The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 2: Technique

(See Part 1)

Few would categorize the beginning of the 21st century as a time of jazz-information overload. We all know that jazz is escaping more and more from the public eye. But the diffusion of music-related technology and the prevalence of ways to download mp3s for free has made music of eras-passed especially available to the curious listener, and this applies to jazz probably more so than any other type of music. The average music publishing company is not raking in the majority of its profits from much recorded before 1970 other than Elvis. Thus, the crackdown on mp3 blogs leaves most jazz recordings (including/especially out-of-print and rare records) readily available. Combine that with the fact that each year jazz education programs across the country are increasing their enrollments, and you’ve got a lot of this music changing hands very quickly. Being a child of the 80’s (add 30 years to this song), I was (un?)fortunate enough to have begun my serious delving into this music pretty much at the exact turn of the millennium. That being said, from the start I was already being subject to a large dosage of a jazz-information overload. This meant that unlike children of anyone prior to the internet revolution, I wasn’t necessarily inclined to start at the very beginning of any presumed listening list. The internet and CD burning allowed me to begin at one of any number of branches of a large tree, and extend individually down it until I felt the need to jump to another. The largest and most prominent branches were not necessarily the ones I needed to grab onto, and because of their over-exposure, were sometimes the ones I would consciously avoid.

One album that I avoided in such a way was John Coltrane’s Blue Train. This album is undoubtedly a ‘classic’, certainly in the ranks with Kind of Blue, Time Out, Headhunters, and all the other albums that even the most casual listeners can name off the top of their heads. And because of this album’s reputation alone, I spent at least 10 years refusing to listen to it. I was a jazz snob from day 1, and that meant that I was disinclined to associate myself with what the commoners listened to; I was above that. But in retrospect, and after all my listening inbetween, I have found that going back and finally listening to it has given it a meaning I would not have originally discovered. When I listened to John Coltrane’s solo on “Blue Train” recently, for the first time, I heard the present, the future, but certainly not 1957.

“…the barrage of notes in his extended solo helps to create the urgency of a man spilling out his inner-most feelings” – Lewis Porter, Coltrane Biographer, describing Coltrane’s tenor solo on “Blue Train”

What I heard speaks volumes about John Coltrane and his lasting legacy, but it shines very poorly on the current state of the music, and the way that most current jazz musicians approach the music. John Coltrane was an incredibly versatile artist, one whose legacy stems as much from his compositions and albums as his solos and technique. He was also a smart musician, and he knew when and where to show off certain abilities. Compositionally, Coltrane’s albums tended to occupy one of two distinct categories. On albums such as Ballads, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, and My Favorite Things, he showed off his power of interpretation. However on albums like Giant Steps, Crescent, and A Love Supreme, Coltrane sought to highlight and focus on his own compositional ideas. These were purposeful differentiations, and they were crucial to building the overall effect of Coltrane’s oeuvre. But what many don’t understand is that Coltrane made very similar decisions regarding his technical output.

The Quintessential’s Quintessential:

An inherent characteristic of Coltrane’s flurrying technique is that it is distracting. That does not need to be a negative property, but unfortunately the legacy that Coltrane sowed through his masterful ability can indeed be distracting in the worst way. Players today have become blinded by technique, and more often than not this preoccupation comes at the expense of good music.

The true technicians of early jazz were mainly self-taught and most, upon reaching a desired level of ability, plateaued. Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, among others, maintained the same general technical ability throughout their entire careers. Charlie Parker, in particular, still holds a special place today as a remarkable technician, but it should be noted that this technique emerged very early on in his career and went virtually unchanged until his early death.

The next generation of artists that began to emerge from the be-bop era had a greater amount of technical development to undergo because of the natural virtuosic abilities of artists like Parker and Armstrong. However, upon reaching greater fame and credibility, artists such as Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter (who, contrary to what many believe, were remarkable technicians at an early age) scaled back their technical output in favor of developing other aspects of their music.

John Coltrane represents a breed of musician unlike the two previously mentioned, and one that today dominates the scene. Coltrane was a restless spirit, and one content only on reaching further into the unknown. In terms of his technical output, this meant moving from the depths of harmonic exploration to the depths of sonic exploration.

Of course, this kind of constant development is important for the music, but only the most masterful musicians are tastefully capable of balancing endless technical development with musicality. Today, unfortunately, players, listeners and critics alike are much too concerned with technical ability than quality output, and it is because of the success and misunderstanding of Coltrane’s restlessness that this has occurred.

“Ohhhh, KILLIN!”

A prime example of Coltrane’s legacy as a technician stands in his song “Giant Steps.” To this day, “Giant Steps” has a reputation of being one of the most difficult jazz standards to play, but its reputation is still somewhat misunderstood. In reality, the composition is remarkably simple: there are only nine chords in the entire song, V-I’s or ii-V-I’s in three keys that constantly repeat in an ascending or descending augmented pattern. And Coltrane’s solo, while stunning, is quite repetitive (for example, in the master take, on the ii-V-I in F, Coltrane plays various permutations of the “5-6-7-8 of ii, 6-5-3-2 of V, 5 of I” pattern at least 10 times in his two-and-a-half minute solo). But performing the song is still considered a bellwether of technical ability, and the song has thus been overplayed and overstudied.

