The Turnaround!

Previously Published Articles, Essays and Reviews
Bill Shoemaker

John Coltrane: Cleaning The Mirror

This article was originally published in the July 1992 issue of Down Beat

There is no defining principle like death when examining the work of an artist, particularly one as mercurial as John Coltrane. Coltrane’s death 25 years ago from liver cancer at the age of 40 not only brackets an otherwise protean career, it also had an immeasurable on jazz’s evolution. Imagine how jazz history would have been altered if Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman left the scene on July 17, 1967. Their respective legacies would have been radically different – no Bitches Brew or Skies of America, for starters.

Given that Coltrane’s legacy rests on the 12 years that began with his 1955 hookup with Miles, the prospects of where his music would have gone in the last 25 years is staggering. “An artist goes one of two ways, or both, depending on the length of their lives,” points out saxophonist/educator David Liebman. “They either go more into abstraction, or become more lean and economical. Interstellar Space [currently considered Coltrane’s last recording, a duet program with drummer Rashied Ali] suggests that the latter might have happened if we had continued to see Coltrane alive. He seemed to go as far as you can go into abstraction by ’67.”

“Everything he did up to the late period was equally groundbreaking,” forwards saxophonist Ralph Moore. “Musically speaking, the late period was not his resting place.” That’s why the timing of Coltrane’s death has become such a crucial facet of the Coltrane legacy. He died during the most intensely experimental, religiously motivated phase of his career. The merits of the music were so in dispute as to dwarf the numerous earlier controversies surrounding his music that also ripped the jazz world apart. Coltrane dying as his music reached such a spiritually fervored apex makes a neat package out of a complex artistic odyssey. The discourse about his music eventually becomes shackled to his final, soul-searching free-jazz explorations.

But, while the “sheets of sound” and the furiously swinging blues of the late ‘50s and the lilting modal waltzes and the burnished hymns of his early ‘60s “anti-jazz” are thoroughly assimilated and celebrated today by jazz’s mainstream, his late period was such a radical departure from convention if produced bile in critics and listeners that has lasted to the present.

“That music should be considered to be an interim field report, because Coltrane’s career was a work in progress,” argues author/saxophonist Carl Woideck, who annotated Coltrane’s Prestige sessions for its recent boxed set (see “Reviews” Mar. ’92).

Still, the late period is generally treated as if it’s the last word on Trane, even though it wasn’t intended to be. It is an irony that still distorts the discussion of his music as a whole, and the late period in particular. It even seeps into the arguments of avant-garde partisans such as writer/critic Kevin Whitehead, who, in a recent survey of Coltrane recordings, applies a revisionist psychology to the late period: “He was trapped by what he knew…In the end, students, he wanted to be free, but all that learning got in the way.” Actually, that’s an improvement over the shots Coltrane took during his life, echoes of which are still heard today. “Everybody knows that Trane was compelled to creative energies that few others would activate in public.” That’s not a vintage Crow Jim-era broadside – that’s Jack Sohmer, a critic with a dependable, discerning ear for bop, reviewing the four-CD reissue of Live In Japan last fall. Both Sohmer’s self-indulgent artiste and Whitehead’s thwarted pilgrim are stilted models that have to go. They are more anchored in the myth of ultimate expression that’s been foisted upon the late music for a quarter-century than in the music itself.

It’s not wistful thinking or facile speculation to suggest that had Coltrane lived even one more year, approximately the time span between A Love Supreme and Meditations, the present stock early-middle-and-late period approach to Coltrane would have been rendered moot by a sudden veering of his creativity. Or just a month more, especially the type that yielded both “So What” (recorded with Miles Davis on March 2, 1959) and the alternate take of “Giant Steps” (April 1, ’59). Rutgers musicologist Lewis Porter, whose book on Coltrane’s music will be issued by the University of Michigan Press next year, notes “that within one month he produces two historic solos that are completely different. That blows the whole idea that his is necessarily an irreversible evolution. He was capable of playing many different ways, and he would adapt depending on the context.”

In critiquing the practicality of the conventional three periods, David Liebman states “that the genesis of what we see in late Coltrane – scalar exploration, extended melodic phrases often based on non-resolving diminished and whole tone scales, and non-ending cadences – can be traced back through The John Coltrane Plays (recorded February ’65, Impressions (compiled from November ’61, September ’62 and April ’63 performances), and the modal style of ‘So What.’” “As someone who came up after he died and received all his work at once,” explains the 35 year-old Moore, “the three periods are, for me, so closely tied as to be seen as one.”

The history emphatically argues that a new approach to Coltrane is in order, not one skewered by the agendas of the industry and the press, but one rooted in the music itself. It’s no longer enough to know that Trane was far-out. It’s necessary to know the hows and whys. Saxophonist/author Andrew White, whose insights into Coltrane’s development of polydiatonicism comprise a cornerstone of Coltrane scholarship (see p.6), is quick to assert that “the jazz community doesn’t have the academic preparedness to construct alternatives that will be of any consequence.”

But, acquiescing to the status quo is more detrimental to the Coltrane legacy than good-faith revisionism. Coltrane told Nat Hentoff for the liner notes to Meditations that to realize our potential, “we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.” That’s a viable method for recasting the discussion of Coltrane’s legacy, especially as new recordings and information are added to the record.

