Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

John Coltrane

Certain iconic works throw up what can be likened to a Great Wall of China, a forbidding barrier that thwarts future use of a particular form. Who after King Lear would comfortably sit down and write a five-act tragedy in blank verse? Didn’t Paradise Lost seem pretty much the last word in poetic epic? These are broadly akin to what the critic Harold Bloom described, two centuries later, as “strong” texts, works with a certain totalizing authority that bars our way, but also compels us to follow. Here’s the paradox. Encounter a great wall, and your first instinct isn’t to turn back, but to climb it, or mine it, or demolish it brick by brick. The Great Wall analogy is often quoted, but honored more in the breach than the observance, because simple emulation is still the most common reaction.

To be strictly accurate, Bloom talks more about “strong” poets than about “strong” texts, and more about poets than other kinds of writers. And yet the most obvious examples of what he calls, in his book’s title, The Anxiety of Influence, can be found in fiction. It’s striking that the only contemporary American novelist he mentions is Norman Mailer, who has spent much of his career devising the weird, scatological eschatology you find in his recent Hitler book The Castle in the Forest, but also wrestling with the shades of his distinguished ancestors, notably Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway, but also Scott Fitzgerald and contemporaries like Saul Bellow. Mailer’s “anxiety” is more evident than most, but the general principle holds.

So imagine for a moment that you are writing in that half-consciousness that signals the real creative act and you find you have blinded your central character and placed him, pained and mad, on a stormy heath; or that your lovers are naked in a garden, eyeing a snake. The instinct is either to reach for your pen and cancel such obvious debts, or else to push the parallel way past “influence” and into a kind of contention with the past.

Which brings me – and I hope you – to John Coltrane. 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of his death, which comes on the heels of the 80th anniversary of his birth. The latter is intriguing in that it seems to hold out the possibility that even if Trane hadn’t quite so forcefully pressed the self-destruct button in his young manhood, and in different ways and degrees for the remainder of his short life, he might still be playing saxophone. We might reasonably assume that passing years and shortening breath might have curtailed the headlong obsessiveness of his harmonic investigations and, less clearly understood even now, his rhythmic experiments. We might equally reasonably expect him to lean more heavily on reconstructions of past work – perhaps even gala performances of A Love Supreme, which he showed no strong inclination to reproduce live after its release – than on new compositions. And he might, intriguingly, diminish the current “anxiety of influence” quite simply by being around, perhaps talking about his ideas (which is one of the ways we induce “strong” artists to demystify themselves), perhaps letting through enough poor intonation and misplaced notes to let us believe he wasn’t quite as adamantine and unbreachable as we’d thought.

But . . . Coltrane passed, and a significant period of time ago. And yet, we are still curiously in thrall to that enormous body of work, or body of enormous works. A “Coltrane influence” is so pervasive among contemporary saxophonists as to be no longer genetically significant. Even when the resemblance is superficial rather than fundamental, we cannot avoid identifying it. Why should that be? One answer is that Coltrane shouldn’t be likened to Milton at all, because he drew directly on the same kind of archetypes. The Puritan poet went back to the Garden of Eden; Trane went back to the very shape of the notes. Another is that just as “Shakespeare”’s plays probably weren’t written by that jobbing actor from Stratford, but by Sir Henry Neville (who had political reasons for borrowing the Midlander’s identity), so the saxophonist from Hamlet, North Carolina, was only the mouthpiece for something much more powerful.

Yet another answer is that Coltrane’s explorations were so bold and powerful that we have not yet exhausted the untapped resources he left behind. True, but also a truism, and one that applies to Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, arguably Paul Gonsalves, and the still active Sonny Rollins as well. And when was the last time – Anthony Braxton’s maverick interventions “in the tradition” notwithstanding – that you heard a young player who really seemed to be dealing with the deep-structure implications of Bird’s music? Rather, that is, than simply playing “Now’s The Time” or “Cheryl”. There’s a variant to this argument, which says that we still cling on to Trane’s influence because no body as “strong” has come along since.

