John Coltrane: Beyond the Holy Mountain

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of John Coltrane, one of the true musical giants of the 20th century whose monumental legacy casts a considerable shadow across jazz and out into the wider artistic world. With the recent release of his wife Alice’s ashram recordings, The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, and his son Ravi’s ongoing ascent to the upper echelons of contemporary jazz, Kevin Le Gendre examines how the iconic saxophonist’s work continues to influence music, art and spirituality today

Jazz has been marked by notable early deaths. Clifford Brown, Booker Little and Scott LaFaro are among some of the most deeply lamented tragedians, cut down in their prime, before they had reached their thirties, a stage in life often fruitful for those with ideas and talent.

John Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 41 in 1967, but by that time he had produced a body of work so rich it secured him a status of prophet pathfinder who embodies certain ideals in the creative act, regardless of whether or not it is allocated the term ‘jazz’. It is not so much that Coltrane’s flame was prematurely extinguished, but more that he, like one of his role models, Charlie Parker, managed to blaze a luminous trail into his truncated time on earth, so that the size of his discography, 45 studio sets (as co-leader and leader) and 11 lives, is matched by its far-reaching influence. That untimely demise has just served to brighten the halo of overachievement around our hero’s head. Above all, the saxophone virtuoso represented inspiration to many others.

 

“Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound”

 

Rashied Ali, a member of one of Coltrane’s last bands, said: “When Coltrane died the avant-garde died with him, something died with him, the leader.” Whether or not the sub-genre or school to which the saxophonist putatively belonged was indeed ‘free’ or ‘new music’, or a sound beyond the superficialities of genre, the point was made with conviction, if not deeply held reverence, simply because the term leader suffixed considerably much more than a band in Coltrane’s case.

There was also stewardship in a wider sense, whereby he would be an exemplar, if not figurehead, to whom his peers and successors would look. Which is entirely logical when one considers that, along with Sonny Rollins, he helped to define an integral part of the contemporary vocabulary of his chosen instrument, the saxophone, and that he brought a towering gravitas to his epic concert appearances.

The presence of the Coltrane name in other guises – his late, also influential wife Alice and their saxophonist son Ravi, who is active today on his own musical terms – provides an interesting sub-plot to the central story of the man who opened new musical doors for others.

John Coltrane is undoubtedly a jazz icon of the highest order. Whether or not his leviathan stature as an improviser casts a shadow on his relevance to a world beyond art music is a moot point though. In fact, locating his oeuvre within a single idiomatic space is problematic when one considers the marked difference between the various phases of a career that concludes with the structural abstractions, if not opacity, of 1965’s Om and Expression, but also boasts the intricate, invigorating quicksilver swing of 1959’s Giant Steps, the latticed orchestrations of Africa Brass, and the spellbinding modal praise songs of 1964’s A Love Supreme. There was Coltrane the composer-sound seeker-concept maker who assumed several guises all framed by Coltrane, the driven, all-consuming improviser.

Coltrane possessed a rare gift for affecting listeners through an intense focus on sound, sometimes by nothing other than a single short phrase, so as we consider all of those flights of fancy in which he dissects the finer points of tonality, chord and scale, to the extent that he seemingly destroys and recreates the essence of a song, then it’s worth remembering he could also be at his most compelling when performing an underrated function in jazz: playing a melody. Coltrane’s sensitivity, sincerity and clarity renders ‘Naima’, a love song, in the most engagingly tender way, which makes it as relevant to the canon of pop music as anthems like George Gershwin’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’, Aretha Franklin’s ‘Natural Woman’, and Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’. ‘Naima’ features a solo by pianist Wynton Kelly, not Coltrane.

His formative years in Philadelphia and his full maturity in New York afforded experiences rich enough to heighten that kind of editorial wisdom. The gigs with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and George Russell, those preternatural progressives who could hear what others could not, were vital to his development, but of equal note is the music made with alto saxophonist Earl Bostic and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. 1961’s Bags & Trane is a reminder of Coltrane’s worth as an exponent of blues and R&B. At times the set comes tantalisingly close to the work of Ray Charles insofar as it generates the warmth, the goodness, the joyousness, the ‘soul’ of which he was the harbinger.

Furthermore, there was a clear parallel between some of the mechanics of Coltrane’s later work and those of the outré architects of funk, a specific tangent of soul. With James Brown, John Coltrane shared a sonic density, an uncut heaviness, a conception of mountains of sound. Look at the tools and techniques they deployed: doubling of instruments (guitars and voices for JB, basses and reeds for JC, drum kits for both); integration of African percussion; expansion of performance length. Both engaged in a supersizing of groove and emotional intensity. Both probe turbulence, if not violence in timbre. Both take a ‘no compromise’ stance. The points of divergence between Brown and Coltrane should not blind us to those of convergence.

While we see Coltrane’s energy shape early 1970s independent American and European jazz, from ‘deep’ or ‘spiritual’ labels like Strata East and Tribe to players like Frank Lowe and Evan Parker, his permeation of improv-inclined rock bands such as the Grateful Dead and instrumental soul-funk combos is also discernible, even though the danceable sound of these acts appears alien to his own. However, the acknowledgement of his impact is writ large all around. If Clifford Jordan recorded ‘John Coltrane’ then Kool & The Gang penned ‘I Remember John W. Coltrane’.

