John William Coltrane September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967
I had a visit from a friend a few months ago who wondered if I was interested in buying a record collection from an old guy her work had connected her with, whose collection had somehow taken over the whole house. A large house, but they needed to downsize on health grounds. By way of illustration, a new white porcelain bathroom set had been bought by him and his wife a few years back, and somehow it had got lost under the stacks, in this bindweed of a species, the record collection. I happily offered access to my phone number.
As it happens, the collection has similarities with my own, in that it contains quite a lot of classical, and quite a lot of jazz she explained, mainly on vinyl, with other formats in varying amounts also. How my heart sang at the thought of it.
I already feel, these few months later, like Ahab, having spotted the white whale in Moby Dick, and like him, it appears to have hoved from view. Having spent weeks working out the best value logistics of relocating a large collection, the phone call never came. I then agonised over whether it would be appropriate to be the one who makes the first call. Of course, I emboldened myself to that degree because of what was potentially on offer, I did the legwork to find the number. I made the call, was made to feel welcome that I had, and agreed a date the following week to just initially visit. This was all with the wife, as the old fellow was temporarily bedridden. Two days later a call is made to me to cancel the visit, as apologetically she passes on, he does not really want to sell, and is forsaking the downsizing in the short term. She also admitted that a friend came by and it almost killed him to give about ten LPs to the friend.
So in this time, the unseen collection becomes this marvellous thing, you start imagining near complete sets of Blue Note 1500’s. A set of black and Orange spines interspersed with bold lettered white ones, denoting a mixed happy family of US and UK HMV pressings of the Impulse! catalogue, unreadable razor thin spines to London American Atlantic Jazz series issues and later the ECM’s. The hard to classify quirky individualists on the smaller labels.
But what is this really? It’s the collection you imagine a life long collector has, when you superimpose your own tastes on to a collection not yet seen.
A house full ought to be a broad church, but what if the whole lot never passes beyond a taste for Swing? Piles upon piles of Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman, or that dreaded second wave of trad, the revival with all those Merseysippi type puns filling the shelves and unplumbed bath?
What I have had to do is try to forget about it, start acting as if it will never be seen by me, because it has taken my eye off the ball of getting on with the day job of selling LPs by auction, totally thrown me off a mechanical way of pulling together a theme and making the listings, aiming for numbers, then dealing with the work that creates.
So what did that do there, that sharing of the tale of the one that got away?. It revealed my own dream acquisitions and cataloguing of my Blue Notes, London Americans of Monk & Mingus, those fine British & German issues on labels like Incus, Ogun, ECM, MPS and Steam. And yes, the Impulses.
So what forms the heart of the Impulse! catalogue, what comes first to mind. I am guessing for most of us it is Coltrane (as did Ashley Khan who wrote the history of the label, calling it ‘The House That Trane Built’). A shelf of mine has a good vinyl and cardboard cubic foot of the classic Quartet, the ambitious suites and the searing live dates, which get wilder by the year. Then they suddenly stop, when I am five years old.
So what have they got to do with me, these dense complex workouts from the maestro, half of which are from before I was born?. Enough it seems to make me get a plane to Cork city in the 90s to see Elvin Jones, wait after the gig to shake his hand to connect on a level with the absent John, then on my 40th Birthday to choose San Francisco as destination of celebration, because I knew there was a church downtown that also worshipped him, and I needed to attend one of their services (I was not disappointed, James Max Haqq’s blowing takes you there).
ABC Paramount had made a decision to operate a Jazz sub-label, and Cred Taylor was the man they chose to run it, someone trusted by musicians on the scene. A bit of instant success with Ray Charles, allows him a chunk of freedom to record whoever he likes. Next thing you know, April 1962, Coltrane is in the Rudy Van Gelder home studio. The recordings of the classic quartet begin.