Well, enter Evan Parker. Certainly the most important saxophonist working today but a figure whose “influence” – and there’s the rub – is utterly, qualitatively different to Coltrane’s. The similarities hardly need rehearsing: a huge corpus of work, much of it in long forms; certain fundamental creative associations, along with more fleeting ones; possibly an aura of creative and non-personal “difficulty”. So what’s different, leaving aside the obvious detail that Trane has gone and Parker is squarely in his prime? For me, this goes back to that Great Wall image. If Trane is a Great Wall, Parker is a highway. Coltrane saw and presented his work as monumental in some degree, and that is how it has come down to us. Bob Thiele and others have commented on how concerned this apparently unworldly and mystical man was about the business side of his work. That might sound like sour debunking or revisionism, the sort of thing dredged up by the Devil’s Advocate on a papal conclave, but doesn’t it feel right? This isn’t to reposition Trane as a cynical breadhead, but it seems clear that he wanted to leave behind a body of work that claimed authority and commanded respect. It’s an approach that, perversely, stimulates anxious imitation. That’s why the world is full of Trane epigoni. Wild horses wouldn’t drag any of the names from me. Well, to be honest, a placid Welsh pony might, but not here . . .

There are Parker epigones around as well, of course, but no names and no pack-drill there, either. The scale is different, and so is the nature of the imitation. Where Coltrane is foreclosed and absolute, with that sense of having thought of every possible tonal permutation for you, Parker’s work is open-ended and, in the scientific sense, particular. He neither fetishizes end-product nor, more fatally, process. He democratizes rather than universalizes. The relationship between the two philosophies is like that between mathematics and metaphor, which might seem counter-intuitive, but math is more properly democratic than “universal” and metaphor tends to impose a lumpy sameness on everything it touches.

So, with a respectful nod in the direction of Alice Coltrane, who also passed a short time ago, bearing away or leaving behind her version of her husband’s philosophy, have I come to bury John Coltrane rather than to praise him? Not in the least. The praise is implicit throughout, and burial would still leave a vast pyramidal shape in the sand. The point is to suggest that perhaps it is time to do the obvious thing and simply step around the Great Wall. Milton’s Satan vaulted into Paradise because he was too arrogant to use the gate. We sometimes tilt at huge reputations simply to show our bravado or our chops, when it would be simple and legitimate to skirt them quietly and explore other parts of the forest. My estimable colleague on The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, the wise Richard Cook, has advocated something similar in the case of Miles Davis; perhaps, says Richard, we might usefully set Miles aside for long enough to catch up with all those other trumpeters – anyone from Franz Koglmann to Dave Douglas – who’ve come along since. No matter that these guys – Franz, Dave - inevitably show some self-conscious awareness of the Miles style and legend; that is their fate and their prerogative and we should let them get on with it. I’ve argued similar things myself, particularly when it comes to the tomb-raider boxes of despoiled “sessions” that now mean the posthumous Miles Davis catalogue is almost as large as his lifetime release list. Significantly, despite our strictures, both Cook and I have published books on Miles, mine a schematic essay, his a more generous and penetrative account, though we can both track back that particular “anxiety of influence” to a publisher’s letter.

Coltrane remains a huge figure in our culture and so the added beauty of stepping round him is that in the fullness of time we can pause, turn back, and view him from a different angle. His present dominance in the saxophone literature is pernicious, in the way that any orthodoxy is pernicious. The “Coltrane changes” are everywhere, shouted like Biblical verses or Maoist slogans on one new release after another. In canonizing him, we shouldn’t commit his contemporaries of the saxophone to the Apocrypha. We also shouldn’t mortgage the present to the past. As players, critics and fans, we have a duty to now, and the multiple, multi-dimensional now that this extraordinary music makes available to us.

Brian Morton©2007


NCM East Records

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