Nat Birchall on John Coltrane

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.

john-coltrane-blue-train1. 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.

john-coltrane-afro-blue-impressions2. 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.

john-coltrane-coltranes-sound3. 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.

john-coltrane-mainstream-19584. 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.

john-coltrane- stellar-regions5. 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.

john-coltrane-creation6. 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.

john-coltrane-in-japan7. 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.

john-coltrane-transition9. 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.

john-coltrane-cosmic-music10. 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