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Published: 2006/07/20
by Rob Johnson

Coltrane Revisited

As the year 2005 dawned, John Coltrane was already firmly established as a legendary figure in the history of jazz, as well as one of the few jazz cats whose appeal stretches beyond the Down Beat crowd. However, last year brought us two posthumous releases that give us a fresh reminder of exactly how powerful and influential Trane was on the jazz scene of his time, not to mention everything that has followed since.

The first of these two gems from the vault is the sublime The Thelonius Monk Quartet Live At Carnegie Hall. This pristine recording from a November 1957 show had been languishing in the Voice of America archives until an alert researcher “discovered” it recently, and what a find! Here are two of the most distinctive and unique voices in modern music, creating an amazing musical symbiosis.

Given his later fame, it’s easy to forget that for years Coltrane was a relatively obscure sideman playing other people’s music. Before Trane could become a master in his own right, he had to be a student first. He honed his chops with everybody from Miles to Monk to Ornette Coleman, and learned something along the way from each of them.

He had been fired from Miles Davis’ band for substance abuse issues in 1955, and his jazz career seemed virtually over. However, he managed to beat his heron addiction, largely because he had a spiritual awakening that convinced him that music was his purpose in life. (This epiphany is described poetically in the liner note to Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme) Having conquered his demons and dedicated himself to pursuing music with all his being, all he needed was another chance to prove that he had something to offer the music world. The legendary eccentric genius of jazz piano, Thelonius Monk, would end up giving him that chance.

“1957 was the year Coltrane became Coltaneon a number of levels,” says jazz scholar Ashley Kahn in one of several liner note essays. “And Thelonius Monk had more than a little to do with it.”

John Coltrane found a wonderful mentor and kindred musical spirit in Monk, one of the few people on the planet who took music as seriously as he did. It’s accepted wisdom that Miles Davis was the major force in shaping his musical future, but this release makes a strong argument for Monk as the main influence on Coltrane’s later solo work.

“I think Monk is one of the true greats of all time, a musical architect of the highest order. I learned from him in every waythrough the senses, theoretically, technically,” said Coltrane later about his time with Thelonius.

There was a literal student-teacher relationship at play here, with Coltrane learning Monk’s quirky compositions through long hours of practice. When John asked Thelonius a simple question about a certain chord, he would often get an hour-long dissertation about all the possible ways to play it. While frustrating at first, constant practice and regular gigs at the Five Spot club soon created something amazing and beautiful.

By the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, Monk and Trane had been playing together regularly for less than a year, but Coltrane had mastered the idiosyncrasies of the material and the band had been receiving rave reviews for their Five Spot gigs. The Monk quartet had a modest place on the bill at this show, below more notable artists like Billie Holiday and Ray Charles, but they were arguably the most important performance that evening.

There were two shows, an early show and a late show, and the early show begins with the dreamy, haunting “Monk’s Mood.” The performance opens with Thelonius laying down piano lines with precision and style, and the title would suggest, it does set the mood. When Coltrane comes in with one of his soon-to-be-famous dramatic entrances, the moment is electric. Any doubts as to whether this release would live up to the hype are instantly vanquished.

“Evidence” is another tune that could only be written by Monk, full of odd rhythms and strange juxtapositions. The greatness of this band, however, is that they made it all sound so natural and easy. The highlight of the early show is the closer, “Epistrophy.” The very quintessence of Monk-ism, it’s hard to truly understand how strange and unusual this would have sounded in 1957. Coltrane is right there on the theme, and delivers a forceful and audacious solo.

The late show features a wonderful rendition of “Blue Monk” with Monk and Coltrane locked in to each other’s every thought, and it’s worth stating that Thelonius has never sounded as good on piano. However, our focus here is Trane, and his solo on the ballad “Sweet and Lovely” is possibly the best he ever recorded in somebody else’s band. Starting off slowly and delicately, it turns on a dime and goes into a doubletime frenzy. Full of fire and passion, this is some of Coltrane’s best playing, and it gave those in the audience that night a foreshadowing of what was to come.

