Saturday, January 03, 2009


1/1/2009 6:46:11 PM
The record album ‘Four’ and More, recorded at a benefit performance for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), catches the Miles, Herbie Hancock, George Coleman Ron Carter and Tony Williams band virtually at the point of Miles’s transformation. While much of the old repertoire is performed, it is rejuvenated by the new style of playing. From the bite of Mile’s opening solo on “So What” it is clear he means to dig in. Many of Miles collaborative compositions exhibit a contemplative strain in their music, as if they were stepping backward, bemused by their own creations; but on this occasion their virtuosity is clearly on its toes, pitches forward. The rhythm section powered by Tony Williams’s exuberant fills, crackles beneath Miles on every track. As Davis biographer Bill Cole recalls the concert, “The total energy level between the performers and the spectators sets sparks flying.”
Miles is a new man on trumpet. He boasts a bold, sometimes harsh, slashing tone. His new technical mastery allows for lines requiring greatly increased agility. The “So What” solo remains aloft in the upper register, a thrilling expressive area for Miles, where he would not (and could not) have ventured a few years earlier. He seems at last to use his technique with complete confidence, prompting more abstract, faster moving interpretations of material that had become second nature. Herbie Hancock has developed a completely personal style as he had been imitative of Bill Evans prior to this date. His strength has been accompaniment, which emerges here most vividly on “Four”, in which his intuitive rapport with Williams and his crashing chords supply powerfully timed accents beneath Miles’s solo.
Early in 1969 Miles Davis began a new transition toward a jazz/rock fusion with In a Silent Way, an experimental album, which was followed by the controversial Bitches Brew. In this final innovative period, Miles would more than triple his audience and at the same time, stun and alienate many of his oldest fans.
John Coltrane has had a greater impact upon jazz since 1960 than any other musician, including Miles Davis. His quartet from 1960 to 1965 has probably been the most influential small combo since the Parker-Gillespie quintet of 1945. Coltrane’s music defies a summary description. Coltrane’s enormous influence is based on:
1. his tone and technique on the soprano and tenor saxes;
2. his lengthy, developmental modal, or scalar, improvising; and
3. his wholehearted dedication to music as a moral and spiritual force.
By 1959 Coltrane had reached a plateau of sorts He had played successfully with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and on his own Giant Steps, but he was not well known to the public. Sonny Rollins was the most revered tenor saxophonist that year and Ornette Coleman, the most controversial. Coltrane needed his own band to further his career and more important, to advance his music’s evolution.
During 1960 two fortuitous events combined to launch Coltrane’s career commercially. One was his introduction to the Rogers and Hammerstein show tune “My Favorite Things,” which a customer had brought into the Jazz Gallery in sheet-music form, thinking John might like it. Second, by fluke he discovered the soprano sax, an instrument Coltrane would soon make extremely popular. It came into his life on a drive home from a job in Washington, D.C., with two passengers, one of whom, an unnamed saxophonist, sat in the back seat. “He was being very quiet,” Coltrane recalled,
“At Baltimore we made a rest stop, then got back in the car and 30 minutes later realized that the guy in the back wasn’t there. We hoped he had some money and drove on. I took his horn and suitcase to my apartment in New York. I opened the case and found a soprano sax. I started fooling around with it and was fascinated. That’s how I discovered the instrument.”
My Favorite Things, the new band’s first album, was a remarkable success for both Trane and the soprano sax. Coltrane had planned on hiring pianist McCoy Tyner with whom he had played in Philadelphia between stints with Miles. But McCoy was already working for Benny Golson’s Jazztet and Trane was reluctant to interfere until his wife Naima and a friend trumpeter Calvin Massey persuaded him to hire McCoy. McCoy was also a religious Moslem which stimulated John’s spiritual interests. He needed an expansive drummer. He hired Elvin Jones who was a mature, muscular and polyrhythmic drummer, with whom he had jammed frequently. The title track is transformed into an intense chant by extensions of the opening E minor scale and the closing E major scale to several choruses each. The modal or scalar, approach to improvising allowed Coltrane to pack in his own chord changes if he chose, or to pursue a thematic melodic idea, thus providing both vertical and linear development. The swaying waltz rhythm is hypnotic and the exotic sound of the soprano sax was haunting. It fascinated the public and was the first track on which his band found a distinctive sound of its own.
