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Joe Vella: Podcasting Trane

By Published: March 15, 2007
The process of the interviews was pretty simple. I had about five questions that I'd ask everybody. Then I'd create four questions to the person's specialty. With Jason Moran I knew I wanted to do something about [pianist Thelonious] Monk, because I knew he loved Coltrane and he was also influenced by Monk. For Joe Lovano I focused on the saxophone, knowing that he was a virtuoso player and his dad was a virtuoso player. His dad had told him about Coltrane. And so forth. And with the alumni, I would talk about John Coltrane the person because they had first-hand experience dealing with him and it would be a compelling part of the story to hear from people who knew him as a person and who'd played with him as a musician. And who had shared in the historical twelve years that he was recording on his own.

So that's how I started—figuring out the questions and groupings and direction. Yet it was still improvisational, because I didn't just want to read a list of questions. My whole approach is that I do prepare, but I also leave a whole lot of space for the happy accidents. The best stuff happens when you think you're done. That's when the person really opens up. When they think the spotlight's off of them. I learned that with earlier podcast work. So going into the Traneumentary was not a rookie thing for me. I had already interviewed hundreds of people and produced lots and lots of podcasts.

I started by going to see McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note in August of last year [2006]. I just hung out with him in the middle of two sets. I watched a set with him and Pharaoh Sanders, then I went backstage and said, "I'd like to interview you for this Coltrane project I'm doing." He didn't know what a podcast was, but he understood it was like radio pieces.

So I played him the preview episode in a very rough format. He just listened to it. It was kind of weird. He just stopped—I had never met him before, so it was kind of weird. He listened to it with headphones and he bowed his head. In that preview is three minutes of John Coltrane talking about where he was in 1960. Where he was harmonically and trying to find a beautiful tone. McCoy listened. Then he took off the headphones and he thanked me for playing it. I could tell he was touched by it. He said, "It's so nice to hear John's voice again." And he handed me back the headset. I said, "Could we talk about John Coltrane?" And he said, "I really can't talk about it in this short a period of time. Why don't we get together and just sit down and talk?"

Joe Vella (l) with McCoy Tyner (r)

So he agreed to record a greeting, which is available on iTunes. He cut that right after we had listened to that piece. I told him I'd come back later when he had time. So he laid down the greeting. I didn't do much with it. The windows were open and you can hear that it was noisy in the Village. I thought it sounded cool so I left it there. He was the last person I interviewed. I saved McCoy for the end. He just talked and talked. It was fun talking about the experience of interviewing twenty-five people about John Coltrane.

I had maybe ten or twenty questions based on the interviews I'd already conducted. It was really cool to hear his take on it. He really knew John Coltrane as a young man, so it was great to do my fact checking with McCoy Tyner. He listened to a lot of the episodes, including the commentaries, and he was really blown away by the whole thing. I showed him iTunes and the iPod. He was very beautiful about the whole thing. We must have sat there for two hours.

It's a unique program. It's really not NPR and it's really not radio and it's really not "Hey, go buy John Coltrane." It really is a sincere sampling of proficient professionals. The whole thread underneath it all is an infinite denominator of love and respect and awe. Everybody has a different story or a different take about John Coltrane's music and which period is their favorite.

And there are two groups of people—the people who saw Coltrane and the people who didn't see him, who learned through LPs like myself. For the group that actually saw Coltrane live, they were able to elaborate well about the experience of seeing him and being blown away. Not really knowing what the hell you were watching. Watching four guys on stage—particularly with the quartet with Jimmy [Garrison] and Elvin [Jones] and McCoy—doing things that they never thought could be done with instruments in a way that they had never imagined. Just being in a spell. [Producer] Michael Cuscuna really defined this in his Impulse! episode. He did a great narrative on seeing Coltrane live.

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