Throughout this disc, there is a tremendous sense of communication and mutual respect, and in a way, it’s surprising that this partnership didn’t last longer. Coltrane would leave Monk’s band mere weeks later, and with the exception of one gig in 1958, they would never play together again. Having learned so much about music theory and composition, the importance of putting the right note in the right place, Trane was now ready to start writing in earnest and creating his own music.

After this successful run with Monk, Coltrane returned to Miles Davis and recorded the excellent Milestones album. Soon afterward this great band would cut one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Kind Of Blue. Trane shared in the universal acclaim that was showered on that instant classic, and by 1960 he cut his version of “My Favorite Things” and catapulted into a kind of superstardom that very few jazzmen ever attain.

His status as a solo artist established, over the next year Coltrane put together one of the greatest bands of all time, the so-called Classic Quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. By 1965 they were the most celebrated band in jazz, and the release of Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme sealed the deal. At the peak of his fame, Trane returned to his roots by playing a series of shows at a tiny New York club called the Half Note. These shows were legendary, and taped copies made the rounds of jazz cats like Deadheads used to trade the 77 Cornell show, but they have never been officially released until now.

In contrast to Carnegie Hall’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Jazzman” view of an embryonic Coltrane coming into his own, the other posthumous release from last year shows Trane at the peak of his powers. This is the mythological Coltrane, a commanding figure whose musical powers had become almost superhuman. Through relentless practice and fierce determination, he had achieved a kind of mastery that few musicians even know exists. Like Indian masters such as Ravi Shankar, for whom Coltrane named his son, he could achieve a kind of trance that allowed him to perform amazing feats. Legends exist of Coltrane playing an hour-long solo, of the Quartet playing a song for two hours. It’s easy to dismiss this talk as mere urban legendthat is, until you hear it

One Down, One UpLive at the Half Note features the Classic Quartet at their very best. This two-disc set is drawn from two shows in early 1965, March 26th and May 7th, at a tiny club called the Half Note. Within this relatively nondescript building, now a convenience store. Coltrane and company created a new kind of jazz religion.

“It was like being in church,” says Half Note audience member and Coltrane collaborator Archie Shepp. “Coltrane brought something which raised this music from secular music to a religious world music.”

In the Half Note recordings, you can see how this music could inspire religious devotion.
Spiritual themes were cropping up more and more frequently in Coltrane’s work, which may explain why, forty years later, there is a Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco. This spiritual devotion had just reached an incredible pinnacle with A Love Supreme, and the sheer intensity of the playing suggests a supernatural power is at work here.

“Trane just did his musiche was like on a mission,” explains Mike Canterino, former owner of the Half Note. “When he wanted to play an hour and a half, it was ok, man, it was just fine.”

The two discs contain a mere four songs, each stretched to the breaking point, and the sheer intensity and telepathic improvisation is mind-boggling. The title track “One Down, One Up” is basically a freewheeling improv that runs 28 minutes without getting old, and it features some of Coltrane’s most passionate, inspired playing. About halfway through Tyner and Garrison drop out, and Trane and Elvin spend the next 12 minutes in a head-to-head jamfest that will leave your head spinning. Neither man retreats or backs down for a second, both jamming relentlessly until Garrison and Tyner jump back in at the end and bring everything to an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion.

There is a relentless, searching quality to Coltrane’s music that separates it from most music, even most good music, and that quality shines brightly on this track. You can practically FEEL him trying to break on through to the other side as he attacks various progressions and riffs, working out every possible combination as if trying to find a skeleton key to musical enlightenment. He gets there more often in this awe-inspiring display of stamina than most musicians do in their entire careers.

It’s tempting to compare this freewheeling improvisation to “Chasin’ The Trane,” a similarly off-the-cuff exercise from the Village Vanguard sessions, but this is an exponentially more powerful performance. Coltrane’s playing is more intense and precise, the band is tighter, and the overall effect is more impressive.

“Of course, this is a whole other story,” says former Miles Davis sideman Dave Liebman. “The band’s completely developed.”

