution this time was wholly non-European, not now a way of getting round rhythmic and harmonic logic, simply a matter of ignoring it whenever necessary. And like so many other things he had absorbed it became totally his own and logically the next step ahead for him. Influence and choice are indistinguishable here.
IN THIS NEW situation he set up for himself some kind of timelessness in the larger sense could be created. There were no bar lines to meet, no chords coming up a specific rate of bars; the melody could move unhampered. Yet, reasonably enough, the ten years of trying to beat the deadlines that had produced Trane’s prodigious speed of execution on his instrument held his actual note production to the same fast rate, though these long speeding lines, now exposing a somewhat less frantic surface and better-related interior structure assumed a new role in his music. From being a way of getting round things they came to be a way of getting into things and provided a basic fabric for the expressive manner of the new group in an ensemble style that reflected Trane’s obsessions in the hectic movement of their shifting lines and rhythms. Inevitably, being short of harmonic movement and metric divisions, his music lacked the vertical structure and forward momentum that was and is so much a part of conventional jazz practise,, substituting for them a horizontal, liquid kind of movement; to some it might have seemed over-static — though this was not the case, it had as much movement as ever, but it moved in a different direction — and the more conser-vative the listener the less rewarding this music would be. But as an attempt to find a foundation for his music this linear method that covered a great deal of ground without moving very far in a vertical way offered Trane great advantages.
The next album, the first to come on the market from the group in its finished form, was made up of two performances recorded at the Village Vanguard on May 28 1966; they are both based on familiar themes from earlier in Trane’s career and whether by accident or design they give a good instant comparison with the way he had handled them before and a quick rundown on the way he applied his group style at this time. My favourite things starts with a long bass solo from Jimmy Garrison, the sole survivor from the old quartet rhythm section, done in his familiar neo-flamenco style, then moves into a section of free improvisation from all members of the group before, in a burst of clear melody thick with conventional signposts. Trane introduces the theme; this recurs at intervals to break up long stretches of improvisation by various instrumental groupings. All this reveals what had been going on since the departure of the old quartet stalwarts: not only the style had been altered, the interior balance had changed too; the load had been spread, and in pace of the close partnership of Trane and Elvin supported by piano and bass there was not a much looser interdependent structure involving .all members of the group on a more or less equal basis. There is nothing perhaps to take the ear quite as easily as the brilliance of the best moments of the Trane-Elvin situation, but on the new terms and within the new musical structure of the group there was still plenty to hear provided one could accept the linear methods on which it was based.
My favorite things also makes clear the obsession with percussion pervading this phase of Trane’s career. Perhaps this is a hangover, the last contribution, from the time that Elvin Jones spent in the group, not only in the changes he brought to the group but the later changes he couldn’t or wouldn’t respond to. It began to be obvious on Kulu se mama, and since then Trane had never used less than two drummers, sometimes more. This was fine; his music at this time demanded a great deal of rhythmic movement and his regular drummer, Rashied Ali, plus the various supporting per-cussionists, did a good job in giving him what he needed. Less rewarding was the use of percussion by other people in the band, presumably Trane and Pharaoh Sanders. It’s rather sur-prising to find Trane falling into this elementary trap: any per-cussion instrument, even the most primitive, demands some kind of technique if it’s.tek be played properly; using them alongside professional drummers with highly developed techniques and sophisticated instruments these simple tools have to be handled with exceptional skill if they are to make any valid contribution. Here they’re used in a pretty clumsy fashion and contribute nothing more than an arbitrary rattle or bang. They detract from, rather than adding to, the work of the drummers.
The other track from the Vanguard album, Naima, is a fine example of something else developing in Trane’s style; it grows out of his past and would likely have been of great important in the future. The layout of Naima follows the traditional pattern for this piece, with Trane’s melody statements enclosing a solo from someone else in the group, in this case Sanders. The theme statements become quite remarkable improvisations as Trane goes to work investigating his own line; stretching it to explore it phrase by phrase, dissecting, analysing, elaborating, working out the possi-bilities of one phrase before going back to pick up the melodic thread with the next fragment of the theme. The first run through is a little hesitant, and there’s a suggestion of holding back here and there, but after Sanders has said his piece the leader returns to close the performance with a truly majestic statement, theme and improvisation flowing together with impressive unity: it quite overshadows anything that has gone before, or occurs elsewhere on the album for that matter.
THE IDEA of theme-incorporating-improvisation, he fresh, improvised material growing out of, through, and between the fixed, composed material, as opposed to the more conventional jazz practise of theme followed by improvisation, involved a further blurring of demarcation lines, and offered a form to fit the existing structure of Trane’s group. It was large enough and loose enough to accommodate anything Trane needed to put into it; it could expand to accommodate any length of improvising and still retain a shape; it provided a scale to match the impressive stature of Trane’s own abilities and, even at this stage, further potential.