One mediocre 80s pressing of ‘My Favourite Things’ bought by my fifteen year old self from The Record Centre (Birmingham) starts the soundtrack of my life off, and if there’s anything on vinyl that I would try to grab from the burning house, it would be that foot of mixed vintage pressings from both sides of the Atlantic. I remember saying to Ray, “I need more, what should I buy next?. He told me to get them all, and handed me “Coltrane” which confirmed for me that the classic quartet was the white hot centre of it all for myself, and still now 37 years on. Mine is an unashamedly mixed group of issues, added to most years, from all over the world, from every label variant, and I love the difference.
Like that white whale of a collection, I can’t even grasp – what it is that he does that I can’t resist, yet I often turn to his playing when my spirits need lifting. Not just him but also those who followed his spirit in their music most closely, Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane can do the same thing to me, such is its power, so closely are they allied to the spirit of his message. They elicit some ecstatic connection to their slow unfurling declaration, repetition and innovation, their conviction giving this atheist a serene feeling that passes all understanding.
“gradatim conscenditur ad alta” / “gradually conquer the heights”
This was the motto of mountaineer and explorer Guido Monzino, whose life has been a continuous rise towards the supreme values of human existence. As a 27 year old in the 50’s he walked from Guinea to Senagal, along the Ivory Coast, a good 2000 miles even as the crow flies. He had already by then climbed the Matterhorn. Subsequently he made a total of 21 expeditions to places including Patagonia, Equatorial Africa, Greenland, the North Pole and the Himalayas. I feel alright about taking a lifetime to understand the output of Coltrane because Guido gave me permission in this phrase.
Nat Birchall on John Coltrane (July 2016)
Compiling any kind of “10 best” or “My favourite 10 songs” list is always a bit tricky. I could make a list of ten this week, but next week make a list of a different 10 and they’d still be my favourite songs. But whatever the contents of the list they are certainly high up in my most-loved and most-played categories, and they are among the ones that have given me the most satisfaction over the years. And Trane’s music always sounds fresh, every time you listen. The mark of timeless, classic music.
Favourite John Coltrane tracks, in no particular order.
1. Blue Train (From the album Blue Train, Blue Note 1957)
This is the very first Coltrane that I heard, back in 1978. Up to this point I had never listened to, or even heard for that matter, any jazz music at all. I had been on a deep Jamaican music trip since 1972 but had read about John Coltrane in a magazine, Black Music. One day my local record shop had no new reggae LPs but this album had just been reissued, so I bought it to investigate. The intro is one of the most dark and mysterious ever, it sounds like something important is about to happen. And when the band go into the groove it’s a deep one. I thought the sound of the tenor saxophone sounded very much like the Jamaican players I was used to listening to, Tommy McCook and Cedric Brooks. It still grips me every time I listen to it now, 37 years later. The first cut is the deepest.
2. My Favorite Things (Live version from Afro Blue Impressions, Pablo Records, 1977)
This double LP, recorded live in Europe in 1962, was maybe the third or fourth Coltrane LP I bought. This is the first version of MFT that I heard Trane play. He must have played on the song on virtually every gig he did from 1961 until his last gig in 1967. There are many, many live recordings of the song by him. But this one has some extra special magic in it. The tempo is a bit faster than he would usually play it, and it sounds like one of those gigs where things just click and the music starts to take flight. He plays some things on his solo in this version that I haven’t heard him play anywhere else, he sounds supremely inspired here. When I first started to learn to play I would put this record on and sit cross-legged on the floor and listen attentively. The music would transport me and would speak to me of such wonderful things that I would have tears in my eyes. This version is the reason I play soprano saxophone.
3. Liberia (From the album Coltrane’s Sound, Atlantic, recorded in 1960)
This is Trane’s re-write of the Dizzy Gillespie classic, A Night In Tunisia. Trane plays a new, sparser and more intense, melody, and reduces the chord changes almost to a modal style. At this point in his playing/composing he was going in two directions at the same time. With Giant Steps and songs like 26-2 he was expanding on the complex chord changes of Bop even more. Writing songs with very dense, involved harmonic movement. But with this song, and others like Impressions, he was going in a modal direction, where chord changes were put aside so that long passages of music were derived from modes (an alternative name for scales) where the harmonic implications were not tied to any specific chord at any one time but could be derived at will from the mode/scale of the song or song’s section. This kind of music demanded that all the musicians have their personal sounds developed to a certain point where the lack of harmonic development in the background would not deter from the effect of the music. There is nowhere to hide, and only the strong survive. This recording is gripping from start to finish, in lesser hands it would have been a very different story.
