Thursday, September 23, 2010

John Coltrane Fifty Years Ago: "Giant Steps," First Quartet, and Beyond

That tone . . . that cry, from the depths of his soul . . . that aural taste of the divine, gladdening our hearts . . . that signature lead-in to every solo ("Green Dolphin Street," "Blue Train," "Black Pearls," and others too many to list), breaking down our defenses and carrying us aloft, allowing us to soar with him above the mundane, and in doing so wash away, as Art Blakey observed, the dust of everyday life. 

The mortal vessel of John William Coltrane, this pneumatic and therapeutic force, emerged into the light 84 years ago today in a hamlet called Hamlet, North Carolina, and was raised in that state's larger municipality of High Point.

At 19, roughly 65 years ago, Trane (and thousands of his contemporaries) experienced the musical equivalent of an epiphany in the form of Charlie Parker, with whom he would soon practice and perform.

". . . the first time I heard Bird play [June 5, 1945], it hit me right between the eyes."
[Bird, Diz, Trane, Tommy Potter on bass, at Birdland; this pic is from 1951]

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of both the landmark album Giant Steps and of his first quartet, which included pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones.

The multi-tonic revolution he had introduced to the world in the late '50s with "Blue Train" and most assertively with  "Giant Steps" helped jazz musicians re-interpret the ii-V-I cadence

Trane had been one of the apostles of Hard Bop, but after he had said all he had to say (and arguably all that could be said) in that subidiom of Jazz, he went on to help found an idiom or two of his own.  From 1960 to 1962 he explored the soprano sax with such creavity and intensity -- most famously (and perhaps ironically) on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" -- that it was almost as if he gave the world a new instrument (no slight to Sidney Bechet, whom Trane's admired, intended). 

From 1962 to 1965, both his continuity and discontinuity with Hard Bop were on display, through the modal explorations.  (The chord changes maybe have been fewer, but the groove and drive were unmistakeably urban and Black.)   

The sound whose development he spearheaded during this period (with Eric Dolphy, it must be noted) found outlets even in Hard Bop hot houses like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.   (I adduce as "Exhibit A" Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" on the 1962 album of that name.  That track's Trane-ish spirit points forward and harkens back.)

Then there's the aptly titled Transition, the classic A Love Supreme and its free-jazz aftermath, Ascension, compared to which the first two sound downright conventional.

While Trane lived in Philadelphia ('43-'58: from '52-'58 in the boarded-up house on the right, below, 1511 N. 33rd: story here and here) . . .
. . . he studied musical theory under the guidance of Dennis Sandole, as did a much younger Philly native (and my former teacher) Pat Martino (who learned as much from observing Sandole's interactions with his students as from his teaching). From the earliest sketches of Pat's life we know that when he was 14 (and therefore in 1958), Trane once treated him to a hot chocolate after lessons.   

Thus Trane's last year in Philly was also Pat's: in 1959 the Hard Bop generation-straddling kid would leave home to enter the world that Trane was about to dominate. 

"During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." -- John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, liner notes.