Coltrane: Ascent

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First there’s the solo by Jimmy Garrison; actually it’s a soliloquy, as eloquent and convincing –urgent yet calm in its confidence– as any extended statement on bass by anyone in the idiom: five minutes; its own statement but still, obviously, an introduction, like an MC announcing the main event. Then, the sly, almost flirtatious overtures from Elvin Jones (suddenly the silent right channel becomes a reassuring friend in a dark alley), and finally, he establishes a swinging accompaniment, and they’re off. But as soon as they accelerate they slow down…and stop. Enter Coltrane, with one of his ultimate top-of-the-mountain sermons. There is, as usual (and this being late-era Coltrane, one of the final recordings from the “Classic Quartet”), brimstone, hail, and chunks of molten energy shorn from the sun. And by the time McCoy Tyner climbs aboard (like Elvin, capable of opening the floodgates at any time, but here content to ride shotgun, providing comradery via counterpoint), the engine’s already cooling off, the race already run, and won. Then it’s a Garrison, alone again, making sure you’re safely grounded on terra firma. You try to account for what just happened, at once reckoning and reconciliation, believing once more in a miracle truer than Truth as the ship ascends into ether, leaving orange contrails glowing in its wake.

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Ask The Ages: Revisiting Sonny Sharrock’s Masterful Swan Song

sonnybw4

The name alone is epic: Sonny Sharrock.

I won’t resist the urge, because I can’t, to pick a low-hanging pun and opine that Sonny put the rock back in jazz.

Still blazing down the trail Miles helped forge with the genre-obliterating Jack Johnson sessions (which Sharrock made an appearance at), Sonny seamlessly wove angular, concrete-hard riffs into compositions that were just on this side of free jazz. He was recognized as a genius fairly early on, which naturally meant he had no chance to make a decent living as a musician.

He dropped out of the scene for many years and came back (and/or was goaded back by the indefatigable Bill Laswell, not only one of the all-time heroes of postmodern jazz, but a man who has helped create, collaborate on and produce more albums than some people will ever listen to), invigorated and en fuego. He made, arguably, his best music at the end. Just as he was on the precipice of way-overdue major label acclaim he was felled by a heart attack. He remains not only a guitarist’s guitarist, but a jazz guitarist’s guitarist, which naturally means not nearly enough folks know about him.

ATA

In late 2015 we finally got an appropriately remastered reissue of his masterpiece, and swan song, Ask The Ages.

It’s well worth reaquiring for anyone who has earlier, inferior pressings, and obligatory –as in, drop everything, take my word for it, and just go buy this– for the uninitiated. Get initiated, and then take a deeper dive into Sharrock’s oeuvre.

Consider this a primer.

Anyone with ears can understand the beauty there. But Sonny was also a beast, and he brought the pain with an intensity that has not been rivaled by many names outside of Greek mythology.

Exhibit A: From the same album, this one really showcases the incomparable Elvin Jones and Sharrock’s closest aesthetic compatriot, Pharoah Sanders. It’s okay to be afraid; that is what happens just before you break through to the bright lights.

Whenever a remarkable artist is taken from us entirely too soon, there’s all the more reason to savor (and yes, celebrate) whatever scraps they left behind, making sure we appreciate all there is to get. And for the major works they gifted the world? These are to be treasured, studied, absorbed, and imitated. Yeah right, imitated? Well, no one can duplicate the kind of majesty on display here, but when I say imitate, I mean incorporate this type of honesty and passion, realize what things you were put on this earth to accomplish, and use a man like Sharrock as a motivating force for good. It’s the least any of us can do, considering what he’s already done for us.

There is music we rightly esteem, and keep close to our hearts. There is music, whatever its original intent, that can inspire or console us, or make us a bit more grateful to have been born. And then there is the rarest work, the stuff we can only call other. It is, as is always the case with geniuses stolen years or even decades before it made any sense, bewildering and confounding to contemplate what else might have been in store (for them, for us). But there is a surreal sort of symmetry when a singular artist’s final statement becomes instantly elegiac and immortal. Ask The Ages is a definitive document of Sharrock’s imagination; it’s also a living document of what humankind, at its best, is capable of achieving.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone

trane1

9/23/14: Today would have been the great one’s 88th birthday. Respect.

***

5/1/2010:

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.” Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Jackie-McLean

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Proceed to the 46:56 point and then go to the very beginning and listen to the entire album. Twice.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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Wayne Shorter: JuJu at 50

Wayne Shorter - Juju - Front

Fifty years ago, today, this masterpiece dropped on an unworthy world.

Borrowing Coltrane’s band, Wayne Shorter proved he could bring the ruckus like the best of them. This, in fact, was the album that at once paid homage to Trane and also was Wayne’s coming-of-age: no longer could/should he be compared, he was a first-rate player and composer in his own right. Fifty years later he’s still proving that.