Members of Kool, in their early guise as the Jazziacs, admired and may well have played with some of Coltrane’s trusted sidemen, Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner in New York, but what is equally important is the path of the pianist who replaced the latter, John’s wife Alice. She took the harp John himself had purchased for her and made it an integral part of work that saw her probe jazz, gospel, blues and Indian musical traditions as she embraced the teachings of a guru, Satchidananda, and became a ‘swamini’, or spiritual leader herself.

Alice’s unwavering faith led her to withdraw from commercial recording altogether in the late 1970s, but that should not deflect attention from her Warner and Impulse! albums. They stand as kith and kin to that of the illustrious spouse who encouraged her. “John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely,” she once said.

As the recently released CD The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda shows she recorded music at her ashram that availed itself of state of the art technology. Her use of synthesisers and electronics, often betraying advanced study of European classical orchestration, imbued her work with striking otherworldly nuances. At times, the hymnal themes conspire to soar right to the heavens.

Taken together, the music of John and Alice thus covers a wide electro-acoustic spectrum. Where the former innovated ‘unplugged’, the latter crafted novel resonances by ‘plugging in’, especially on that reedy, waspish wurlitzer organ. But the common denominator between the two composers was sublime tone poetry. You can call it ambiance, mood, or mantra, but the feeling generated was startling and has reached far into the more discerning end of modern music. Consider the chain: John inspires Alice; Alice finds her voice; Alice becomes a cult; anybody from Radiohead to Laura Veirs hails her great songbook.

Alice is a substantive part of John’s procession because, while her music grew from his to a large degree, it was not bound by it. In both cases there was an immense strength of character that is instructive to anybody who is serious about creating something really new in art. Above all there was a daring. A challenge to the self as well as to others to the extent that the idea of category or boundary between schools becomes irrelevant.

Fittingly, the latin-rock and soul artists who felt the Coltranes’ spirit and channelled it to pastures new were one-offs. Consider these incumbents: Carlos Santana covers John (Love Devotion Surrender) and records with Alice (Illuminations). Stevie Wonder plays John’s music on stage (‘Giant Steps’) and in the studio fashions something that has the unorthodoxy of Alice (The Secret Life Of Plants). Coltrane had disciples, the Coltranes’ gifted musical devotees.

Having said that, the second son Alice bore John, Ravi, has become a force in his own right, having overcome the none too enviable handicap of being the saxophonist son of one of the greatest of all. “I’ve seen a lot of guys hit a Coltrane wall!” said modern day tenor titan David Murray, in reference to the dead end that can await those who take an overly reverential, ultimately imitative road to the legend. John is unavoidable, but, paradoxically, he’s also to be avoided if one is to really do justice to what he stood for. Yet Ravi is not just the child of John. He is the child of Alice too, and draws inspiration from both of his parents, as human beings as well as legendary musicians.

Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, as a sideman to such as Steve Coleman, Billy Childs and Bheki Mseleku, Ravi has developed a very impressive creative voice of his own, and his original writing on albums such as Moving Pictures, From The Round Box and Spirit Fiction is excellent. His recent work in Jack DeJohnette’s trio, exemplified on 2016’s superb CD In Movement, reflects his full artistic maturity.

 

“Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’”

 

That band is actually a vital entwinement of several historical strands. Alongside Ravi is bassist Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy, a member of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, and DeJohnette sat in with John and recorded with Ravi’s mother Alice, both in her Impulse! period and on her gorgeous 2007 ‘out of retirement’ set, Translinear Light. In other words, rich chapters of jazz history coalesce in this small group with big ideas, an ensemble of different generations of players who are bound by common cause.

Indeed, the sustained development of DeJohnette, Garrison and Coltrane Jr is proof positive that musicians with a degree of courage can circumnavigate the ‘Coltrane wall’ described by Murray, and that a real handle on Coltrane, conceptually as well as sonically, will enable an artist to paint a portrait of their true self rather than produce a facsimile of another, no matter how well burnished the image.

As Denys Baptiste shows on The Late Trane it is entirely possible to acknowledge the genius of John Coltrane without being overwhelmed by it, precisely because Baptiste thought wisely about the intriguing relationship between art and pop music, reminding us that folk forms were also an essential part of the great innovator’s world view. Seen from the vantage point of the 21st century the idea and meaning of John Coltrane is immensely appealing for reasons of integrity if not idealism, an unstinting pursuit of one’s personal vision that will lead a skilled musician wherever they have to go, even if that means wailing, hollering and moaning in the middle of a concert, as was the case on the mesmerising 1965 Pharoah Sanders-guesting Seattle performance.

Coltrane explored dualities: individual voice and collective energy; single mind and plural expression; local culture and universal consciousness; a sound that is ‘in’ and ‘out’. All of which invites us to think about our ultimate perception of him. He may be a monumental part of jazz heritage, but he also leaves a blues legacy, one that does much more than swing into song forms of 12 bars with pitches bent towards desolation and salvation. Coltrane bequeaths a puzzle on what we really know, from a philosophical, social and political, as well as musical standpoint, of the blues, a phenomenon born of yesterday that still speaks to the mannish boy and motherless child of tomorrow.

 

Photo by of John Coltrane by Chuck Stewart, courtesy of Impulse!

Photo of Alice Coltrane by Sri Hari Moss

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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