Chris Bowden on John Coltrane


July 2016:

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