Coltrane’s Hidden Gems: A Seeker’s Guide

John Coltrane, 1963 By Gelderen, Hugo van / Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (], via Wikimedia Commons

Seems like anybody who was in San Francisco in the summer of 1966 will tell you that season was the true summer of love—before acid was made illegal in the Golden State, before semi-clueless, wide-eyed kids from across the land descended on the country’s most beautiful city, before tourist buses croaked through the Haight-Ashbury, before the TV cameras and grey-faced commentators began their anti-hippie spin, before, well, the branding and, thus, co-opting (and COINTELPRO) of the counterculture began in earnest, local arts and activist groups staged a faux “Death of the Hippie” funeral in 1967 to proclaim the demise of a scene that graced the landscape if but for a moment.

But, a coast away, there was another, very real, death in mid-July of 1967, the effects of which still roll on the shores of space and time.

John Coltrane’s swoop off the mortal coil, while not the death of jazz, sounded a knell of finality heard and felt by a tribe of improvisers and seekers everywhere.

With the anniversary of Trane’s ascendancy to another plain a half century past looming as if softly on a morning sunrise, appreciation of his contribution and achievement is spiking like never before. The well-timed release of Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, John Scheinfeld’s engaging and respectful homage to the icon of Black Music, serves as both a fine introduction to the uninitiated and reaffirmation to the seasoned maven alike in its survey of its subject’s basic biographical and creative arc with heavy layerings of his spiritual journey. And it guides the viewer to all of the sonic signposts that any admirer of the man’s canon (or those curious about it) would gravitate.

Also highly recommended is the awe-inspiring radio documentary “Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone”. Thanks to Doug Schulkind and his always amazing annual WFMU Give The Drummer Some broadcast of the show, I have gained an ever deeper love supreme.

Following in that vein, those new to Coltrane’s music and those at least casually familiar with it might want to take a dive into the deeper, less obvious, musical end.

Keeping the Coltrane biography simple, the saxophonist was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on the far side of the 1926 autumnal equinox—an only child grandson of a stump preacher. The sudden death of his grandparents, father and aunt within months of one another in 1938 drove the remnants of the family north to Philadelphia. He got his first horn in ’43, enlisted in Navy the day after Hiroshima met its maker, played in military bands, and entered the fray of BeBop wannabes upon his discharge.

Coltrane’s first, big break came when he joined Miles Davis’ band in 1956. Yeah, he’d been in Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges’ ensembles, shared a stage with Bird and battled with a few of the up-and-coming tenor turks on the block. But it was with Miles that the spotlight got brighter and scrutiny enhanced.

Miles had by then established himself as the new face of the art form who, in introducing modal compositions with Gil Evans in their Birth of the Cool collaborations, had reshaped the contours of what jazz was and was becoming.

Coltrane’s distinctive sound can be heard on his early work with Miles but, despite his evident progress, he was given a pink slip due to his drug use and general lack of professionalism. Being a junkie was bad enough but for the dapper, punctual Davis, showing up late in the clothes you slept in… well, that would never do.

This professional and personal setback may have been the best thing to ever happen to Coltrane. Locking himself in a room in his Philadelphia home, the musician went cold turkey and, by all accounts, underwent a profound spiritual transformation that remained with him until he fell off the planet a decade hence.

Joining Thelonious Monk’s quintet, the change in Coltrane’s sound was immediately palpable. Yes, the smile can still be heard in the man’s playing but so, too, can some dissonance reflecting perhaps, Monk’s own spare, angular stabs at the keyboard punctuating and roiling throughout their brief 1957-58 union.

Clean and sober, Coltrane returned to Miles’ fold in 1958, a solid citizen on and off the bandstand.

A famous (and tellingly funny) apocryphal story goes something like this: Coltrane was having a hard time figuring out how to finish a solo and asked Miles for advice. Miles’ reply: “Try taking the horn out of your mouth.”

Certainly Coltrane’s sound, if not fully realized, was certainly approaching signature form as he re-settled into his role as Miles Davis’ tenor man in the trumpeter’s iconic groups of the mid- to late 1950s. That big, buoyant Coltrane touch can especially be heard on Kind of Blue, still the go-to Miles LP from the era or, for that matter, any era. The album still and will forever be cherished as groundbreaking for its quiet minimalist subtleties, as kind of zen as it is blue. And if “So What” is the near cliché tune of choice from the collection, all of the others contribute to create what might be characterized as a mandala of so-called “cool” jazz. How many scenes of seduction included Kind of Blue as background music the world will never know…

Kind of Blue is a studio album, recorded in the spring of 1959. But jazz is, primarily, a live performance medium and when Miles took his band to Europe a year later, their sets featured extended versions of tunes from both Kind of Blue and those featured in Davis’ late ‘50s recorded repertoire. “All Blues,” a thematically-related composition to “So What,” its better known step-sister, got this extended treatment during the tour and can provide a glimpse into Trane’s rapidly evolving approach to the longer form solo in pushing the envelope to a breaking point. Miles, somewhat against type, seemed content with letting Coltrane take longer solos than himself, perhaps because he knew he was witnessing a breakthrough not only for his sideman but for the music itself. Trane was becoming Trane right before Miles’ very ears.