One source of material that will have a profound impact on future Coltrane discussions when released is a cache of tapes from Impulse! sessions in Coltrane’s possession at the time of his death. Currently, Alice Coltrane, the saxophonist’s widow and last pianist, is discussing their release with MCA/GRP. Producer Michael Cuscuna says that the Impulse! logs indicate there are as many as many as four CDs worth of material from ’66-’67 alone. There may be, in fact, much more material, as some of the ’67 quartet pieces (with Alice Coltrane, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali) that Cuscuna has heard do not appear on the Impulse! logs. “These are pieces in which Coltrane would focus on a motif and explore it to the nth degree,” Cuscuna relays. “So they can rightfully be called etudes. They are very free, very adventurous, but very focused at the same time, like Interstellar Space.”

According to Cuscuna, Alice Coltrane believes the uninventoried tapes also include performances with the classic quartet (with Garrison, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones), the quartet plus altoist Marion Brown, and the legendary, and presumed lost, second take of A Love Supreme, with the quartet augmented by tenorist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis. Cuscuna says that Alice Coltrane’s memory of the second take is that it differs greatly from the first, so its unearthing may reveal not only different slants Coltrane had on a single composition while in the studio, but also provide insights into his process for selecting material for release. Add to this the chronological presentation of the complete November ’61 Village Vanguard performances Cuscuna plans as a future Mosaic set (a multi-package set is already available as an import) and Blue Note’s release next year of a ’57 Five Spot recording of Thelonious Monk’s quartet with Coltrane, and you have an enormous addition to Trane’s discography.

The academics have been doing their homework as well. A recent article by David Demsey in The Annual Review Of Jazz Studies includes compelling new evidence concerning the influence composer Nicholas Slominsky’s A Thesaurus Of Scales And Musical Patterns had on Coltrane’s development. Demsey points to an example Slominsky uses in his preface, comprised of 2-5-1 progression a third apart – essentially the second half of “Giant Steps.” “Influence is an involuntary process, like when you listen to Miles so much that you walk like him,” Andrew White cautions, “and usage is when you consciously take something and apply it to what you’re doing. This Slominksy book thing is usage…as is the case with his recording “Chasin’ The Trane” the night after he supposedly went to hear [tenorist] John Gilmore. It’s coincidental.”

And, there’s the inside word. A well-placed source has told White that Coltrane considered giving up performing to concentrate on producing in the spring of ’67. White adds that this may have been due to “his knocking down all the walls of the traditional perspective that he grew up in, but not having the academic input or preparedness to expand much farther.” His goals obviously extended to the front office, as he formed Coltrane Records, which posthumously issued titles such as Sun Ship, the last session of the unaugmented quartet, and the original two-LP domestic configuration of Live In Japan.

Clearly, business had become a focus for his celebrated all-consuming drive, as he still managed to go to producer Bob Thiele’s office for a meeting three days before he died. But, how this consideration of retirement may have differed from his ongoing, well-documented doubts about his artistic direction – he was telling confidants as early as ’63 that his best work was behind him – will probably remained unknown.

There are also aspects of Coltrane’s work that are only hinted at in the authorized recordings. Such is the case with Coltrane’s marathon live performances. “Even in the early ‘60s, it wasn’t unusual for tunes to go on for 90 minutes, or for duets between Coltrane and Elvin to last up to 45 minutes,” recalls Liebman, who frequently saw the classic quartet from the vantage of Birdland’s for-minors “peanut gallery,”

“When I heard Coltrane live,” recollects Woideck, who also saw the classic quartet, “my temporal sense was definitely altered. Without a watch, I had no idea of how long a song might be. You could say that Coltrane had a temporal sense closer to the idea of continuum found in Indian classical music.”

“Jazz is a reactive discipline. That happens when you have a working band,” says White of the extended performances.

The length of Coltrane’s solos, according to Lewis Porter, is a particularly useful skeleton key to his art. “I’m saying the opposite of what his critics used to say,” he asserts, “that you could drop the needle anywhere in his solo and it would sound the same. What they missed is how he leads from one point to the next, that he’s working with a long time span. Asked by a French interviewer in ’63 why his solos were so long, he said, ‘When I’m in the middle of a solo, I’m working on my ideas. It’s really not a good time to stop.’ That’s a rough translation from the French text, but it’s a really interesting answer. He’s not saying, ‘I just feel like playing;’ he’s saying, ‘I’m a composer.’ For him to stop a solo after an arbitrary length of time would be like stopping a Beethoven symphony in the middle of the third movement.”

But that’s only one key among many, and the keys that open the most doors are ones least linked to Coltrane’s technical abilities. “If you look at his music through a microscope, you’ll see all the scales and patterns and techniques,” Porter continues, “but what makes it so moving is how Coltrane’s music addresses the big picture – it’s intense, grand, spiritual, and noble.”

“I’ve transcribed a lot of his solos. I know them note by note, but his music is so much more that it’s hard to express,” says Ralph Moore.

However rich Coltrane’s legacy may be in the minds and hearts of his stewards, passing it on in the form of a living art remains problematic at best. Interestingly, pinpointing where the legacy’s proliferation began to ebb depends on the age of the analyst. White, whose professional credentials had been established for years when Coltrane died, blames the fusion-ridden ‘70s. For the younger Moore, it’s the ‘80s quarterly profit mindset. “Today, the industry doesn’t provide an adequate context for an artist like Coltrane to develop,” accesses White, “and the artistic community lacks the structure to provide a context.”

“The values of Coltrane’s music seem to be totally absent on the scene today,” Liebman concludes. “Until our educational system and our values improve, I don’t think what Coltrane was about could return to its past stature in the music. That’s rough medicine, but it’s necessary.”

Moore offers a prescription: “We – the musician – have to it ourselves, or we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.”

That’s probably the only way to keep on cleaning the mirror.

Isim Conference

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