The lockdown officially started in France on St. Paddy’s Day and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end anytime soon. Unlike the United States, the government here is taking this thing very seriously. If I want to go anywhere I have to carry a signed form, the Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire, describing the purpose of my travel. I can only go out for two reasons: to get needed supplies (thankfully they classified les tabacs as essential businesses) or for exercise within a one-kilometer radius of my home one hour per day. I am not allowed to visit my parents (Dad flew back from the States a couple of weeks ago after he watched a Trump press conference and decided he needed to get the hell out ASAP). The government has drones flying about to make sure people are following the rules (I haven’t seen one yet, probably because I don’t get out much). As I write this, the city issued a pronouncement that all Niçoise are required to wear masks outside; Mayor Estrosi said they’re going to distribute masks to every citizen in Nice.
Several of our clients have suspended consulting work to take care of their own, so we’re only working a few hours a day. This means I’ve got nothing to do but fuck, listen to music and watch classic baseball games (and a stray movie here and there). Under normal circumstances, I’d say, “Life is good.” But it’s not.
More and more people are getting sick and dying. My partner’s brother—the guy who scored the weed for us during the Psychedelic Series—came down with the virus, but it looks like he’s going to be okay. Still, his parents and siblings can’t visit him in the hospital, and many have died without ever seeing their loved ones again. He’s in Spain, where it’s pretty bad, and I’m about twenty kilometers from the Italian border, where it’s catastrophic.
I love The Twilight Zone, but I never wanted to live in a Twilight Zone episode. It’s creepy and depressing.
I grew up in a city and I’ve only lived in cities. Having lots of people around is my normal. I love the energy and spontaneity of street life. I love going out to dinner and hitting the bars and cafés where live music is played. The dead quiet of a city once filled with human movement and the buzz of human voices is intensely distressing for me, as I’m sure it is to all lifelong city-dwellers. But my low-level discomfort is nothing compared to the relentless anxiety of the people working in hospitals, markets and public services, so after a few minutes of wallowing in self-pity, I remind myself this is a battle for survival. If that means being cooped up in the house for a while, suck it up, girl.
I do have my daily routines to give me some sense of normal. The first thing I do every morning when I wake up is head for the sound system and turn on some music. Usually I just shuffle songs and take my chances, but whether I was motivated by a forgotten dream or had received a coded message from the astral plane, on this particular day I felt an overwhelming urge to listen to A Love Supreme. And instead of following my usual M. O. of leaving the room and starting the coffee, I sat down in front of the speakers for the next thirty-three minutes, closed my eyes and let Coltrane’s beautiful music penetrate my soul. After the performance ended, I sat there for a while, feeling calmer and more grounded than I had in weeks. When I opened my eyes, I saw my partner sitting cross-legged on the floor a few feet away, eyes closed, breathing yoga-style, a faint smile on her lips. I scooted over and we held each other for a while, whispering to each other, “It’s going to be okay.”
From that day forward, we have started every morning with A Love Supreme.
A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto, presented in a suite consisting of four sections: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” As Lewis Porter describes it in John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the organization of the four sections “suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches and, eventually, celebrates what has been attained in song.” Given that model, most listeners can grasp Coltrane’s intent and follow the musical progression, but it’s equally important to understand how Coltrane connected spirituality with music:
My goal is to live the truly religious life and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is just part of the whole thing . . . My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being . . . When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity to free itself from its hangups. I’d like to point out to people the divine in a musical language that transcends words. I want to speak to their souls.
—Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 232
While you may not have thought of music in that way, “to help humanity to free itself from its hangups” is at the core of most “anti-Establishment” music. When you belt out the lyrics to “Cretin Hop,” you’re helping to free yourself from the hangup of judgmental stereotypes; when you sing “It’s late and I want love—love that’s going to break me in two,” you’re ridding yourself of latent puritanism that infects most of the human species. One could argue that great music is “music that helps a person to clean out the noise and inauthenticity of modern life” (or, in a more pithy fashion, “clean out the bullshit”). The role of lyrics is more prominent in rock, blues or folk, but even if you’ve limited yourself to the more lyrical genres, you can relate to the largely instrumental orientation of jazz by recalling the feeling of liberation inspired by a Duane Allman guitar solo, or the playfully ominous licks of Muddy Waters, or the magical fingerpicking of Richard Thompson. The traditionally religious have understood the connection between music and spirituality for centuries; for me, listening to great music is a spiritual experience, whether I’m listening to the New York Dolls or Johann Sebastian Bach.
