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John Coltrane: Coltrane And Crescent—Shadows And Light

Mark Werlin By

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Some jazz musicians—too many—cast their own shadows of addiction and self-destructiveness. But often—too often—new directions and developments in jazz are shadowed not by the musicians themselves, but by their detractors.
Visual art is a play of shadow and light, and contrast makes the forms visible. In the best jazz music, there is a kind of inner light that emanates from the musicians, the light of creative impulse, the light of spontaneous artistic expression. Some jazz musicians—too many—cast their own shadows of addiction and self-destructiveness. But often—too often—new directions and developments in jazz are shadowed not by the musicians themselves, but by their detractors.

A series of Impulse albums of the John Coltrane Quartet are being released as 192kHz/24bit downloads, coinciding with the 90th anniversary of Coltrane's birth. Two of those albums, Coltrane, recorded in 1962, and Crescent, recorded in 1964, can be viewed as bookends in the career of the Quartet: Coltrane was the first studio date by the classic lineup and Crescent was one of the last Quartet sessions prior to Coltrane's departure on his late-phase musical journey. Both albums capture the ensemble at significant moments in its development, and warrant acknowledgment as major works.

Why then, have these two recordings been accorded so little attention by writers and musical authorities? In the standard biographies, even in Lewis Porter's excellent John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the subject albums receive scant description and analysis, as if they were afterthoughts or sketches rather than fully-conceived projects.

It is likely that these albums are overlooked because so much light is trained on the sessions that preceded and succeeded them: Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions from November 1961, and A Love Supreme from December 1964. The recordings of the John Coltrane-Eric Dolphy band were considered so important that producer Michael Cuscuna gathered all the tapes made during November 1961 and issued a much-expanded 4-CD set. In 2002, the Impulse team, working with original session engineer Rudy Van Gelder, successfully located an uncompressed safety copy of A Love Supreme (the original master tape having been lost) in the EMI tape vault; a French radio broadcast master tape of a 1965 live performance; and Coltrane's own work tapes preserved by his family, in preparation for A Love Supreme (Deluxe Edition).

If those spotlights unintentionally cast deep historical shadows over Coltrane and Crescent, the earlier album was intentionally shadowed—at the time of its recording—by a campaign of uninformed music criticism and personal attacks on Coltrane and Dolphy published in prestigious American newspapers and the preeminent jazz magazine Down Beat. The hostility and incomprehension that followed Coltrane and Dolphy's appearances at the Village Vanguard and their U.S. and European tour dates bears reexamination, as it had a significant impact on the label's working relationship with Coltrane, and Trane's own artistic development.

JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET: COLTRANE

John Coltrane's earliest recordings for Impulse were shaped by his friendship and collaboration with Eric Dolphy. The live performances on Live at the Village Vanguard and Impressions reveal the tenor player transitioning away from the dense compositional structures that reached an apogee on Giant Steps towards song forms inspired by Eric's enthusiasm for African and Indian music. The months working with Dolphy, and the accumulated conversations about jazz the two friends had enjoyed since first meeting in the mid-1950s, had the greatest impact on Coltrane's development after his 1957 tenure with Thelonious Monk. Dolphy, though he always played on the changes, was a pioneering 'outside' jazz musician; restless, innovative, obsessive. His dazzling, wide-interval alto sax solos and virtuoso bass clarinet playing opened Trane's already 'big ears' even wider.

A glance at Dolphy's studio dates prior to his recordings with Coltrane reveals that the Southern Californian was operating on the fringes of the New York jazz scene, and that his inclination was towards his fellow outsiders: Coltrane couldn't have chosen a more divisive musical partner; the East Coast critics didn't understand Eric Dolphy any better than they did Ornette Coleman. Dolphy's close association with the combative Mingus, whom he had known while growing up in Los Angeles, placed him firmly in the enemy camp. Dolphy was West Coast, but he swam far outside the cool jazz currents and the Blue Note Records hard-bop mainstream.

John and Eric took a further step beyond the boundaries of acceptable conduct for signed musicians when they befriended the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, who was bringing African music and pan-African cultural consciousness to New York's black community. Olatunji, an outspoken civil rights activist, traveled the American South with Dr. Martin Luther King and would participate in the 1963 March on Washington. Coltrane had spent endless hours practicing music from a European theoretical ground; now he was being exposed to music from the African continent. Dolphy's fascination with African rhythms and Indian classical music, and the possibilities opened up by playing over drone melodic patterns, led to the collaborative piece "India," which he and Coltrane performed and recorded during the November 1961 Village Vanguard run.

Catching Trane by surprise, several jazz critics attacked the direction of his new music. Over the following months, Coltrane's recording plans were shadowed by a rancorous debate in the pages of Down Beat Magazine. After hearing Coltrane and Dolphy perform, Down Beat's West Coast editor John Tynan wrote:

"I listened to a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend... Melodically and harmonically their improvisation struck my ear as gobbledygook... to these ears the sum of the sounds remains musical nonsense." (John Tynan, Down Beat, November 23, 1961)

The chorus of incomprehension extended across the Atlantic to the respected English publication Melody Maker:

"Despite the most intense concentration, I had no more idea at the end of the group's hour-long programme what it was all about, than I had at the beginning. There just seems to be no logical basis to any of it." (Bob Dawbarn, Melody Maker)

Even allowing for the unfamiliarity of the new music, such misguided reviews were not a response to Coltrane and Dolphy's demonstration of "anti-jazz" but evidence of those critics' stopped-up ears and reactionary preconceptions about what was musically acceptable in the genre.
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