Coltrane
a talk by
Evan Parker (continued)

Evan Parker
Evan Parker                                                          Joaquim Mendes©2006

I said already that Coltrane came to Europe for the first time in 1961, a week after the Village Vanguard recordings. The tour began in England and continued in continental Europe until December the 2nd. Music from this tour gradually became available because the concerts were not officially recorded. Coltrane had recently signed with Impulse and they made no provision to record the European tour. The playing is of an amazingly consistent high standard, which I think is connected with a mouthpiece issue. I’ll come back to that. At first there were only unauthorized recordings with plain white sleeves, unmarked labels and various titles from a P. O. Box in Sweden There may be a couple of you who remember Live At Mt. Meru, Volumes 1-5. I was such a stickler for correct behavior that I refused to buy them because they were, in effect, stolen material at that point. But gradually people would say “you’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to hear that,” especially a version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on the one that had a yellow label, which is just amazing. But fortunately now, most of that stuff is available officially on a Pablo box set of the European tour. The playing from the ‘61 tour is of a consistently high level even by Coltrane’s standard of creativity. Frank Kofsky asked him about what happened after the Village Vanguard, because Coltrane made a record of ballads, a record with Johnny Hartman, the singer, a record with Duke Ellington, all of which were considered to be less adventurous than this marker that was set by Africa/Brass and then especially with the Village Vanguard recordings, the first two records for Impulse. Kofsky was always looking to blame capitalism, so he basically asked if the record company was making him do this. But Coltrane said in effect, “No, no, it’s more complicated than that. I had a very nice mouthpiece and I ruined it.”

This going to get a little nerdy now for non-saxophone players but we’re famous for talking about reeds and mouthpieces. Coltrane used a metal Otto Link mouthpiece. That’s a brand of mouthpiece, most of the time from 1961 onwards but there’s an ebonite (hard rubber) mouthpiece on the cover of the Impulse studio recording The John Coltrane Quartet Plays with “Brasilia.” A mouthpiece has many potential variables: the facing, the surface, on which the reed is fixed with a holding device called a ligature. It’s made to a fairly standard set of dimensions in order that the reeds may also be made to standard measurements. All other dimensions are potentially variable. The tip opening, how much material in the body of the mouthpiece, the width of the rails – the sides of the mouthpiece on the inside we call the rails. The length of the curvature from the tip opening to the facing, so that can be over a long curve or or short curve, also called the spring, affects the reed behavior. The internal shape and dimensions of the so-called tone chamber, which may be with or without a baffle. A baffle is something about the shape of the roof of the tone chamber. All manner of adjustments may be made to standard mouthpieces in order to change their playing characteristics. I’ve been told that Coltrane relied on Frank Wells, a craftsman man working in the Saxophone Shop in Evanston, north of Chicago. Coltrane may have also worked on his mouthpieces himself. Dolphy was known to work on his. So, it’s possible that Coltrane worked on his, but he speaks in the interview of having work done. By filing and sanding the different parts according to personal formula, it’s possible to adjust the way they sound and feel to play. This tradition is full of trade secrets and practices that may, in part, be mutually canceling. It’s possible, for example, to increase the tip opening so that the reed has to vibrate across a wider arc making it physically harder to blow. But then to make the tone chamber smaller by adding a baffle inside, making it easier to blow. This approach is often taken in the adjustment of any mouthpiece, which would otherwise have little in the way of baffle. I can’t be sure that that’s the way Coltrane’s adjustments were designed but it’s possible. It’s certainly true of a lot of people I know that played metal Link mouthpieces. They adjusted them in this way to make them a bit more open, then they changed the tone chamber inside to make it more edgy and bright, so it also makes it easier to blow. So it’s like you’re looking to get the maximum variability for what the reed can do and especially to get good, solid, centered bright sound. Certain musicians are known for their obsessive relationship with this work. Time and again a mouthpiece is gradually improved by a sequence of small adjustments until finally so much material has been removed that the tip of the mouthpiece breaks off. And I think the way my talk is advertised in the poster gives the impression that I’m talking about Coltrane playing on a broken mouthpiece. That is not what I’m saying. I’m saying he made adjustments. It was very interesting. Later, he made too many adjustments and the mouthpiece broke but that’s not interesting. The broken mouthpiece is not interesting. The adjusted mouthpiece is interesting. The late Dick Heckstall-Smith, maybe some of you know him from Colosseum or as a kind of rhythm and blues player, was in search of the perfect mouthpiece all his life, and destroyed many Berg Larsen stainless steel, so-called “duckbill mouthpieces” – the model used by his hero, Wardell Gray, and this process is a kind of Holy Grail, that you never arrive, you never quite get there. Usually something happens and the mouthpiece breaks because you’ve made it so thin. But last weekend, talking to bass clarinet specialist Rudi Mahall, I discovered that he too is involved with such a quest. Not only does he play a very open mouthpiece but he also uses a very hard reed. This is the mythic combination – very rare. It is what they always say people do but most people don’t; they usually do one thing or the other. If it’s a hard reed, its a close mouthpiece; it it’s an open mouthpiece, it’s a soft reed. But there are a few characters who can play hard reeds on big, open mouthpieces and Rudi Mahall is one of them. So, the laws of physics mean that if the reed is stiffer, harder in the jargon, then it will take more air to make it vibrate. Beyond a certain stiffness, it will simply not be possible to blow hard enough, then, with pressure from the jaw, it would be necessary to close the tip opening, the effective tip opening, to a smaller gap where the air column can sustain the vibration. I don’t know if this is like hieroglyphics to you or if it’s put in a way that means something, but it’s not going to go on for much longer. Some players like that feeling – they like the feeling of pressure, so that, effectively, they’re closing the mouthpiece down. They have to do that before the reed can vibrate across the gap. Again, I’ve got no way of knowing for sure about Coltrane, but at least I have outlined the variables. Some players like this feeling; in Rudi’s case it produces the loudest volume from the bass clarinet that I’ve ever heard. But there are some tradeoffs – he’s loosing subtlety at the bottom end and certain kinds of dynamic control. I myself use as little jaw pressure as possible now, so that the reed has to vibrate across the full width of the tip opening and I use softer reeds as a consequence. Steve Lacy took this approach to an extreme, using the biggest possible opening, and the softest reed, a custom-finished ebonite Link with a tip opening of around 11 or 12 , so he had it opened up really big but then played an extremely soft reed. A Number 1 Marca cane reed softened down to almost less than a 1. I’ve seen Steve sand on a a Number 1 reed. Very unusual. I’m not sure but I presume he used a fairly relaxed embrochure.