4. Snuffy (From the album Mainstream 1958, Savoy)
This track is from a Wilbur Harden session that was originally released on his album Mainstream 1958. After I had bought Blue Train I then bought a double LP under John Coltrane and Wilbur Harden’s names called Countdown; The Savoy Sessions. So this is the second Coltrane LP I bought, even though the music is all Harden’s and it was his session. At this point, 1958, Trane is in stellar form. His technique had improved steadily over the past few years since joining Miles Davis in 1955 and he was in full “sheets of sound” mode. Playing long lines of notes in a very fluent and fluid way, but still creating very melodic phrases that snake all over the place.
5. Stellar Regions (From the album Stellar Regions, Impulse! Recorded in 1967)
This album is a complete “lost” session only discovered in the early 1990s. Only one track from the session had previously seen the light of day, Offering, which had been released on Trane’s last “official” album release, expression. (Trane’s final recording sessions, in the spring of 1967, are a little chaotic for some reason. There are some undated recordings which have been released and more sessions that are documented by Impulse but have gone missing, or perhaps have been released already with alternative titles. There are studio logs of recorded songs by the final quartet and quintet that tantalisingly have titles but no tapes have come to light as yet.) The band is a quartet with Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali. The music is gripping from start to finish and has a great variety of approaches to composition and forms. All the music is rubato, i.e. not in any fixed or regular tempo, but there is sufficient difference in the character of each song, with the arrangements taking different directions each time, and such spirit in the playing that you don’t even notice. On this particular track the theme opens with a trill in a major key supported by rich piano chords from Mrs Coltrane and bowed bass from Jimmy Garrison, with Ali playing mostly cymbals. The group manage to create a beautiful sound with all the band hanging on every note the tenor plays, lifting the music to the heavens and finally back down to earth again. The ending is glorious. Cosmic poetry.
6. Creation (From the album Creation, Blue Parrot. Recorded live in 1965)
This side-long (on the original LP) tune was recorded live at the Half Note club in new York in 1965. Around this time Trane had been playing songs which were based on short phrases, apparently improvised at least some of the time, which he and the “classic” quartet (with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) would then develop into incredibly intense and lyrical performances in front of a live audience, usually in the clubs he played at regularly. Saxophonist David Liebman has spoken about how he would go to the quartet’s gigs at this period and witness Trane playing what Liebman refers to as “calls” which then would turn into whole songs right in front of the audiences eyes and ears. This sounds exactly like one such “call” which Trane rhymes off on the bandstand without a count in or any clue as to what may happen. The other members of the band fall in very shortly after he begins to play and the group is off on an incredible voyage of discovery and revelation as first Trane and then Tyner and Jones explore the relationships between music and the universe. After Jones’ stunning drum passage Trane re-enters playing variations of his opening “call” with Jones playing further drum solo excursions in between his phrases, a variation on “trading fours” in more standard jazz situations. The quartet by this time had been together for a little over three years and had developed to such a point that they changed the way jazz would be played forever. Their musical chemistry was of such a high degree that performance like this one were standard. At the end of the piece Trane leaves the final words to Jones who rounds off the performance with his incredible sounds, bringing the 23 minute escapade to a close.
