|David Liebman - Homage To John Coltrane (1987)|
|Front Cover||Album Info|
|AMG (4 1/2)
Homage to Trane
By Vic Schermer
[With this brief commentary, as well as the book review of Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music, and the interviews with Porter and David Liebman, All About Jazz is initiating a dialogue about John Coltrane, the person, his music, and his legacy. We invite you to submit your comments and questions for inclusion; and we also want you to let us know if you would like to write an article, book review, or CD review relevant to any aspect of Coltrane and his work. Send a brief query before submitting any lengthy material. Email all to Vic Schermer. No email attachments please, unless requested. Thanks in advance!]
"My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there's no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am - my faith, my knowledge, my being."-- John Coltrane
I am one of countless fans who have always enjoyed and appreciated the music of John Coltrane, the legendary saxophonist who over a span of perhaps two decades (a relatively small time period for a musical life), soared all over his instruments (tenor and soprano sax) and in, around, and above many of the musical styles of his day, from the mainstream tunes and harmonies through the most inventive chordal and melodic progressions, to world music, and "free" jazz. Beyond this, however, Lewis Porter's book, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, and some conversations I've had with Dr. Porter, and with the masterful "post-Coltrane" saxophonist, David Liebman, have led me to believe that Trane was not simply one of the five or ten greatest jazz instrumentalists of the twentieth century, as indisputably he was, but that he was a musical genius of the type which comes along only once or twice in a generation, carrying on and moving forward the great traditions of evolving musical forms as they have developed over centuries in many different cultures and parts of the world.
An initial approach to Coltrane will either frustrate or stimulate a music lover, depending on his or her listening preferences and frame of mind at the time. One will hear either a) tendentious repetitions, emotional bathos on the verge of hysteria, and experiments with melodic and chordal changes that border on the grotesque (and I mean this with respect not only to his later "free jazz" pieces, but also some spots in his earlier work); or else b) extraordinary technical mastery combined with deep soul searching and creative expression. These contrary impressions occur in my opinion, because Coltrane heard and played in very large gestalts, whole patterns which fall into place only if you keep the entire context in mind. Once you percieve the "gestalt," Trane's remarkable coherence lends inner beauty to all the details which intially seemed to come from the formless void. These gestalts occur over a single chorus, an entire piece, or sometimes over a period of years (!) as the patterns of one recording clarify those of several that had gone before.
We know that Trane totally immersed himself in his instrument and in music. There are countless stories of his constant practicing, to the point where he would rehearse backstage while others were playing their solos on the bandstand, or that he wouldn't answer the doorbell at his Manhattan apartment because he was practicing, or that he slept with his horn, etc. The constant practicing, combined with other factors such as his mastery of alto, soprano, and tenor sax, and his interest in mouthpieces, accounts for his extraordinarily lucid and haunting sound. It also betokens the mark of a great musician, namely that the distinction between the music and the musician becomes less and less demarcated, as everything within him comes out of his horn (and compositional pen) and everything within develops from his relation to the music- that is, his music becomes a meditation of his soul. (See the above quote by Trane.) Coltrane's virtuosic technique, exempified by his "sheets of sound," and inventive chord progressions, evolved totally in conjunction with his increasing range of self- expression and creativity. At times, it is as if he literally "talked in tongues" with his instrument; at other times as if he meditated soulfully in solitude, at others as if he talks to a close friend or a lover, and at still others, as if he hears another voice, another song, from a different time and place, a different world. Always, there is some ineffable element in his sound that is reminiscent of a cosmic, primal scream- the infant's cry, the pain and joy of all of our lives, the wailing side of "Omm," the universal consciousness.
Coltrane's extraordinary "triple helical" fusion of technique, self-expression, and creativity has occurred very rarely in the history of Western music. Its classical apogee is, for me, in the life and work of Beethoven, and I think a good case could be made for Charlie Parker having been the "Mozart" of Jazz, and Coltrane being the reincarnation, if you will, of Beethoven. As Mozart was "made for" the new classical forms, had infinite musical resources and rarely, if ever, wrote a bad note, so Parker was "made for" bebop, ever inventive, and, once he came into his element, incapable of a bad phrase. As Beethoven moved from majestic and beautiful piano and early symphonic pieces containing both majesty and tenderness, war and peace, into the deep, complex, and elusive counterpoint of his last string quartets; so Coltrane evolved from the controlled but virtuosic assertiveness of bebop to ever deeper and more complex and disturbing expressions of his inner life. Unlike Beethoven, whose letters document the wide range of his passions and personal feelings, Trane wrote and said very little about himself, so we are in mostly in the dark about what personal stirrings were at work within him, other than what we can hear in his music. Nonetheless, rarely have complex passions combined with spiritual consciousness in the way that occurred with Beethoven and with John Coltrane.
So, for the more dedicated jazz fans out there, I recommend that, if you haven't already done so, you listen systematically to the wide range of Coltrane's recordings, from his days with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk through his work with the legendary quartet with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones, and on through Ascension, A Love Supreme and Meditations. If you listen in this way, instead of piecemeal to one recording or other as the impulse moves you (no pun intended regarding Impulse Records!), you will increasingly hear the gestalts, the wholes, the unity within diversity, of one who can only be characterized as a great musical giant whose inspirations are virtually endless.
In view of such encomiums, one may ask, was Coltrane a "saint," a status to which he once candidly said he aspired and as one church congregation in San Francisco believes? I am not one to judge another man's character and spiritual state. I think it is enough to say that, as is well-documented, he consciously strove to be a "good" man and to fulfill his spiritual destiny. His music has something of the divine in it, as well as exploring the darkness and the sadness of the soul, without flinching. Where he got this artistic courage from isn't clear, but it was quite something when it came out of his horn!
My own knowledge of Coltrane and his work is minuscule in comparison with that of his biographer, Lewis Porter, and David Liebman, a saxophonist who to some extent has followed in Trane's footsteps while striking out on his own path. So I invite you to peruse my review of Porter's book and the recent AAJ interiews with these two worthy gentlemen.
Vic Schermer is a psychologist and jazz aficianado in Philadelphia, PA. He is a regular contributor to All About Jazz and other jazz venues on the Worldwide Web. Vic welcomes thoughts from readers and will respond.