It was Steve Lacy who famously introduced Coltrane to the soprano saxophone and by doing so led to a revival of its fortunes. I’m sure that neither Kenny G nor Evan Parker would be playing soprano were it not for that fact. However, an interesting, additional fact is that I heard Sidney Bechet play soprano in Brussels, at the Expo in 1958. That was the first time I’d ever been outside of England. And I also heard Xenakis’ electronic music for the Philips Pavilion I leave it to you to work out quite what effect that combination of inflences may have had!

Some philosophy: This is from Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine. “Man has formed a curiously distorted picture of himself by interpreting his early history in terms of his present interests in making machines and conquering nature. Ritual and language and social organizations were probably man’s most important artifacts. To give form to the human self using only tools that could be constructed out of the resources provided by his own body” Ah, Dreams! Images! And sounds!

This is from a poet, a Scottish poet called Kenneth White, from the Atlantic edge, the other side of the Atlantic edge: “What we’re after is a world of expanded intelligence expressed with poetic force and clarity.” Coltrane said to Valerie Wilmer in 1961. “All a musician can do is get closer to the sources of nature and so feel that he is in communion with the natural world.” Coltrane’s language is very elegant. I find that sentiment most touching. “Life is whatever you make it, the traveler is the journey, what we see is not what we see but who we are.” You know who wrote that? It’s translated from Portuguese into English. That’s Fernando Pessoa from The Book of Disquiet. Don Cherry used to say to his kids “We’re there already,” when they would ask him “When are we going to get there?” We’re there already. And thanks, Don. I played with Don at the Baden Baden New Jazz Meeting in 1968 and never again after that, what a shame. We got on very well. He soon realized that I was very interested in Coltrane and said, “I have some stuff for you; I’ll give it to you before I go.” So I assumed that these were practice notes, materials, patterns to practice on. The day I said good-bye to Don I said “You got the stuff?” And he said, “What stuff?” I said, “The Coltrane stuff.” He said “Oh, no, sorry, I forgot.” And he fished in his bag and gave me an unpublished Ornette Coleman piece. Which was very nice, you know, but I wanted the Coltrane stuff. .