7. Peace On Earth (From Coltrane In Japan, Impulse! Recorded Kosei Nenkin Hall, Tokyo, Japan, July 22, 1966)
John Coltrane toured Japan in July 1966 with his band of the time, with Alice, Garrison, Ali and Pharoah Sanders. The tour was very successful with the musicians being welcomed with open arms and V.I.P. treatment from the Japanese organisers and fans. On the tour they recorded two versions of Trane’s beautiful song Peace On Earth, they are both incredible examples of both Trane’s and the group’s musical greatness.This version (recorded at Koseinenkin Hall in Tokyo on July 22nd) might just have the edge, mostly because Trane plays with such an intense lyricism and sound here that he sounds completely possessed by the spirit of love and humanity. All the music that was recorded on this tour is of songs stretched out to unusual lengths, this particular one is 26 minutes long, and a version of My Favourite Things from the same concert is a minute short of an hour long. Trane plays two solos here, one after his theme and then another after Sanders’ solo on alto sax. Both Trane and Sanders were given alto saxophones by the Yamaha company whilst in Japan, prototypes of the new models they were making. Trane plays his on some songs on this tour also, and devotes a whole song to the smaller horn on the Stellar Regions session, “Tranesonic”.
8. Naima (Recorded live in Belgium, 1965)
Trane played this song many many times since he first recorded it in 1959. Maybe not so many times as My Favorite Things, but there are still plenty versions of it from numerous live recordings. This one was from his 1965 tour of Europe and was recorded at the quartet’s gig in Comblain-La-Tour in Belgium. They had played it a couple of days earlier at the Juan-Les Pins jazz festival in France, the night after the famous live performance of the whole of A Love Supreme, and that version is also a classic. But this quartet were nothing if not endlessly inventive and this version practically makes the bandstand levitate such is its power. After this tour there were only two more studio sessions with the classic quartet, those sessions were eventually released as Sun Ship and First Meditations For Quartet, and then Trane began expanding the band to include Pharoah Sanders and many other musicians on various instruments in his relentless search for something. So this whole concert represents the quartet at its peak, perfection just before final destruction.
9. Dear Lord (Originally released on the album Transition (Impulse!) Recorded in 1965)
Some of the most uplifting and heartfelt music has been made in praise of a higher being. Whether you believe in such a concept or not is beside the point, the believer plays the music as an offering which effectively removes the person’s ego from the equation. This in turn makes the music more likely to be devoid of unnecessary elements such as playing to the gallery, or playing to impress people. This particular song is hymn-like, a beautifully articulated prayer that sounds as if Trane were “playing” the words of a song or poem of devotion. There are some actual songs that he recorded that were exactly this. “Psalm” from A Love Supreme is one, also “Wise One” from the Crescent album. It isn’t known whether Dear Lord was based on a written poem but the way Trane phrases the beautiful melody you can almost hear words of devotion forming around the tones of the horn. As you listen to this music you can feel the stresses of daily life melt away as Trane takes us, once again, on a journey beyond the physical. This song was recorded at a session where the great Roy Haynes was sitting in for regular Coltrane quartet drummer Elvin Jones. The music is no less majestic for the substitution.
10. Reverend King (From the album “Cosmic Music” (Impulse!) recorded in 1966)
Opening with a piano tremolo from Alice Coltrane, John and other group members begin to chant the mantra “Om mani padme om” closely followed by Jimmy Garrison playing a pedal (repeat) tone. This creates an air of expectation, like the intro to Blue Train does, but in a very different way, and conjuring up a very different mood. After only 20 seconds of this the chant dies away and Trane plays the majestic theme on tenor as Pharoah Sanders plays trills and long notes softly on alto saxophone, shortly joined by drummer Rashied Ali. The melody is stately and beautiful. After the melody statement Trane repeats a long note softly as Pharoah begins to preach on the alto. The group is playing quite freely, out of meter but with a pulse that pushes the music forward as Pharoah builds and builds his solo until he is in the stratosphere. Just before the 6 minute mark Trane enters at a similar level of intensity on bass clarinet. Playing beyond the normal range of the instrument (It was actually Eric Dolphy’s, given to him by Eric’s mother, supposedly partly because she was having nightmares about Eric playing.) Trane carries on where Pharoah leaves off, the music rolling and tumbling in an ecstatic and exalted manner. At 9 minutes in Pharoah re-enters on alto again, by which point the music is beyond time, beyond key, beyond