Overplayed not just on computers and CD players (and record players?) either. If you want to torture yourself by sitting long enough at a jam session, you’ll hear it called. And it will be called most likely by someone with something to prove. And it will be counted off as fast as the rhythm section is willing to play it. And it will last for what seems like an eternity. And why not? To the musicians at a time like this, there is no audience, so why not play for as long as possible? In an interview with Ted Panken, a veteran of the jam-session scene (and someone who was able to emerge unscathed), Roy Hargrove, succinctly summarized the problem Coltrane has created at jam sessions, and pleaded for humility:

“It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there…everybody can’t be John Coltrane!”

Largely due to Coltrane’s legacy as a technical powerhouse, many modern musicians neglect to appreciate his moments of restraint. A saxophonist friend once told me that “everybody knew” Coltrane’s worst solo was on Miles Davis’ recording of “You’re My Everything” from the album Relaxin’. “Why?” I asked. “Listen to how much space is in-between his phrases. He’s lost, he has no idea what he’s doing.”  This is pure ignorance. Too many people believe that technical ability cannot be reflected in restraint. And what if, perhaps, it can’t? Why does it always have to be shown off? For too many young musicians, the first thing they hear is ability, and the last thing they hear is music. I’m sure that if Coltrane had known he would have had such an effect on future generations, he would have taken some time out from blazing forward to pause a moment, breathe, and step back. I’m sure, because he cared that much about the music.

8 responses to “The Problem With John Coltrane ~~ Part 2: Technique

  • milesoftrane

    I link to this post on my blog, with a typical hero worship of Coltrane comment. Great to see you take listening so seriously. Regards.

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  • Spinning in Air

    “Lost”? I wish that person was joking. Space ans silence and the ability to play tastefully are painfully underrated, I guess…

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  • Unlearning the Learned and Thoughts on Exercises… « Savage Music

    […] It’s nice to hear, even third hand, that even Coltrane himself (as well as his contemporaries) viewed songs like “Moment’s Notice” and “Giant Steps” as ‘exercises’. This is exactly what a lot of young musicians today don’t realize. If more young musicians approached these songs the way Coltrane himself clearly approached them, perhaps it would alter the trajectory of much of their music in a positive way. I’ve opined on this before… […]

  • natshorely

    I don’t think the article lives up to the expectations that you give the reader with the eye-catching title. The problem doesn’t seem to be with John Coltrane– it appears to be with the audience itself and with jazz itself. If you think that jazz would have survived in a state that emerged in the mid-50s and stay that way, static, for another 50+ years without the influence of Coltrane, you are delusional. I think something more important in all of this is that you are articulating a kind of artistic philosophy that proclaims that the artist should in some way be considering his/her audience. That’s a nice opinion and all, but I don’t think you can assume it is some kind of fundamental law or even desirable. I’m sure you disapprove when the balance is tipped too far the other way, when music becomes solely about catering to an audience, a kind of Muzak or consumer good.

    There’s a good essay in Nabokov’s “Strong Opinions” book where he speculates that great artists don’t really consider their audience at all when they are writing. If anything, they imagine an audience composed of themselves. And why should they? The layman audience and critics are not artists and their praise or approval is not what should be sought after in genuine artistic achievement. One can’t imagine J.S. Bach crossing out his final fugues in the Art of Fugue because it was a dying idiom and light minuets were in fashion.

    If the jazz world and jazz educators followed Coltrane, that is just a testament to his influence and abilities. If one man was as important as you say he was in shaping the entire destiny of jazz with a handful of albums produced in a very short interval, then jazz’s destiny was not secure at all. I think Coltrane probably accelerated the explosion of the jazz idiom, but only because he worked like some kind of cosmic fucking force. Classical music went through the same kind of developments and explosive dynamics, albeit nowhere near as rapidly. I don’t like a lot of the atonal classical music that emerged in the 20th Century, but I also kind of saw it as inevitable. I think we just have to accept that the golden age of jazz is over and that jazz would have fallen out of favor no matter who was playing tenor saxophone.

    • savagemusic

      Wow, serious straw man alert. I have been trying to avoid responding to comments in favor of promoting discussion, but lets just clear up a few things so that people don’t start taking your misrepresentations of my argument as my argument itself:

      re: “If you think that jazz would have survived in a state that emerged in the mid-50s and stay that way, static, for another 50+ years without the influence of Coltrane, you are delusional.” —- Where/when did I say this? I think you’re reading too much into this.

      re: “I don’t think you can assume it is some kind of fundamental law” — Again, where are you getting this from?

      re: “I don’t think the article lives up to the expectations that you give the reader with the eye-catching title. The problem doesn’t seem to be with John Coltrane– it appears to be with the audience itself ” —- Uh, yea. That is the entire point. I’m sorry the title was a source of confusion.

      I appreciate your other input, lets just try and avoid building up and tearing apart straw men here. There is no right and wrong, its just an opinion. I welcome any and all others.

  • A. Robinson

    You had to be a “Mystic” to embrace his music. I dont think that you’ve heard the last of it.

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