Porter’s study of Coltrane devotes an entire chapter to A Love Supreme, primarily focusing on the technical aspects of the composition: the dominance of the pentatonic scale and Coltrane’s variations on those scales; his use of overlapping disjunct and conjunct fourths; Coltrane’s techniques for building and releasing tension; the dominant rhythmic figures within the composition; and the wordless recitation of the psalm in the final section. His analysis is brilliant, insightful and impressive—to pull off the feat, he had to listen to the suite carefully and repeatedly, as Coltrane’s written instructions to his collaborators looked like this:
Coltrane provided the structure but not the details. He trusted his fellow musicians to fill in the blanks.
While I appreciate Porter’s effort and found it highly educational, he is a jazz scholar, and his narrative only makes sense to the few people left on the planet who know how to read music; for everyone else, it’s gibberish. Ted Gioia is one of the few musicologists who recognized this challenge; in the opening chapter of How to Listen to Jazz, he shares a parable of a “young scholar who decides to devote his life to the study of African rhythms.” The scholar spent ten years in Africa immersed in his quest, but when he returned to the States and tried to teach some of his students how to play the Dagomba drums, ” . . . they ask him the simplest question of all: ‘How do I know when to enter? When do I start playing?’ In Western music, there is an easy answer. The conductor waves a baton, or a bandleader counts off the beat, or the musical score provides a cue.” The scholar finds himself unable to meet their apparently simple request. “No amount of analysis or rule-making solves his problem. Finally, he realizes that the obstacle can be overcome only by moving away from analysis and entering into the realm of feeling. ‘The only way to begin correctly,’ he eventually discovers, ‘was to listen a moment and then start right in.'” Gioia wraps up the parable with the valuable lesson learned:
Listen a moment and then start right in. There has to be more, no? A decade of apprenticeship, and this is the takeaway? Yet this was the solution, beguiling in its apparent simplicity.
For those who devote the better part of a lifetime to the study of music, stories like this one are humbling. They testify to a magical element in the music, especially in its rhythmic essence, that eludes intellectualization. This aspect of the music must be felt, and if it isn’t felt, academic dissection is futile. The scholar must become more than a scholar to grasp it, and the student determined to follow on the same path must be willing to leave pedagogy behind and embrace something so elusive that, at times, it can hardly be described.
. . . In our parable, hearing trumps analysis. And if this superiority of the ear over the brain humbles the trained musicologist, it also should give a dose of encouragement to the outsider who doesn’t know the terminology and codified procedures of the aural arts. Listening, not jargon, is the path into the heart of music. And if we listen at a deep enough level, we enter into the magic of the song—no degrees or formal credentials required.
Gioia, Ted (2016-05-16T23:58:59). How to Listen to Jazz . Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (underlined emphasis added)
In keeping with that spirit, this review will focus more on the spirit than the details. I’ll refer to the technical stuff when I think it may be helpful.
Coltrane’s acknowledgment of the existence of a higher power is a musical expression of spiritual awakening the mirrors the experience of physical awakening. The gentle gong that opens the suite feels like the moment when we wake from sleep; Elvin Jones’s cymbal washes meld with McCoy Tyner’s piano to create a sound that would make for a glorious accompaniment to a sunrise. Over that background, Coltrane’s tenor sax salvo sounds like the tentative engagement with consciousness we experience as we move from dream state to reality, perhaps accompanied by a nice long stretch after a good night’s sleep. As the notes fly from his sax and a pattern emerges, I’m reminded of those moments when I haven’t played in a while and I just randomly apply fingers to flute or piano without thinking about it or worrying about what might come out. The difference between my approach and Coltrane’s (beyond the vast difference in skill level) is that he views his instrument as a means of connecting with the higher power while I’m just trying to connect fingers to brain. If you heard my opening salvo, you’d say, “Oh, Ari is just warming up,” whereas with Coltrane’s you sense clarity and intent. As Porter points out, the segment serves as a lead-in to the suite, with the music based on E acting as the leading tone to the basic pentatonic F scale of the suite, solid evidence of a compositional objective.
