Second Act / Expression
We meet again, everyone! After a short two year hiatus, I’ve decided to continue writing again. Quite a bit has happened in my absence.
Long story short, I was in a bus crash, got better, save for some dead nerves in my arm(which has thrown my playing into relative chaos, which is slowly improving), and I’m now working for a production company which books Jazz Standard.
This means that the structure of the blog has to change somewhat, as I can no longer commentate on music I see in the city, as it would be a conflict of interest. I’ll deal mostly with the music of people who are deceased, and non-musical commentary about people I meet on the Jazz highways. I’ll be offering some in depth commentary about recorded music, general musical practice, and philosophy, things like that.
Posts will be less regular but hopefully more in depth.
Thank you for all of the support during my recovery, I sincerely appreciate it. I couldn’t have done it without the kind smiles, company, and favors I received. Thank you all.
Now let’s get into it.
During my considerable downtime, I got a little restless and depressed. I was stuck in the house, couldn’t do anything, and had the pressure of finding a new job looming over my head.
To remedy this, I did what I usually do, listen to a ton of music. I found myself not gravitating towards new things, as is my default setting, but rather old workhorses, those deeply personal records guaranteed to put a smile on my face. Not the Love Supremes or any other powerhouse records, but the records that have a quirk or a memory attached to them, some of which I’ve mentioned on the blog, like Daddy Plays the Horn by Dexter or Out Front by Jaki, and others which I haven’t, like the Oscar Peterson Songbooks or Ella and Basie.
I did at one point stumble upon A Love Supreme, which I love to death but never listen to, out of respect and fear that I’ll start embedding not only the feeling but the notes from the record into my own playing. The record stands as one of the most purposeful and personal statements in all of art, every second of it a riveting piece that at once breaks your heart and sets it on fire. It’s enough to get anyone impassioned, but especially musicians who more or less speak the language.
Truly, John Coltrane was an artist of such magnitude that he commands the respect of all who made art after him. One can listen to the history of musicians who came after him and hear his shadow looming over them. There are groups of extremely dedicated musicians who rifle through every recording, searching for the perfect “My Favorite Things” from the obscure European festival recorded by an avid Finnish fan who happened to have his wire recorder running. And why not? Many people would agree that Coltrane perfected his style, and set jazz on its course for the next 50 years. He’s a gargantuan figure who deserves every ounce of respect he gets, a Beethoven or Bach of his time.
However, there is one thing that has always bothered me, and continues to bother me. While people are absolutely entranced by Coltrane’s quartet, most are horrified by the music that came after it.
While there are many great artist through history, Coltrane remains at the top for me for a few reasons, the first and foremost being that he went down swinging, and not in the musical sense. Coltrane was always reaching plateaus and surpassing himself. In the Mid 50s, he became a master of chord changes in the style of his predecessors. When he became one of the best at that, able to hold his own with the likes of Sonny Rollins and Johnny Griffin, he began working with the most complex harmonist around, Thelonious Monk (as did the other two. Crazy how that ended up with all of them being so distinct). After that—various circumstances notwithstanding—he moved forward and just added more chords by himself, and created the harmonic complexities of Countdown, Giant Steps, and the multitude pieces using those devices. After that, and alongside it, he went from playing as many chords as possible to as little chords as possible. Then, in the great quartet, he explored dozens of other things, spirituality, rhythm, arc, parallelism, group dynamic, and many more.
This is where most people stop. But after that, true to form, Coltrane continued to explore. Spoken word, chanting, drones, percussive experiments, freedom from form, freedom from notes, tonal explorations etc etc etc. He continued on that path until death.
Not all people are against that period of Coltrane. In my (spitballing) estimation, let’s say 80% of Coltrane lovers dislike or lower their appreciation of his late work. Of the 20% who listen and enjoy it, 10% write it off as something only Trane could do, elevating it on a pedestal as the brilliant work of a spiritual man that no one dare emulate or consider. Something along the lines of “I’m not going to try to playanything like that, I’m not Trane. Only he can play that kind of music.” Often, this way of thinking comes with a refusal of some of Trane’s successors as well, be it Anthony Braxton, early Gato Barbieri, or a slew of others. The way the music evolved by and large stemmed from the quartet.
Students of Coltrane, however, should know that he quite literally died an explorer. He never stopped his path to mastery of new and old music. And quite frankly, he enjoyed help on his journey. Between calling Sonny Rollins and exchanging phrases over the phone in the 50s, his friendship with Eric Dolphy and their mutual love of Indian Music, his long practice sessions with Wayne Shorter playing classical music and harp studies, his connection to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, or his relationship with Pharoah Sanders in his final ensembles. He was not in it alone, and he was not carrying the music directly on his back. He had help, and enjoyed having it, pushing the music forward as it always has been.
There was no financial motivation a la Miles Davis, there was no hiatus a la Sonny Rollins, and there was no retirement a la Monk. He marched forward until the end, and the least shall we say “palatable” period was right at the end.
In classical music, people speak of the “shadow of Beethoven”, and how his influence was unavoidable for composers for decades after his death. His late work was also his least palatable, and only the most cutting edge composers, musicians, and critics acknowledged them as the momentous works they are, which has continued to be the verdict to this day, as they have inspired a century or two of music since then.
There is undoubtedly a shadow of Coltrane as well. In Coltrane’s case however, he gave us a convenient out, which is being ignored and dismissed. To honor Coltrane’s legacy and revere him as a deity of the music is to honor not only the musical styles he created, but also his mentality and devotion to mastery and creation, his unending foray into the challenging and unknown.
There is no such thing as the Avant Garde, only those who are a little bit late. –Edgard Varèse