With all love and respect to Led Zeppelin, THIS is the hammer of the gods. McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones providing the beefy back-end, this is hurricane music, a tsunami of notes and the sheer power of this quartet, operating at the height of their considerable power. It must be heard to be believed and even then, it remains unbelievable.

Check it out:

A lot more on Shorter, here.

We remain unworthy of this genius. I am so grateful we’ve had Wayne in our world.

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Beauty and The Beast, Featuring Sonny Sharrock

The name alone is epic: Sonny Sharrock.

I won’t resist the urge, because I can’t, to pick a low-hanging pun and opine that Sonny put the rock back in jazz.

Still blazing down the trail Miles helped forge with the genre-obliterating Jack Johnson sessions (which Sharrock made an appearance at), Sonny seamlessly wove angular, concrete-hard riffs into compositions that were just on this side of free jazz. He was recognized as a genius fairly early on, which naturally meant he had no chance to make a decent living as a musician. He dropped out of the scene for many years and came back (and/or was goaded back by the indefatigable Bill Laswell, not only one of the all-time heroes of postmodern jazz, but a man who has helped create, collaborate on and produce more albums than some people will ever listen to), invigorated and en fuego. He made, arguably, his best music at the end. Just as he was on the precipice of way-overdue major label acclaim he was felled by a heart attack. He remains not only a guitarist’s guitarist, but a jazz guitarist’s guitarist, which naturally means not nearly enough folks know about him.

Consider this a primer.

If you take my advice just once this month, pick yourself up a copy of his masterpiece Ask The Ages. You can download this for less than six bucks @ Amazon. Less than one dollar a song, folks.

Check it:

Anyone with ears can understand the beauty there. But Sonny was also a beast, and he brought the pain with an intensity that has not been rivaled by many names outside of Greek mythology.

Exhibit A: From the same album, this one really showcases the incomparable Elvin Jones and Sharrock’s closest aesthetic compatriot, Pharoah Sanders. It’s okay to be afraid; that is what happens just before you break through to the bright lights.

If you’re looking for truth in advertising, sometimes a song title really can tell you what it’s all about. And then there’s…”The Past Adventures of Zydeco Honeycup”? (I know).

And in case there were any lingering questions.

Remember what I said about the bright lights?

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In Defense of Good Sax, Part Four: Separating The Best of The Best

Best sax solos ever?

That is kind of like choosing the best sunset; it’s impossible.

But some do stand out apart from the rest, and beauty is always in the ears of the behearer.

5. John Coltrane: “The Last Blues”.

Of course it would be possible to make a list without including Coltrane; it just wouldn’t feel right. His entire career is an extended highlight reel, a hall-of-fame enshrinement in real time. Also, as at least one person has opined, no one has ever done anything as well as John Coltrane played the saxophone.

Even on tunes like “Russian Lullaby” (arguably the apotheosis of his famous “sheets of sound”) or “Countdown” (where, after having learned to fly, he finally broke the sound barrier), other players get a say, however briefly. On “The Last Blues” it’s all Trane from start to stop, and even though Elvin Jones is in typical form, dropping sonic booms from every conceivable angle, this is Trane preaching from the mountaintop: this is the tide crashing and receding –and everything in between.

*Update. The clip from YouTube has been removed, so find a copy of “The Last Blues” any way you can and in the meantime, savor some prime sheets of sound from the wonderful ‘SoulTrane’.

4. Jackie McLean: “Plight”.

For my money, probably the single-most underrated musician in jazz history. Listen: the streak Jackie Mac went on from the late ’50s to the late ’60s can stand toe-to-toe with what anyone else has done in any era; just one masterpiece after another. Also, Dr. Jackyll discovered –and promoted– more amazing young talent than anyone not named Miles Davis or Art Blakey.

“Plight” is from his enthusiastically recommended album Action, featuring as solid a line-up as Blue Note ever boasted: Cecil McBee on bass, the estimable (and also severely under-appreciated) Charles Tolliver –who composed most of the material– on trumpet, “Smiling” Billy Higgins (who is without any question on the short list of all-time great jazz drummers) and, added bonus, the incomparable Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Add Mac’s alto, at once searing and then soothing, and you have a tune that can –and should– convert anyone with the slightest bit of sense, or soul. This also is just about as cool as it gets.

3. Charles Mingus: “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”.

It’s not just that I’ll take any opportunity available to discuss Charles Mingus (I will); it’s that he can’t be talked about enough. He was sufficiently god-like in his time that he always was able to assemble top-tier talent; part of his enduring legacy (aside from his musicianship and compositional prowess) is that he consistently got the best performances out of so many of the men he employed. Simply put, too many great players to count did their finest work on sessions led by Mingus.