Coltrane fades into background while Tyner and Jones build a mini-crescendo that fades with Jones providing a rapid-fire flourish on the cymbal bell. This cues Jimmy Garrison to enter with the bass ostinato that forms the suite’s dominant motif: a four-note pattern consisting of F, Ab, F, Bb in syncopated 4/4 time. This simple pattern serves as the foundation for a hip-engaging groove that might qualify as sinful in some churches but not in Coltrane’s. Tyner plays a dual role here—the chords he chooses to play anticipate Coltrane’s melody, but he also strengthens the groove to establish what Gioia describes as “rhythmic cohesion,” the defining characteristic of successful jazz. “In the great jazz bands, you can hear the individual members lock together rhythmically in a pleasing way that involves an uncanny degree of give-and-take, but with a kind of quirkiness that resists specific definition,” and as the suite moves forward, you appreciate just how much Coltrane trusted his supporting cast to supply that cohesion.
I hear Coltrane’s solo as his expression of engagement with the higher power, with emotions that range from reassuring calm to nearly inexpressible joy. The moments when he goes altissimo—pushing to the highest ranges of the tenor sax—feel like intense bursts of feeling that combine bottomless gratitude and genuine cherishment of the spiritual connection. As Porter notes, there are times when Coltrane drifts away from the base key as if he has entered a trance-like state, requiring Tyner and Garrison to improvise in kind. Having established his connection to the divine, Coltrane returns to the essential message contained in that four-note motif, transposing it to each of the twelve keys common to Western music, varying the register as he goes. Porter considers this transition “puzzling at first,” but what he means is that it’s puzzling in musical terms; it all becomes clear when we hear John Coltrane chanting the words “a love supreme,” and we realize that “Coltrane’s music is not abstract but is dictated in part by the messages he wishes to convey.” Theme resolved, Coltrane steps back while the music shifts to a soothing rhythm as Tyner then Jones exit the scene, leaving Jimmy Garrison to finish the piece. After repeating the motif a few times, he varies his run and ends his part with an almost classical flourish—a rare honor given to a double bass player and a satisfying conclusion that never fails to elicit a smile. In the process, Garrison changes keys to Eb, which will serve as the key for the second section.
As befits the title, this section is played with greater intensity and resolve; now that the pilgrim has experienced the eternal truth, he solidifies his intent to live his life in devotion to the higher power. “Resolution” is a classic modern jazz composition with Coltrane taking two extended solos and Tyner one. In the first solo, Coltrane defines the dominant motif with its memorable two-note starting point (really the only thing it shares in common with the slower and bluesier “While My Lady Sleeps,” one of Coltrane’s early compositions that some believe is the original source), then proceeds to fly with utter confidence over the full-kit attack of Elvin Jones and comp chords from Tyner. The dynamics soften a bit when Coltrane hands off to Tyner, who knocks it out of the park with an amazing combination of bright chords and astonishingly clear runs that sometimes combine to create what I’ll call an “internal dialogue expressed in call-and-response mode,” where it seems like Tyner’s left hand makes a suggestion while the right hand responds to the challenge. Coltrane wakes Tyner from his trance by easing himself back into the picture and riffing off some of Tyner’s ideas before closing the piece with a return to the dominant theme. Porter notes that the improvisations are more free-form than tied to a particular scale and rely “similarly on much chromaticism and dissonance,” a feature that magnifies the tension evident in the sheer force of the piece.
Takeaway: Resolution is the emotional commitment that precedes the action; as such, the music to “Resolution” is intense, filled with the piss and vinegar that characterizes the vitality of intent.
As we all eventually figure out after the usual bumps and bruises, life isn’t always kind to those with resolve. “What else ya got?” yawns Life in response to our passionate certainty that we have found the answer. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad experienced much in the way of smooth sailing following their enlightenment, for when they actually started to act on their commitment to a higher truth, they wound up pissing off a whole lot of people with more mundane priorities and greater earthly power.
