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Interviews

Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
To change the subject, at one point, early in the book, you compare Coltrane's style to a Southern Baptist preacher. Do you mean that very concretely about Baptist preachers per se, or more generally that Coltrane's style was similar to exhortational or gospel music? For example, Coltrane often runs up the scale with a crescendo, giving a sense as if he's shouting or exhorting the congregation, so to speak, sometimes to a fever pitch.

LP: Coltrane was not Baptist. His own background was Methodist. His cousin Mary, says, "We didn't do all that shouting and whatnot at our church." But his music has a fervor and exhortational style. I think it's a more general influence of the black church. And he could also have gotten that style from blues.

AAJ: Have you ever heard a Baptist preacher?

LP: Only on recordings.

AAJ: What do they sound like?

LP: This is the interesting thing. There an ethnomusicologist named Jeff Titon, who has studied these recordings, and he pointed out that there is a pattern to them. They start in a monotone..."Well the Lord went out...and he said...." And they keep going higher and higher in pitch, and then they get into a very raspy sound, "O, and I say...." way up high. And that's when I started noticing that Coltrane...

AAJ: It really does sound like Coltrane's use of ascending scales!

LP: It's almost exactly that way! Coltrane starts very restrained, around one note [mono-tone], and builds up and up until he's screaming and rasping in the upper register. So, as Jeff Titon pointed out, there is a tradition of that particular style of preaching.

AAJ: Here is a question that I asked Dave Liebman, and I'd like to compare your response with his: At what point would you say that Coltrane really came into his own as a musician, discovered his own musical idiom and style? Would you say that happened prior to his work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, or afterwards, when Trane formed his own group with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones?

LP: I know that Dave likes to talk about different periods of Coltrane's career, and there's a fellow named Andrew White who does that as well. In the preface to the book, I mentioned that I don't like to do that because I find that it's too cut and dried for my taste. Coltrane's style was always changing. I will say that an interesting way to look at that question is through his own comments. For example, he himself said that when he was first with Miles Davis, between 1955 and 1957, his playing was so bad that he wondered why Miles even hired him! That doesn't sound like someone who felt that he had discovered himself yet. By Coltrane's own judgement, during the time he was with Monk in the latter part of 1957, something really started to happen inside him that helped him to develop. So I guess I'd like to look at that from his own point of view, rather than just stick labels on the different time periods. From his own viewpoint, Trane didn't really have it together until he joined Monk in July, 1957. From then, until early 1960, when he was with Monk, and then back with Miles Davis, he came a long way. Once he started his own band in April, 1960, he really was able to do music just the way he wanted to. He knew what he wanted to do at that point, he picked who he wanted to play with, and he had his own repertory.

AAJ: What is your take on Ira Gitler's "sheets of sound" depiction of Coltrane's style?

LP: It was intended to refer to something very specific that Coltrane was doing in 1958, neither before or after. During that year, he was working with double, triple, and quadruple timing, while the bassist is still walking at the same pace. So you end up playing a lot of notes per beat. And at that point it got to be so fast, that Ira Gitler said that it was as if Coltrane were playing "sheets of sound." I like to restrict that term to Trane's work with double timing, etc., in 1958.

AAJ: Going forward in time, are there others besides yourself and Dave Liebman who have explored Coltrane's late pieces such as Meditations in great depth?

LP: There's a real gap there. I can think of people who did a lot of work on Trane, but they're not even interested in the later stuff. For that, I'd have to go to my own book's bibliography. There is a fellow in Germany named Gerhard Putschogl who has done some interesting studies of the late works. Most of the study of the late work has been done in Europe, and, in truth, there's not much.


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