Well, for your homework students, please go home and listen to “Chasin’ The Trane” from beginning to end. I think you can hear the tension between the structure and the tempo, elements are required to hold each chorus together, and the elements which are really being stretched, for this, I think at the time was an amazing revelation that Coltrane would use this approach, and I think it was even a surprise to him because Kofsky asked him, “Did you ever listen to that record again?” And he said, “Well, I did, only at the time it came out, I used to listen to it and wonder what happened to me.” “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s a sort of surprising thing to hear this back because, I don’t know, it came back another way. It was a little longer than I thought it was and it had a fairly good amount of intensity in it, which I hadn’t quite gotten into a recording before.” Fairly good intensity … I think that’s quite an understatement, especially if, you know, you can put that into context back then, when it was issued.

I’d like to go to the third period which I would say started ’65-‘66 - the important marker would be when Coltrane’s contract with Impulse came up for renewal. There was a period where it seemed like he wasn’t going to renew with Impulse - that he was going to make his own label. And in fact he issued one record himself, the first version of the record called Cosmic Music. There are aspects to that that I would like to talk about. First of all, the cover was Coltrane’s design so, of course, it was not a very slick looking record. We didn’t have Photoshop and all of that in those days so it was pretty funky kind of graphics – a handmade look and design. But the important thing to me was what the design was trying to convey. You had a photograph of Coltrane paying homage to the victims of Hiroshima on the back, a memorial to Hiroshima. So, that speaks enormous volumes about Coltrane’s distance from American official behavior in the world. We want to try and make an analysis of the postwar period, all of that, how that war was brought to an end, but I think there are certainly good reasons to think that it was absolutely unnecessary for those bombs to be dropped. The war was won at that point and the bombs were dropped because it was a good time to test such a thing. It’s an awful thing to think, but that seems to be not an exaggerated interpretation of the history. Coltrane clearly felt the need to make this public prayer for peace. It is clearly important to him because he ties that photograph to his first record for his own label. The other elements, which are very important, very significant, are the elements associated with the major religions – from the Crescent of Islam to the Star of David, the Cross and so on. He is speaking about the need for religious leaders to deal with the realities of where we are at this point. If there’s one God, and they’re all saying there’s one God, but they all think, as Bob Dylan put it “God’s on their side.” I don’t think Coltrane had that naive view of religion. He was interested in what can we do next? Which he believed in some general way, that life on this Earth, has meaning, has purpose. How can we encourage our so-called leaders to behave more responsibly? It seems the very worse people are the ones that decide to be politicians or decide to be religious leaders. Until the people distance themselves from this stupidity – as I said before – 2 million people on the streets of London saying “This war is absurd,” but one man could take the country to war. It’s wrong. And that one man can still be in power. It’s wrong but there’s no mechanism to get rid of him. OK. That’s rather heavy.

Let’s talk more at the level of the practical affairs of a musician – Coltrane saying, “I want certain things.” He was also saying, I want to be able to help younger musicians. He had already established relationships with the players on Ascension like Pharoah Sanders, but he wanted to do more. And he wanted to have the record company support them. And in the end Impulse did agree to a series of Coltrane Presents kind of thing, and they did, I think, just the one record, Archie Shepp’s Four for Trane. As far as I know that was the end; of course by that time you’re coming close to the end of Coltrane’s life. I think if he’d lived longer he would have carried on further in that direction. He also talked about the limitations of playing in nightclubs. That made me think about the Village Vanguard, which is a nightclub, and some of the other, most fantastic music that they made, the Classic Quartet, was in the Half Note. I don’t know if you know those recordings? but some of them have been officially issued now as One Up, One Down. They’ve been floating around as pirate, bootleg recordings for a long time. But the Half Note must have been an even smaller club than the Village Vanguard. And then you think about, for example, the Bill Evans trio with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard, again. All of this music made against the sound of people rattling their ice in their glasses, to cite Mingus, or chatting among themselves, you know. Cash register: ping, ping, ping. But somehow these places are OK for the music, the music survives and even thrives. I don’t know what you made of that film, ‘Round Midnight, where Dexter Gordon plays an amalgam of Bud Powell and Lester Young – I would rather have seen a film about Dexter Gordon, personally – but, that strange idea that the club is a struggle and what the musicians really want is to play for a football stadium full of people and bright lights - I think that’s wrong. That film seems to suggest that all these guys really needed was bigger venues and audiences. I think the very best music Coltrane made was in small clubs. And Coltrane I think would have come up against some interesting struggles with Impulse if he’d lived longer. I’m sure that they would have been pressing him to make some changes. The way he was taking the music was definitely away from commercial attitudes.