Although Giant Steps was a great individual achievement for Trane and a study for all musicians, it did not carry the influence with the public of My Favorite Things.
That recording did more than give Coltrane the exposure he needed; it became his theme for the next two years. He would often improvise on it for up to twenty minutes in concert, bringing audiences to their feet. Within a year he was voted the best tenor sax player in Downbeat magazine’s Readers’ and Critics’ Polls. The soprano sax became the most popular alternative horn in jazz, a status it still maintains.
At this point in his career, Coltrane was immersed in a whirlwind of ideas and influences. Ornette Coleman’s free soloing without regard to chords encouraged him to take more chances. Eric Dolphy’s great intervallic leaps between registers had a similar effect. Coltrane was also listening earnestly to the nearly atonal solos of John Gilmore in Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Indian music was central to his development at this time. He devised his own scales on which to improvise which were in effect, hybrids of Indian and Western modes. The sitar player Ravi Shankar, whom the Beatles helped to popularize in America, came to hear Coltrane in 1961 and the two discussed making an album together. There had to be mutual admiration because in 1966 Coltrane named his second son Ravi. He and Eric Dolphy both listened to the music of the African pygmies. Books about theory and scales piled up on his living room floor.
The composer of What A Wonderful World Bob Thiele allowed Trane to follow his muse anywhere, and produced Live at the Village Vanguard which featured a sixteen-minute solo on “Chasin’ the Trane,” one of his best performances on record, perhaps revealing the liberating influences of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and John Gilmore. Elvin Jones comes into his own on this recording as he helps Trane to build intensity with a wide range of dynamics. This recording demonstrates the qualities which made John the most exciting horn player of the 1960’s. He leaves nothing unsaid has his tone is searching and urgent, with a climax that erupts into vocal cries bubbling up over the horns normal range in squeaks and partial harmonics. The endeavor is earnest, demanding, satisfying and ultimately exhausting. Miles asked him a long time before, “Why do you play so long, man?” Trane replied, “It took me that long to get it all in.” Beyond its emotional catharsis, Coltrane’s lengthy soloing showed improvisers that--with sufficient ideas and stamina—more than the obligatory one or two choruses was possible.
The album’s remaining two tracks show the diversity of his interests. “Spiritual,” another waltz on the order of “My Favorite Things,” reveals Trane’s solemn, incantatory strength on tenor (also soprano, as he uses both horns). The music is a modal piece based upon an actual spiritual John found in the book 200 Negro Spirituals. Dolphy joins him on this track on bass clarinet. Dolphy’s solo, not one of his best, is noticeably soft around the edges, suggesting the influence of Trane’s less angular melodic style. “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” however does reveal an increasing flexibility and a firmness of sound on soprano, on which he achieves a furious, chord-change-based climax. McCoy opens the track with one of his best solos of the early 1960’s.
His interests turned decidedly religious by 1963, reaching their first full musical expression in the album—length “humble offering to God” A Love Supreme. His religious awakening had begun in 1957 when Naima introduced him to the ideas of Islam. McCoy Tyner, also a Moslem, reinforced her influence. But Coltrane’s spiritual quest quickly became self-motivated, perhaps surpassing in intensity that of any other jazz musician. He read often from Krishnamurti and the cabala, yet steadfastly remained a Christian in the tradition of his grandfathers, both well-known ministers. One of them, the Reverend William Blair, was especially active in black politics and a pillar of the community. John’s father and grandfather died within a year of each other.
Coltrane now spoke of his playing as meditation or prayer.
