Who’s afraid of John Col-trane? Well, I was for sure. For quite some time, he seemed synonymous with all that was scary about avant-garde jazz: all that furious cacophony was too much for my tender ears. Never mind that my best friend at school had been listening to JC for several years. Well, legend has it that he was reading André Gide at 14, so I had a few laps to go before I caught him up.
I steered well clear during my year off, when I had a golden opportunity for research – on my bed at the end of each working day in a minor stately home, listening to records on my new stereo while smoking a restorative menthol cigarette. Cool as a mountain stream.
At ‘uni’, I seemed to fritter quite a lot of time, somewhat under the influence, listening to Carlos Santana’s version of Coltrane’s beautiful ‘Welcome’ in a smoke-filled room with fellow ‘heads’. But still I resisted the call of the wild. And it wasn’t till I’d moved to Brighton – to fritter still more time while supposedly furthering my academic studies – that finally I succumbed.
In the otherwise musically impoverished municipal library, I found a copy of The Art of John Coltrane, a double album that came out in 1973, six years after the Great Man’s death, and compiled from the seven records that Coltrane made for the Atlantic label. The surfaces of the vinyl looked like they had been skated on by Torvill and Dean, but the content kept me going till I found a copy of my own to love and cherish and protect in its pristine state.
The albums were made just after his long tenure with Miles Davis during the second half of the 1950s that would culminate in the immortal Kind of Blue. During his Atlantic years, Coltrane was still quite tame. He was striving for something – he was always searching and striving – but his feet, so to speak, were still just about rooted on solid ground.
Reputedly Miles, before he ‘got’ Coltrane, was irritated by his new saxophonist’s volubility and asked him why he had to go on for so long. Coltrane replied that it took that long to get it all in. Maybe he knew even then that his life was destined to be so short and so intense. Towards the end of his life, after the break-up of the classic quartet that kept him grounded for so comparatively long, his yearning to ‘get it all in’ sent him boldly off into the kind of unchartered astral planes that must have been as hard for his sidemen as it was for his audience.
I remember, many years after discovering The Art of John Coltrane and going with him as far as the wonderful, spiritual A Love Supreme, stopping off in Paris en route for some ‘assignment’ somewhere and spending the night in the apartment of our artist friend, Olivier, who would take infrequent quality time-out in the Corrèze with his French bulldog, Jojo, walking and fly-fishing.
Also destined to live a short and intense life, Olivier had just bought himself a double CD full of Coltrane’s late, late stuff – and was disappointed by the contents. Where was any trace of melody, for example? He offered it to me, but I turned him down. You know you’re in trouble when the search for the unknowable involves duets (or duels?) between a saxophonist and a drummer.
There are no such terrors in the Atlantic compilation. Apart from the ominously entitled ‘The Invisible’, which came from the less-than-convincing The Avant-Garde with the committed squawking trumpeter, Don Cherry (father of Neneh and Eagle Eye), it’s stylistically all quite domesticated. The great jazz critic, Nat Hentoff, considered that the Atlantic material converted a lot of people who had previously found Coltrane difficult.
‘My Shining Hour’ for example, one of those popular songs that Coltrane loved to improvise around, could have sat quite easily with his previous body of work for Prestige and the one classic album he recorded for Blue Note, Blue Train. The tone is still as bright as a bell; he was only just experiencing some of the severe dental problems following his former heroin habit that forced him to redevelop his embouchure. It was at this stage of his career that we would first hear the kind of ruptured split tones that would characterise much of his later wilder tenor playing, when notes seemed to burst like seeds from some overripe vessel.
It was also at this stage that we would first hear the soprano sax – on tracks like the beautiful contemplative ‘Central Park West’ (where my school friend now contemplates his own life) – that also became a Coltrane trademark. In this compilation, the soprano also features on ‘Mr. Knight’; a meditative modal version of the tune generally considered to be Coleman Hawkins’ signature, ‘Body and Soul’; and one of several numbers still rooted firmly in the blues, ‘Blues to Bechet’. Otherwise, the tenor still rules the royal roost.
Three of his most brilliant jewels make The Art of John Coltrane an essential primer for the uninitiated. There is the classic enduring version of his yearning ballad, ‘Naima’, written for his wife of the time and recorded with the line up (minus Miles) that contributed ‘Freddie Freeloader’ to Kind of Blue: Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers (immortalised by Coltrane as ‘Mr. PC’) on double bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
The track appeared on the first of the Atlantic albums, Giant Steps. The title track is the second of my jewels in the Coltrane crown. Fortunately, it comes in at a little under five minutes. Any longer and the listener might suffer some lasting cardiac condition. His tenor tackles the melody at such a breathless lick that, even with circular breathing, you think it’s beyond the bounds of human capacity. One of the most flabbergasting things about it is that, for all the pyrotechnics, the melody keeps its shape throughout: ascending and ever ascending until you think it must surely fracture into a thousand pieces.
But it doesn’t. Coltrane said, ‘I’m not sure of what I’m looking for except that it’ll be something that hasn’t been played before’. By the time he came to record the third, most glittering jewel, he had settled on one of the three players to help him play the not-yet-playable: McCoy Tyner on piano. A little later, Elvin Jones on drums and, later still, Jimmy Garrison on bass would make up Coltrane’s classic quartet of the 1960s.
No one to the best of my knowledge had yet taken a pretty but fairly insubstantial song from a popular musical and transformed it over nearly 14 minutes into some kind of transcendent musical epic. As a far-too-cool 12-year old, I had been dragged kicking and screaming to see The Sound of Music at the Grand Opera House, Belfast. ‘My Favourite Things’ seemed to encapsulate everything that so insulted my pubescent sensibility.
Long before I learned to love the musical, and the song, vicariously via my daughter’s youthful delight, Coltrane transformed it into a thing of surprising beauty. His second wife, Alice, said that her husband ‘never stopped surprising himself’. Nor his listeners, one might add. And I suppose it’s this capacity for change and surprise that helps to make an artist truly great.
It’s basically a development of the modal experimentation heard on Kind of Blue. Guided onwards by Art Taylor’s cymbal work and Paul Chambers’ bass, as metronomic as a giant beating heart, first Coltrane and then, exquisitely, Tyner and finally, triumphantly, Coltrane again solo along the way to the last statement of theme before the heartbeat fades and the music lurches to a halt.
‘My Favourite Things’ was – and probably still is – the track that helped me understand my instinctive affinity for jazz. That spellbinding combination of rhythm, melody, improvisation and transformation. Coltrane would play and re-play the song, sometimes going off into the stratosphere for an hour or more, but never would he manage quite as cogently to ‘get it all in’. Certainly not for the listener, anyway.
Much as I love certain individual albums, like Blue Train, Ballads and the record he made, surprisingly, with Duke Ellington, I keep coming back to this undoubted best of his typically brief but packed spell with the Ertegun brothers’ Atlantic label. JC lives!