The omnipresent tension in “Resolution” climbs to a peak in “Pursuance,” an even more intense barrage played (mostly) at lightning speed. The piece kicks off with Elvin Jones soloing like a bat out of hell in no particular meter for ninety seconds when suddenly Coltrane steps in with a clarifying riff, which serves as a cue for Tyner and Garrison to join in. The new arrivals spend a few seconds feeling each other out before cohesion arrives in the form of an extended Tyner solo, where Garrison takes a couple of measures to sync with Jones but once he finds the groove, feels comfortable enough to throw in a few departures of his own. While the percussion section proper rides the high-speed wave, Tyner fills in the gaps with an assertive performance that combines velocity with soul-tingling clarity. When Coltrane returns a bit after the four-minute mark, he ignites a different level of passion with a quick burst of tonal clarity, earning a moment of thumping encouragement from Elvin Jones. Coltrane then dominates the scene for about three minutes, returning occasionally to altissimo as if attempting to reconnect with his original awakening. In the context of the pilgrimage described in A Love Supreme, “Pursuance” is the musical moment when the pilgrim’s ideals are challenged by the earthier noise of modern material existence; Coltrane’s exuberant journey here tells me he was up to the challenge.
One of my favorite passages in Porter’s book involves the analysis of the key of this section as defined as opposed to the key as manifested. Whenever I listen to an album I’m about to review, one of the first things I do is identify the key, and in 99% of the rock/pop music I’ve reviewed I can figure it out in about twenty seconds. I love it when I turn out to be wrong and have to dig deeper to figure it out. In this case, Coltrane didn’t give Porter much help, referring to the song as a minor blues in Bb. What Porter realized through deep listening is that while Coltrane used the notes in the Bb minor scale, he launched his solo from the starting point of C, using “the same scale in a different tonal framework.” Coltrane essentially took advantage of Charlie Parker’s discovery that any of the twelve notes that make up the chromatic scale can potentially take you melodically to any key, giving the soloist greater freedom in oscillating between consonance and dissonance. Translating all that into something more useful and connecting it to the substance of Coltrane’s extended solo, what I hear are the musical equivalents of laughter, of puzzlement, of reconnection with one’s mission, of the liberating, healing qualities of music. And though chromaticism can take you anywhere, Coltrane employs good compositional sense by resolving to Bb.
Interestingly enough, Coltrane chose to bookend this section with the percussionists, giving Garrison an extended solo at the end to complement Jones’ extended intro. Garrison’s bass solo is a bit longer than the drum solo and covers more ground, including a hint of the dominant four-note motif, a clearer expression of the blues scale and some marvelous departures from that scale. This feels to me like a segment highlighting both the existential loneliness of the journey (the double bass can be quite a melancholy instrument) and the firm belief that loneliness is merely a condition of material existence that will vanish once the connection to the higher spirit is complete.
Coltrane claims in the liner notes that his awakening occurred in 1957; as noted in my review of Giant Steps, I hear evidence of that awakening on that album, which came out in 1960; A Love Supreme was released in late 1964. By this time he had finally a way to express his experience; “Psalm” is essentially the outcome of his spiritual journey, a celebration of the higher power and the essential unity enabled by that power.
Porter refers to “Psalm” as a “relatively calm postlude” in which Coltrane delivers a “wordless recitation” of the poem that appears in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. Thankfully, Porter inserts the sheet music with the lyrics to the first lines of the poem to demonstrate how this works; the listener can take it from there.
What’s amazing about “Psalm” is how beautifully it flows without “a recurrent chord progression . . . not even a steady beat.” Even without those listening aids, a person hearing “Psalm” for the first time will notice echoes of the blues and gospel music, a feature that Porter was able to connect to the arched shape of each segment (“an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase”). While this may or may not represent a deliberate attempt on Coltrane’s part to mimic the melodically-tinged sermons of African-American preachers, I do agree with Porter’s observation that Coltrane’s focus was to express the meaning of every word in the psalm through music (“serene on the word ‘beautiful,’ shouting out ‘He will always be'”). You hear a range of moods in his “voice,” but the entire recitation reflects a passionate sincerity tempered by humility. You get the feeling that Coltrane wants all of us to have this kind of awakening, to share in his joy, to revel in the essential unity of all things.