It wasn’t entirely new with this recording, however: the idea of an expanded thematic frame is worked out quite explicitly on Song of Praise, from early 1965 with the old quartet, is used on Meditation, and can perhaps be traced back in simpler form as far as the 1962 Out of this world, with its half-speed theme statements rolling over the basic tempo set by the rhythm section; and maybe also to the 1963 I want to talk about you, with the long un-accompanied tenor statement putting off the final notes of the theme here. It was maybe implicit all along in Trane’s music; what brought it out so surely was fairly certainly his new group and the freedom of expression that jazz as a whole was beginning to discover for Trane’s final album, recorded in February and March i 967 and released posthumously, was Expression, There’s only one track by the full group, To be: this features Trane on flute and Sanders on piccolo and isn’t too successful, though it does hold some interest as the only flute performance Trane ever recorded. This in turn makes one ponder the importance of the various instruments he used in his career: there’s some alto playing on early recording sessions, and indeed his first documented job was on alto, with Gillespie’s band in 1949; his first regular group highlighted his involvement with soprano, and with his last group he used bass clarinet occasionally, but the basic conclusion that study of his work on all these instruments bring is that they don’t matter: he was first last and always a tenor player. His soprano work, for all its remarkable qualities, was essentially an adjunct to his tenor playing, more successful than alto as an extension of the tenor both in range and texture; it conformed in all its aspects to the principles of his tenor style, and indeed at times it was hard if not impossible to tell which instrument he was using. His bass clarinet work followed the same sort of line. With the flute he was less safe; the major changes in technique needed robbed him of some facility, there was no way of relating the tone to the sound of his tenor, and the relatively slight sound took from him one of his greatest assets, the powerful physical impact of his playing, the sustained assault on the senses that over-laid the depth of thought and organisation in his work. Maybe it was an experiment, to be packed up in time along with the tambourine-banging and maracas-shaking: it’s impossible now to say.
FINALLY there are three tracks with Trane on tenor and done within the quartet format that inspired his greatest achievements. One should perhaps be aware, though of reading any more into this particular point too: it can’t be said that the use of a quartet represented anything more than a temporary contraction of his forces, for his groups were always flexible units. But it’s fitting that his recorded career should end in this way and with these excellent performances.
Offering shows a further advance in techniques: the theme’s progress is consistently interrupted by bursts of improvisation, these flourishes slowly becoming more and more elaborate until, well within the length of the theme, the main improvising section arrives, and this settles down to a duet of impressive proportions between Trane and Rashied Ali, subsiding slowly, with deliberate hesitation, back into the line of the theme. This performance is the last great achievement of Trane’s career; the fierce, confident tenor playing, the balance and unity of the material bringing out the best in his associates; it marks too a substantial return to the principles of improvisation tied closely to a compositional frame-work, the method fhat had produced Coltrane’s’greatest and most satisfying music.
Ogunde is an essay in compression, the least usual of Trane’s working methods, while Expression itself, though less tightly organised than the other two, has one of Alice Coltrane’s finest solos, showing off the elaborate webbing that was not only com-plementary to the other group members in the length of the lines but a contrast too in the light texture and lyrical delicacy of her work.
The writing on the album follows what had by now become the standard pattern of Coltrane’s thematic material: long, slow-moving lines, boldly shaped and full of long notes, the shortage of vertical events clearly indicating one aspect of their subsequent development while their suspended rhythms indicated another; they were stately preliminaries to the fast action of the improvising. Trane had been working in this style for some time; A love supreme was perhaps the first consistent demonstration of the principles, though they can be traced all the way back to the 1961 Spiritual and even to the 1959 Naima, at what was virtually the start of his writing. This kind of material was consistently used and re-used in later years — re-use of material is anyway a consistent factor in Trane’s writing — and came to assume a greater importance as it came to be embedded more deeply in the improvising fabric of the performances. It was a genuine and largely successful attempt to create material that would be something more than just an opening and closing line; it was, however, limited in its range and style, somewhat melancholy in its emotional climate, and perhaps did much to reinforce the impression — wrongly taken to my mind by listeners unfamiliar with the way in which Trane was creating his music —that here was ritual rather than creativity, a view that the consistently theosophical character of his titling did little to alter.
By 1967 Coltrane had reached a position of lonely eminence in jazz, rather far removed from the cult-figure he had become some five or so years before and removed again from the stylish, influential tenor player whose work had solved a lot of problems for a lot of people in the late 1950’s. This was inevitable: apart from the consistent time-lag between achievement and recognition caused by his refusal to stand still, to allow his style to become fixed and his position to be fixed for him, this steady development had taken him from the general to the particular. Until 1959 he had been essentially an instrumentalist; after this his involvement with certain of the problems of jazz improvising had led him to become a leader, the better to get close to them, and to start writing his own material, to get them into as clear focus as possible. From here on one of the absolute needs in his work is for a permanently organised group to help it develop: unavoidably under such specialised conditions his general influence would diminish, though a more distant respect for his work might increase.
By the end of his life his work was perhaps creating more problems than it solved for many of his listeners, and maybe this too was inevitable: during his life he had taken many casually accepted musical principles, given them a sustained and increasingly deter-mined examination, and considerably altered some of them. His work wasn’t finished at his death, but the nature of that work was such that it really had no end anyway; no matter how long he’d lived, this basic situation would have been the same.
RECORD GUIDE A love supreme was released on HMV CSD1605 ND CLP 1869); Ascension on HMV CSD (0 CLP) 3543. Giant steps, which includes the original version of Naima, is on Atlantic 588 168; My favorite things (first version) on Atlantic 588 146. Free jazz (Ornette Coleman) is on American Atlantic 1364, Ole on Atlantic 1373. Om is on American Impulse S9140, Kulu se mama appeared in this country, after a false start, on HMV CSD (0 CLP) 3617: Meditations is on HMV CSD (0 CLP) 3575. Cosmic music is on Impulse (English this time) SIPL 515; West 42nd Street can be found on CBS Realm 52157, Like Sonny on Atlantic (American) 1354. Coltrane live at the Village Vanguard again is on HMV CSD (0 CLP)3599; Song of praise on HMV CSD 1619 (0 CLP 1897), / want to talk about you on HMV CSD 1544 (0 CLP 1741); Out of this world was released on HMV CSD 1483 (0 CLP 1629); Expression is on Impulse (E) SIPL 502; Spiritual on HMV CSD 1456 (0 CLP 1590). Jazz On Record is published by Hanover Books.