Picking up in the midst of his solo at the 8:00 mark, Trane happens upon a series of five or six notes that he repetitively twists and turns into a daffy, mind-bending taffy for nearly two minutes of meditative, mantra-like exploration that always threatens to ride off the rails but never does.

By 1960, with Miles’ popularity at an early apex, Coltrane was becoming a star in his own right. And while he had recorded some albums for Prestige and Blue Note under own name, it was his releases on Atlantic that he made his mark for those with jazz ears and beyond.

Recorded just a couple of weeks after Kind of Blue, Giant Steps was Trane’s first landmark album as a leader, noted for its formalization of so-called “sheets of sound,” a high-speed approach to soloing producing hundreds of notes per minute that he conceived and began perfecting during his stint with Monk. Giant Steps gave Trane the street cred he had earned but it was My Favorite Things a year later that made his music as much as a national sensation as it could be in 1961.

The album, unlike its Atlantic predecessors (Giant Steps and the less-heralded Coltrane Jazz) contained no original compositions. No huge surprise there as jazz had since standards had, since the Swing Era at least, relied on American Song Book for performance fodder. Coltrane’s take on the title tune is, of course, famous and was a brilliant, though probably unintended marketing move, in shaping then a wildly popular show tune from the then-new and evergreen musical The Sound of Music as an improbably jazz vehicle. Equally improbably was Coltrane’s instrument of choice for the outing: soprano saxophone, a horn that rarely been featured in any popular jazz ensemble since Sidney Bechet first blew one New Orleans style in the 1920s. And, for the obsessive, charting Coltrane’s interpretation of the song for the balance of his corporeal and musical life is instructive in grasping the man’s ever-blooming musical vision. He essentially always included it in his performance kick bag until the very end. And it has become a near staple, nay, a right of passage for every jazz unit since—from the Sun Ra Arkestra to Kenny G.

But even the mildest of Trane freaks knows that already, right? The more intrepid listener and newbie alike might want to blow the dust off “But Not For Me,” a ‘30s George and Ira Gershwin tune and the last track on My Favorite Things. With chord changes and construct similar to that of “Giant Steps,” “But Not For Me” is just that perfect melodic vehicle for Coltrane to flex his chops. He gets to have his musical cake and eat it too… with a cherry on top as he plays the head before splaying those sheets of sound across his aural tapestry while also tinkering with harmonic dissonance. This is especially keen around the 7:10 mark after Trane swoops in for his second solo after McCoy Tyner’s piano stroll.

Taking a cue from Duke Ellington, whose pan-global suites of the period celebrated the music of the family of humankind, Coltrane set off compositions with a resonant embrace. “Africa” (the centerpiece of the nouveau big band album Africa/Brass) and “Olé” (from Olé Coltrane) were recorded within days of one another in the spring of 1961 and show a man firmly on a mission, tinkering with personnel and compositional vision as he broadens the reach and expanse of his sound in both his his instrument and the solidification of what became his classic quartet: Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison’s unusual bass playing and Elvin Jones’ drumming tsunami. Of equal importance, the saxophonist’s interest in American folk roots music was becoming evident with “Greensleves.”

As a bit of a side note, it should probably not be lost on the musical omnivore that Coltrane’s interest in and use of folk forms dovetails precisely with the folk music renaissance (and all the pro-Civil Rights, lefty politics that went along with it) then sweeping the nation or, at least, its prime cultural burgs. Dylan had landed in the Village less than a year before and entered this tidal pool just as its popularity was reaching a peak.

With many of the folk music cafés and jazz clubs within walking distance of one another and presumably some of their patrons and performers frequenting both, is it any wonder that Trane was picking up on the beauty and possibility of these songs?

One such chestnut was “Song of the Underground Railroad” (recorded for but not appearing on the original Africa/Brass release of) AKA “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “Song of the Underground Railroad,” be it through the lungs of Coltrane (or, for that matter, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens or any folk singer or church choir worth their salt) is a joyous cry of escape and redemption. Dating back to at least the early 19th century, the song’s coded lyrics implored its first listeners to chart their path north by way of the drinking gourd or, as it is more commonly known, the Big Dipper, which pointed runaway slaves to the North Star and, thus, freedom.

All of these elements were in play in early November 1961 when Coltrane held forth at the high temple of jazz: the Village Vanguard on lower 7th Avenue in Manhattan. With a floating contingent of musicians sharing the Vanguard’s spare, storied stage, Coltrane’s music was headed for places unknown.

Here Trane unveiled a mosaic of varied and challenging new jazz, tunes that would familiar in his setlist (“Impressions,” “Spiritual,” “Chasin’ the Trane”) and tunes that would not. Of those that would not, “India” stands out as among Coltrane’s most moving and compelling, a lost jewel sucked by the tides back into the oceans of time. A modal piece that evokes the mysteries of the titular sub-continent, Trane goes into deep snake-charming mode, building his soprano solos with phrase-upon-phrase, reaching an infectious magisterial ecstasy that if doesn’t yet heal the lame, may so one day.