After the band crashes to a close, even smooth-talking DJ Alan Grant seems to be rendered speechless by this astonishing performance. He does manage to say that the band started playing the song at 10:40, the broadcast picked up at 11:15, and now it’s 11:45. Grant sounds genuinely shaken by what he has just witnessed, and it’s easy to understand how this music could leave people, as piano legend Cecil Taylor says, “sitting there with their mouths open, brains completely paralyzed by the music, unable to call for the waiter.”

The version of “Afro Blue” that closes Disc One could easily be forgotten in the shadow of such a performance, but if nothing else, it deserves attention for one of Tyner’s most explosive and powerful solos. Coltrane comes back in at the end with a wildly energetic romp through various scales and devices, restlessly searching for the right combination that will launch the jam into orbit. Just as the band locks into an avant-garde groove, Grant’s smooth voice fades out the show as Trane and company wail into the night.

Disc Two opens with “Song of Praise,” which has a slow gospel groove reminiscent of “Psalm” from A Love Supreme, or “Spiritual” from Live at the Village Vanguard. After setting a deeply soulful mood, Trane once again goes off script for a wild ride through the possibilities of the saxophone. Tyner comes in for a solo that illustrates his incredibly syncopated technique, his left and right hand playing strikingly different tones that seem to come from two different instruments. Jones hammers away with power and abandon throughout without ever losing the groove, Garrison is sublimely in the pocket, and when Coltrane returns with one of his patented dramatic entrances, it’s pure magic.

This is the band that inspired a kind of new religion in the jazz world, and even today it sounds almost frighteningly intense and powerful. The total commitment that everyone displays, especially Coltrane, is something that transcends the years and pierces to the soul of what music is supposed to be about. As Elvin Jones later said, “To play the way we play, you have to be willing to die.”

“Though the music had many roots, there are little to no examples of this kind of improvisation prior to this band,” says Ravi Coltrane with family pride. “This style just didn’t exist before these guys played it.”

Truer words were never spoken. Every band of the last 40 years, from the Grateful Dead to Phish to Umphrey’s McGee that jams “without a net” is deeply in debt to the fearless envelope-pushing improvisational wizardry of the Classic Quartet. It’s considered common knowledge in the jamband scene that quality music can be created totally spontaneously without any preconceived structure. This was not always thought possible, but the kind of improvisation contained on One Up, One Down proved that it could be done.

The show ends with Coltrane’s signature piece, “My Favorite Things.” This band had played this song dozens, if not hundreds, of times by this point, but they still attack it with fresh zeal and a wonderfully swinging sense of rhythm. The opening theme is tight and crisp, and leads into a focused and powerful Coltrane solo that bristles with energy and ideas. After a relatively short solo, he veers back into the theme with the band glued to his every move. They are hitting on all cylinders and can do no wrong.

Tyner steps up for a long solo in the middle, and you can see why his reputation was largely made on his beautiful playing on this song. He plays with different voices, different rhythms, and Garrison and Jones support him fully all the way. Trane comes roaring back in like only he could and takes another brilliant solo, and the band is still wailing along as the radio broadcast signs off for the night. Coltrane’s signature tune was his interpretation of “My Favorite Things,” and like any great jazz song, it had limitless potential for exploratory improvisation. Even if you are already familiar with the countless other live versions of this staple in the Coltrane catalog, this rendition holds new wonders, new secrets, new revelations.

By the end of 1965, having conquered the jazz universe, Coltrane was still unsatisfied. He broke up the Classic Quartet and moved in an even more avant-garde direction, forming a new band with his wife Alice and saxman Pharoah Sanders that recorded such albums as the classic Meditations. Many people find the music of Coltrane’s later years to be unlistenable, but after hearing the Half Note recordings, it seems like a natural progression towards new musical territory.

Unfortunately, Coltrane didn’t live long enough to realize the potential of his later period, dying in 1967 at the tragically young age of forty. Unlike some artists who only find fame after death, Trane was already the undisputed king of jazz saxophone when he died, and his passing left a void in the jazz world that has never been truly filled again.

John Coltrane pursued a forward path throughout his time on this planet, and even nearly forty years after his untimely passing, he remains one of the most relevant figures in modern music. Everyone who considers themselves a fan of jazz, spirituality through sound, or just plain hot jamming needs to be familiar with this giant’s incredible legacy. These two releases are a good place to start.

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