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John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life

Douglas Groothuis By

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During his later time with Miles and while he was releasing albums as a leader, Coltrane began playing what jazz writer Ira Gitler called, "sheets of sound." Jazz saxophonists had never played like this way. This phrase refers to the torrents of arpeggios Coltrane played during solos. In the liner notes to Coltrane's recording, "Traning In," Gitler wrote of Coltrane's "excruciatingly, exhilarating intensity of rapid exigent runs with their residual harmonic impact." When speaking to Hentoff, he said, "His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me. It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship." Hentoff himself put it this way, "These 'sheets of sound' were multi-note hailstorms of dense textures that sound like a simultaneous series of waterfalls." But the "sheets of sound" style was neither a way-station nor a destination for Coltrane. As Hentoff said, "Coltrane never coasted." It was rather a rung on the ladder, the top of which Coltrane could not yet see.

Cleaned up and musically matured, Coltrane rejoined the Miles Davis group in 1957. During his second stint with Miles, he recorded some of his best work to date. This culminated in the modern classic, Kind of Blue (1959). The spacious, cooler, modal style of that album offered Coltrane a structure to develop his ideas in a more grounded and less frenetic manner than found in the hot, hot bebop and bebop-influenced music. This music never lacked force or propulsion. Its fire was found in the relative simplicity of the chord progressions and the more leisurely time given for solos. Patrick Spitzer gives a more musically-specific explanation:

"The term "modal jazz" refers to improvisational music that is organized in a scalar ("horizontal") way rather than in a chordal ("vertical") manner. By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion. A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be more or less derived from the prevailing mode."

This radical innovation, pioneered by Miles Davis, put no little demands on the musicians who worked it out. Miles himself demanded excellence from his bandmates, but also gave them great freedom to experiment. Coltrane ventured fearlessly—but not recklessly—into the musical frontier of modal jazz. During his last tour with Miles in Europe in 1960, Coltrane was playing differently, and more adventurously, than he had on "Kind of Blue." One can hear him strain and experiment, sometimes perplexing the audiences. After soloing on "All Blues" in Zurich, Switzerland, on April 8, 1960, John Coltrane was booed. But he was undaunted, searching, exploring all that music could do in and through him. During the tour, Coltrane gave an interview on French radio during which he said that he had so many ideas in his head it was difficult to know where to put all of them. He knew he was in process, but he was not sure where he would end up. Coltrane was not a musician to settle into a set style from which he would never, or only slightly, deviate. Coltrane found even more freedom and possibilities for modal jazz in his intrepid "classic quartet" (1960-65).

He had recorded as a leader before, yet the near telepathy he experienced with The Classic Quartet was uncanny. Interactive energy, synergy, and sympathy existed among Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano. It was unparalleled in Coltrane's career—and, in fact, in all of jazz history. Coltrane's tone and technique grew exponentially in this sonic company, as did his ability to listen and respond to other members of the band. He found much of what he was looking for during his tenure with this quartet—but not all.

This was Coltrane's first experience as the leader of a touring ensemble. It began with Reggie Workman on bass, but Jimmy Garrison soon took his place and remained with Coltrane longer than the other members—that is, until the end. Like Coltrane, drummer Elvin Jones was pushing the traditional limits of jazz in his time-keeping. Jones's energy matched that of his leader. While he never lost the beat and could swing furiously, Jones never laid down a repetitive groove. Instead, he varied the approach through his accents, dynamic range, and propulsive creativity. Jones and Coltrane enjoyed risk-taking and exploratory reciprocity, which sparked them both toward greater heights of virtuosity. The depth and richness of this dialogue remains unique in jazz.

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