Coltrane, by this point, was beginning to lean towards the stratosphere for deeper inspiration and this burgeoning inclination might first be heard on “Out of this World,” a Harold Arlen tune first introduced when Bing Crosby sang it in the 1945 movie of the same title. As the lengthy centerpiece of his 1962 album Coltrane, “Out of this World” is one of those bring-you-to-your-knees weeping with paroxysms of joyful tears that, while not proving the existence of an unseen All-Mighty looming in the void of non-moving things, is one man’s expression of it. Really, there are times listening to this where, true to its title, the very edge of the ever-expanding universe might be fleetingly glimpsed.

With all due respect to Tyner and Garrison (what would those bands been without them!), a hallmark of Coltrane’s early to mid-1960s quartet were his mid-tune duets with drummer Elvin Jones. There is a point on any number of tunes from the epoch where the pianist and bassist drop out and leave Coltrane and Elvis to engage in an extreme duel of sorts. Check out just about any of the surprisingly limited film footage of from this or any epoch of Coltrane’s short life and the visual is striking: the prayerful Coltrane (stoic, humble and impassioned) conjures his muse as he and Elvin (hunched over his kit, a hydra of movement and perspiration) battle and augment one another, yin and yang made animate, an angel and demon at play…

This aspect of Coltrane’s oeuvre is, correct me if I’m wrong, pretty much singular to him and can be appreciated in full, dynamic flower on a few 1963 recordings: “Your Lady” (from the popular Live at Birdland) and “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Impressions” (from the less well-known Afro-Blue Impressions).

A key to attenuating one’s antennae to deeper appreciation and just plain enjoyment of the man’s music to the extended musical phrase that introduces his second solo on a given piece, a prolonged mind breath after the piano solo. A Coltrane quartet recording will typically begin with a piano intro, followed by Trane’s phrasing of the melody with some attendant, if muted, variation on the theme, followed by the piano-led trio, followed by the saxophonist’s leap back into the breach. That leap usually includes these extended musical paragraphs and acts as a launch-pad into Trane blowing his mind (and ours too). It is these sublime moments where one can hear the man think. There are innumerable examples of this device, but my favorite is probably his reemergence on Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro-Blue” from the aforementioned Afro-Blue Impressions album. Check it out at the 3:00 mark:

Everyone loves A Love Supreme and why not? It is, after all, regarded Coltrane’s definitive musical and spiritual statement, a paean to the soul, holy or otherwise. It will forever sit on the shrine of holy Coltrane albums. Recorded in December 1964, A Love Supreme, like “My Favorite Things” before it, seemed to catch a tail-wind of the global zeitgeist. But another album, First Meditations, recorded the following September is similarly conceived and generally unheralded. Whether or not this was due to its release a decade after Coltrane’s death I can’t say. But I can say that this last recording by the Coltrane quartet proper. The whole album feels like an addendum to A Love Supreme with one cut in particular, “Joy,” putting an exclamation point on all Trane’s music had stood for up to that point.

Guiding the curious listener through Trane’s post-quartet discography is a most dangerous game indeed. Tyner and Jones left the band, replaced by Coltrane’s wife Alice on piano, avant-garde drummer Rashied Ali on drums and, as to make things even more disrupting, another tenor saxophonist, Pharaoh Sanders. These last albums are not for the feint-of-heart. Rather, they are, by and large, challenging, un-apologetic, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners, squealing, fasten-your-seatbelt explosions of unrestrained cacophony. You can love it or hate, take it or leave it but one thing for is sure: it tends to swing more to the ear with age. Or not. Ascension, Live in Seattle, Om (rumored to have been recorded with the band soaring on LSD), Kulu Se Mama, Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, and the recently discovered and released Offering… a taste of these and others reveal a man who probably sensed he was on the way out. Compare and contrast Coltrane’s early and late musics with those of Bach. The optimistic, youthful, naive buoyancy of their youth seems replaced by two visionaries gazing squarely into and coming to musical and spiritual terms with the abyss.

I was fortunate in that my first two Coltrane albums included Trane’s Concert in Japan (recorded during a summer 1966 tour—remember, the true summer of love) which I bought in the autumn of 1974, drawn to its gorgeous album art evoking Hokusai’s striking imagery. Maybe because I had begun absorbing the Grateful Dead’s exploratory “Dark Star,” I found some of Concert in Japan accessible enough so that it did not immediately send me running for the hills. While there is ample interstellar “space” music on Concert in Japan, there was more than enough of the soaring, seeking, all-embracing, all-loving musical soul emanating from its primary player to open the eyes of a high school senior in the early throes of his own transformation. The title “Peace on Earth” must have sounded like a prayer of sorts as Coltrane played it to a country still healing from the wounds of WWII. May it one day be true…