There’s just a thing about Ascension I would like to mention. I wonder if the title has as much to do with athe small island in the Atlantic between Africa and South America as was with the Biblical connotation? There was a slave ship called Ascension, one of 32 slave ships that left Newport, Rhode Island for Africa in 1794. That puts the Newport Jazz Festival in a bigger context than its founders envisioned. Charles Mingus, a man in touch with his emotions if ever there was one, may have had this in mind when he organized the Newport Rebels. Coltrane, in the last period of his life, expressed the simple desire to be a force for good. His profound interest in astrology and the roots of religion connect in my mind with the scientist-philosopher Charles Arthur Muses I made some photocopies of diagrams you might find interesting. As a young man Muses set out to debunk astrology as being nothing more than superstition. However, his research led him to the opposite conclusion. That’s quite interesting, you know, the French scientist Michel Gauquelin made a big analysis of the birth records of French citizens – thousands and thousands of cases analyzed and found that there were patterns there which justified some of the basic assumptions of astrology – that there are forces at work, holding this universe together; things are much more complicated than we know. It seems that, in previous ages, there was much more understanding of those things. More respect for astrology. I don’t know quite where I stand on it – it’s not as though I’m an astrologer and I don’t go to an astrologer and I don’t know much about astrology. What I do have is respect for the complexity of things, and for me the universe is held together by a sequence of miracles, and if you know the idea of fractals, fractal relationships, then there are miracles at every level of fractality from what keeps this table here to what keeps this planet in relation. To the Sun. All of these things and the forces at work to create and maintain them are miraculous – everything is alive. And I think Coltrane’s music was tapping into that kind of sensibility, a universal sensibility with emphasis on brotherhood and religion, on spiritual development. And on doing your best – “I want to be a force for good.”, he said. This is very simple language but it says everything.

Muses also made a big study of shamanism. The same scientist, very interesting man. In one paper he talks about shamanism as the “root religion” and traces back all of the established religions we now think of as being the prominent religions in the world, all have their origins in a past where the understanding of cosmic relationships was much higher in their development. Especially in Egypt, but going back before that- the whole relationship between Egyptian culture and African culture. The things that the Dogon people in Africa knew – planetary relationships, especially with the idea that Sirius was a binary star and all of that, these things are impossible to explain except by some previous period in human history on this planet- as having had knowledge – access to knowledge which we have lost. And where it seems to be best preserved is in the cultures that we treat with the most awful disrespect: the Aborigine cultures of Australia, the Native American cultures, the South American Indian cultures, African traditional cultures, the Siberian, the Inuit, all these people know stuff that we don’t know. And they’ve been telling us about it for hundreds of years but we’ve been ignoring that. I think maybe I’m now starting to rant with messianic zeal.

The major documented material on this so far is the chart of 12 tones related to the Zodiac, a copy of which he gave to Yusef Lateef and which is reproduced in his book of scales and patterns. But there are many other fragments of Coltrane’s notes and titles where Coltrane attempts to relate musical and astrological concepts. I think we deserve better in terms of documentation than we’ve got somehow. I’m not an academic and I don’t have the time to work on this . The existing fragments used to decorate CD covers simply do not do justice to the profundity of the man and his work.

I’d just like to finish by saying Coltrane’s music and life remain an inspiration for good.

Evan Parker©2006

Thanks to Rui Neves, Artistic Director of Jazz Em Agosto, for supplying a recording of the talk, and to Bill Tenney, who transcribed it.

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