From the immortal Mingus Ah Um, this is an homage to the recently departed Lester Young. “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a clever and affectionate reference to Young’s signature style of headwear) became an immediate standard and has been much-covered since its inception. The tune is justly celebrated for John Handy’s sublime tenor sax solo: his flutter-tongued phrasing performs a duet with Mingus’s bass in the song’s middle section that sounds like subdued teardrops; the emotional impact and clarity of purpose is unforgettable. Teo Macero’s production throughout is impeccable, but on this particular tune one can be forgiven for thinking Lester was smiling down on the proceedings.

2. Ornette Coleman: “Civilization Day”.

This one is for all the uninformed haters. Black beret this, bitches.

Punk rock? Please. This shit makes that slop sound like what it mostly was: a bunch of spindly misfits playing their instruments poorly but passionately. Child’s play, musically speaking. This is the truth that a whole lot of people can’t handle. In part, because it makes so much other material sound like little boys playing with toy soldiers. This is a report from the frontlines, with real bullets flying and the sort of shrapnel that gets stuck in your soul. Can you dig it?

As Charlie Haden and (the aforementioned) Billy Higgins double-time the soundtrack of the end of the world as we know it (try to wrap your mind around what is happening during the 4:36-4:51 section), Coleman remains impossibly calm and collected, because that’s how he’s always rolled. In his own elegant way he makes a compelling case for why the skies of America shouldn’t come crashing down on a 20th Century spun all out of control. You don’t need to try and understand what he’s saying; just be thankful that he said it.

1. Sonny Rollins: “East Broadway Rundown”.

Sonny. One of the last still-living links to the great old days. Like Coltrane (and every other player on this particular list), it is too easy to pick a representative solo –which makes it difficult to isolate just one.

So it seems a bit appropriate to choose one from the album where Rollins “borrowed” Coltrane’s rhythm section (Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones). A special guest appearance from the remarkable Freddie Hubbard (who also augmented the collective genius on Coltrane’s Ole Coltrane disc) makes this one of the seminal recordings of the ’60s.

Along with the epic side-long “Freedom Suite” this title track represents Rollins doing an extended improv in the studio, and in many ways it remains his most satisfying, if unorthodox performance. Rollins was not as quick to embrace the free jazz ethos as his compatriots, Coltrane and Coleman were, but once he let his guard down he proved, once again, that he could be the best at whatever he set his mind to doing.

Perhaps the most notable playing Rollins does here occurs when, having seemingly taken the instrument as far as he can take it, Sonny starts blowing through his mouthpiece (!!). The resulting sounds are many things: spooky, surreal, unsettling and awe-inspiring. Nothing else anyone has ever done sounds anything like this, and it’s ceaselessly exciting to hear Garrison and Jones hold down the fort while Sonny leaves the room for a while and goes to that sacred other place where very few artists are capable of going.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone (Revisited)

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.” Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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No One Has Ever Done Anything as Well as John Coltrane Played the Saxophone

The question isn’t, really, about who might be interested in this documentary; it is about who might not be. For fans who already know everything, or those indifferent to jazz music altogether, this would not qualify as essential viewing. For everyone and anyone else, how on Earth could you pass up the opportunity to better understand one of the top-tier jazz geniuses of the last century—or any century?

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Coltrane’s prime years, the decade between 1957 and 1967, seem concise enough by typical human and even artistic standards. However, he recorded so much and went through so many profound changes, it’s near impossible to convey the scope of his achievements—and impact—in a single documentary. It is, therefore, a severe limitation attempting to present any type of overview in 60-minutes, which is precisely what The World According to John Coltrane does.

One wishes the original material (this reissue was initially released in 1990) could have been expanded, or at least embellished with additional concert footage. On the other hand, even an hour of Coltrane is, in a sense, overwhelming. Considering that consequential projects could be undertaken to address Coltrane’s years on the Prestige label (late ‘50s), his momentous collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, his years on the Atlantic label (early ‘60s) and especially his years on the Impulse! label up to, and after, A Love Supreme (in ’65), a 60-minute effort is at once ludicrous and, to be fair, probably necessary.


The World According to John Coltrane follows the obligatory chronological timeline, briefly passing through his youth (the influence of his deeply faithful mother and the church music that filled his childhood were significant sources of inspiration throughout his career), then his post-military dues paying on the live circuit. Several of his contemporaries, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell and Rashied Ali are interviewed, all lending insight and echoing the unanimous awe with which so many musicians regard Coltrane.

Early on, it was apparent that Coltrane pursued his dream with an intensity bordering on obsession. “He attacked his (musical) problems,” Heath recalls. “He zoomed in until he solved it.”  Coltrane quickly but methodically cultivated an unparalleled proficiency, and then he kept pushing. Like Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (and many others), Coltrane initially emulated the bebop progenitor Charlie Parker and listened to western classical music, especially the work of Stravinsky. Even in his formative years, though, Coltrane was already resisting the accepted (and acceptable) limitations and straining to explore the possibilities of his instrument. According to Wayne Shorter, “he played the saxophone more like a piano or even a violin.”