melody even, but still gloriously ecstatic. Around the 9.45 minute mark Trane begins to play part of the opening phrase from the theme, still on bass clarinet. Pharoah returns to his long notes/trills in the background as Trane plays his majestic melody on the big horn. Quite apart from the different instrument, Trane’s paraphrasing of the melody only adds to the drama of the theme statement. Garrison resumes his pedal tones and after the end of the theme Trane begins the chant again, “A Om mani padme om, a om mani padme om…” as all the instruments fade away apart from the piano tremolo. Finally a shaken tambourine announces the end of the performance, although “performance” is an inadequate word for what has transpired, more like a ritual cleansing or communal exorcism perhaps? This music is difficult to describe in “normal” terms, but then music is difficult to describe anyway. We listen, we hear, we understand. Or maybe we don’t understand. Explanations cannot make the music sound any better to our ears, we have to listen again until, maybe, it starts to make sense. Wherever our own threshold of acceptance is, one thing is assured, John Coltrane forged ahead regardless. Like Charles Lloyd said to Roy Eldridge, “Well you know Roy, Trane ain’t waiting”
You can read our interview with Nat Birchall here
Boom! And from a tiny spec came an ever-expanding explosion of energy and matter. So began time and space, where we find ourselves hurtling along to who knows where? Maybe John Coltrane knew, maybe he didn’t, but I’m certain he asked the question.
He was a man of his time who pushed forward and shaped the world around him. Mankind officially reached the moon two years after his death, one suspects J. C. had been there and beyond a few years before.
On the subject of time, listen to him on Blue Train through to Giant Steps. Even though it is furious playing, often at fast tempos, often lots of semi-quavers, it sounds relaxed. He fits it all in like he has all the time in the world. I love his sense of time.
Blue Train was an easy recording to get into as a teenager. Like most blue note records it had a great cover, a photo of him looking thoughtful and serious. Apt, because even though this music is catchy, soulful and exciting, it is sophisticated and serious. I suspect J. C. wasn’t particularly concerned about looking hip, but always played ultra hip. Here he is leading his band and sounding in control. Flawless bop language executed by someone who was always going to be looking to learn more, leading to a tidal wave of ideas that would gain mass and momentum as it flowed through his life.
The searching raw longing for answers in his sound is almost painful how it taps into your own human condition of wondering what it’s all about. On this session there are the beginnings of the harmonic concepts that would lead on to the incredible Giant Steps. Even though this stuff swings, it isn’t toe tapping frivolous music. It is disciplined and serious, and I imagine that is how he was in his life.
Giving up Heroin hard-core style he went on a spiritual path of exploration in his life and consequently in his music. His music sounds like who he was, an unstoppable force in the universe. There can be a sad lonely desperation in looking for answers and I hope he found peace at times. He sounds like he did here and there, like on the sublime composition Naima. But there is an overwhelming feeling of searching in the massive body of work he did in his short life.
No matter how intellectual the content of his music, which was extreme to say the least, it always had the human element that touches your soul. Just as he searched for spiritual answers he searched for musical ones, I think for him the two were combined. Taking the modal thing into unchartered territory, gleaning information from other philosophies and music, African, Indian, western classical, you could spend a lifetime trying to understand trying any one of the many periods he went through. And towards the end of his life, proper other worldly music, sounding like it came from outer space. Maybe that’s the point, it did, it does. He did, we do.
Like a mystic or a shaman he gave the world something we can learn from but maybe never truly understand. The great saxophonist John O’Gallagher told me he is analysing some of J. C.’s later work with surprising results, possibly making sense out of what could seem like chaos. Exciting to think he still hasn’t given up all his secrets.
One could become despondent to think we can never know enough, never have all the answers. But maybe the looking for answers is the point, and being ok with that is the way to find peace. The question is the answer, or something! We can all learn from this. Getting a bit of an understanding of that and how I view spirituality and faith has been a big part of my journey to better mental and physical health. But again any definite answers are, and I think always will be, elusive.
Maybe I could look for it at the St John Coltrane Church in San Francisco. It would be hard to imagine a better place to look.
Our interview with Chris Bowden can be found here