The events of the year prior to A Love Supreme must have been a severe test pf Coltrane’s faith. In 1963 the bombing of a black church in Alabama that killed three children deeply saddened him. His “Alabama,” on Live at Birdland, was written as a memorial; it was set to the speech rhythms of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s eulogy for the youngsters. Then his wife Naima left him. Then in June 1964 Eric Dolphy, John’s closest friend and musical confidant, died suddenly in Europe of diabetic complications (heart attack). They had been so close that it was John to whom Eric’s mother gave his flute and bass clarinet after his death, when she began having nightmares that Eric was practicing on them in the family garage.
In light of these losses, A Love Supreme, recorded in December, is a remarkably warm, hopeful and energetic outpouring. Coltrane was explicit about the religious inspiration of the music in his poem which serves as the album’s liner notes. John once told his mother that he had experienced visions of God while preparing this music, which was ominous to her because she felt that “when someone is seeing God, that means he is going to die.”
The music opens with the shimmering peal of a gong, indicating the seriousness of what is to follow. Then comes Coltrane’s full majestic tone in a rhythmically free prelude to “Acknowledgement” sets the mood. Then the bass plays a four-note-motif: a-LOVE-su-PREME, a-LOVE-su-PREME, which is a perfect unison of words and music. He displays a dazzling variety of tonal colors on his tenor from a newly adopted vibrato to climactic, harmonic “screams” and cries in the horn’s highest register. For the human voice there is chest resonance, throat resonance, mouth resonance, nasal resonance and head tone resonance.
Perhaps the music takes on the Indian notion that scales and sound can be used to convey specific emotional meanings. The gong for example generally signifies an exalted presence, the “One” to whom Coltrane addresses his music. Maybe the free-time opening to “Acknowledgement” and the closing of “Psalm” symbolize the transition into and out of the devotional state. Perhaps the instrument’s “screams” are ecstatic releases. The clear strong middle-register “call” is the energetic offering of the music itself. Who knows what Coltrane had in mind? All of this is conjecture.
Although the four-part suite is admirably integrated, each part is independent and self-sustaining. The music swings yet it the momentum is in now way inconsistent with Coltrane’s solemn intentions. Tyner takes fleet, compelling solos on both “Pursuance” and “Resolution”; and Elvin guides his awesome power and all-encompassing rhythms with flawless control, contributing a compact solo on “Pursuance.” Coltrane’s theme to “Resolution” exudes simplicity, elusive rhythmic strength and completeness. It is perhaps his finest composed line, save for “Naima.”
Coltrane was in no mooed either to rest or repeat himself after A Love Supreme, although his income approached a quarter of a million dollars (in 1960’s money). He was practicing even harder than ever, playing ninety-minute nightclub shows and then disappearing into the back room to practice until the next set. At home in the early morning hours, he would finger the keys without blowing the horn to avoid waking the household. John continued to seek out new influences, inviting young players to sit in with the band to hear their ideas. He searched incessantly for the perfect mouthpiece, a quest he had been engaged in since 1962. He had dental problems and his embouchure was such that he bit into his lips a lot from his jagged teeth and his mouth would bleed from playing so hard and long.
In 1966 Coltrane began to suffer from a liver ailment, which may have resulted from his earlier drug addiction and alcoholism during the 1950’s. His stringent health-food diet did not improve matters significantly and working himself to exhaustion aggravated his condition. Nevertheless, his manner was marked by serenity Coltrane’s thoughts turned increasingly to religion and he considered it a mission “to uplift people” through his music. He lived by his credo. When club patrons, shocked by his overblowing, split notes and screeching in his music after 1965, criticized him abusively, an ordeal he endured with increasing frequency, he did not attempt to silence his detractors. He looked at them calmly with his large eyes, said nothing and walked away. In all the biographies I have read on him there is only one account of him raising his voice in anger—He was provoked by a club owner who did not pay the band as promised. His goals became simple and profound. In the summer of 1966, he told an interviewer: “I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.” One year later on July 17, 1967, Coltrane died in a New York hospital. Although his own life had been short, he left music of sufficient beauty and originality to inspire others for generations to come. Most of my classmates wherever I have taken group studies in music have been influenced by his music.

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