Working in the first classic Miles Davis quintet while also recording his first sessions (for Prestige) as a leader, Coltrane steadily developed his fluid, exuberant style which famously came to be known as “sheets of sound”. The apotheosis of this evolution occurred in the miraculous year of 1959, which, among several other classic recordings, witnessed the releases of both Kind of Blue and Giant Steps. The footage, albeit awfully brief, of Miles’ solo casually sliding into Trane’s on “So What” is a bit more than simply historic: we didn’t get to see Notre Dame being built or The Statue of David being sculpted, but we do have the opportunity to witness some of the most brilliant musicians on the planet performing one of our best-loved albums. In the context of that seminal year, and this documentary, these are not simply all-time masterpieces so much as material that functioned as an obvious culmination of sorts as well as a point of departure (for both Davis and Coltrane).

After Giant Steps Coltrane would expand upon the modal concept perfected on Kind of Blue and, along with a budding interest in Eastern cultures and the avant-garde, fully embrace what was coming to be called free jazz. After 1960, one can hear the imprint of Ornette Coleman alongside the harmonic algebra of Monk and Miles, all bubbling under the surface of an increasingly intense and emotional approach to songwriting (and soloing). Rashied Ali, who worked closely with Coltrane in the final years of his life, compares him to a competitive athlete: “He was like a fighter who warms up in the dressing room; he’d break a sweat (backstage)…he was always playing.” This combination of restless energy and relentless exploration led to concert experiences that were as exhausting for audiences as they were for the musicians.

The sessions that produced My Favorite Things (1961)—a composition Trane would return to and reconfigure repeatedly in the ensuing years—are a touchstone for Coltrane’s next leap forward. Described in the documentary as a “hypnotic Eastern dervish dance”, this innocuous Rodgers/Hammerstein song became a springboard for an extensive, irresistible solo, showcasing Coltrane’s lucid yet multisyllabic way of conversing with his instrument. The footage of the “classic quartet” (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) tearing into this piece is more than worth the paltry price of admission. It is exhilarating to watch Coltrane—at his peak— in action, while the band steams in support. Literally. This particular clip was recorded in black-and-white at an outdoor festival, and throughout the performance it appears a smoke machine has been set up on stage until, after a while, it becomes apparent that actual waves of steam are pouring off Garrison and especially Jones.

There is more footage, including the quartet augmented by the amazing Eric Dolphy—who collaborated and performed with Coltrane throughout 1960 and 1961—which is priceless and, considering how prematurely both these men left the world, more than a little heartbreaking. The highlight, however, has to be the full performance of Coltrane’s epic protest piece “Alabama”: what Coltrane accomplishes here could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.

Of course, Coltrane’s music was not universally embraced during the final years he was able to record and play. His solos became longer and (much) more intense, yet no matter how many listeners he alienated, it was apparent that in order to push the audience, he first had to push himself. Roscoe Mitchell, commenting on this spiritual searching, likens Coltrane’s later music to what he witnessed in churches growing up, with people transporting into religious trances. This—the music and the explanation—is where more than a few draw the line; it’s just too out there.

Coltrane knew where he was going, however, even if he could not quite define what he was looking for. His wife Alice remarks that Coltrane was following a “progression toward higher spiritual realization…and development.” That type of sentiment can, and perhaps should, make people wary (this being the ‘60s, etc.) but with Coltrane it was no pose, and this was no joke. Not for nothing is A Love Supreme considered one of the most important, and affecting, albums in all of jazz. And later, even amidst the sonic uproar, came majestic and tranquil offerings like “Dear Lord” and “To Be”.

It was all over far too quickly. As is too often the case with our greatest artists, Coltrane fell ill and passed away long before his time should have come. It scarcely computes, even now, that the man making the music he recorded in early 1967 (particularly the shattering if cathartic Interstellar Space was months from losing a battle with cancer. Where he would have headed had he lived is truly difficult to imagine. It remains instructive, and more than a little startling, to consider the growth and refinement he demonstrated every few years, commencing in the mid-to-late ‘50s. Where he might have gone next is anyone’s guess, but it’s also safe to surmise that he took his instrument, and music, as far as anyone possibly could.

The World According to John Coltrane is an anti-documentary of sorts in the sense that we don’t have scholars or critics opining on who the man was and what he meant. Rather, we have the crucial and illuminating insight of contemporaries reminiscing about what it was like to be there, and what it’s like now, having lived through it all. That, along with the invaluable footage of the music being performed, speaks more eloquently and appropriately than even the most well-meaning expert (or DVD review, for that matter) is capable of doing.

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