His fellow musicians allow Coltrane to have his moment, filling the background with cymbal splashes, timpani, basic and contrasting piano chords and soft bass lines that never distract the listener from the sheer beauty—the sheer humanity—of Coltrane’s recitation. I find “Psalm” a remarkably soothing and reassuring piece, a perfect ending to the story of an authentic spiritual journey.
And I do believe his journey was authentic and real, despite my discomfort with his references to “God” in the poem and his classification of “God” as masculine. I relate far more easily to the language contained in the mission of the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco: “To paint the globe with the message of A Love Supreme, and in doing so promote global unity, peace on earth, and knowledge of the one true living God.” And I really identify with the sentiments expressed in their coronavirus message explaining the suspension of weekly church services: “It has never been more crucial for humanity to attain to the blessed state of Coltrane Consciousness, and indeed the struggle continues!”
I don’t know if the pandemic will teach us to appreciate the wonder of life and draw closer to each other or will be exploited by those in power to further divide us. I could see it going either way—either the virus will expose current power structures as inefficient, wasteful and fraudulent, or the people in power will capitalize on our fears to hasten our self-destruction. All I know for certain is that we will be listening to A Love Supreme every morning long after the restrictions have been lifted to remind us that we are all of the same spirit.
On many occasions during my teens and early twenties, in search of opportunities to improve my limited guitar skills, I’d call a friend up and ask, “Hey, you wanna jam?” That friend would call another friend who knew this guy who was supposed to be a bad-ass guitar player and just happened to be in town staying with this other friend and the next thing you know I’d have ten fucking people in my living room with guitars and tambourines and maybe a bass if I was lucky.
You couldn’t really call these jam sessions. They were more “fuck around” sessions than real jamming. The group would assemble and then stare at each other with guitars in hands until someone suggested a song that everyone probably knew and could follow with relative ease.
“Hey, what about ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger?’” someone might suggest. In the context of a fuck around, there is only one possible response to that offer. “What are the chords?”
“C, G, Am, E7, F, G for the main. Then there’s an F/Fminor kinda thing on the bridge with a D-note on the Fminor.”
“Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
The key interaction here is the response to a song title: “What are the chords?” With very few exceptions, rock music is based on chords, and since the chords to rock music are pretty standard fare (majors, minors, sevenths and an occasional ninth or diminished chord), most rock musicians know them and can follow along without having to look at a chart (which few of them could read anyway). Blues songs are usually three chords, a standard pop-rock song may have five to eight if the bridge is interesting. The Beatles at their peak and some of the more progressive rock groups added a bit more complexity, but the most rock songs are cut from the same simple fiber. The Oasis song mentioned above has seven or eight chords, and all are very familiar to most homegrown musicians.
I often watched these interactions from an anthropological perspective, fascinated by the development of cultural norms and expectations. Being a wicked little bitch, I always had the fantasy that someday it would be my turn to pick a song and I’d say, “How about ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane?”
“What are the chords?”
“Well, the intro is Bmaj7, D7, Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, then Gmaj7, Bb7, Ebmaj7, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, Am9, D7, Gmaj7, C#m9, F#7, Bmaj7, Fm9, Bb7, Ebmaj7, C#m7, F#7. The first section of the solo follows the pattern B, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, Bb7, Eb, Gb7, B, Fm7, Bb7, Eb, Am7, D7, G, C#m7, F#7, B, Fm7, then back to Bb7, Eb, C#m7, F#7. That’s the first thirty seconds or so. I’ll sing scat for the melody, you guys just follow along, and once we get that down, we’ll do the rest of the song. Ready?”
Once the silence died, maybe one person trying to save face might say, “Am7—isn’t that the ‘Rocky Raccoon’ chord?” The rest would sit there frozen for another minute, then the smart-ass in the crowd would call my bluff and say, “Can you show me on your guitar?”
“Fuck, no!” I’d have to admit. That’s because “Giant Steps” is played at 260-300 beats per minute, depending on which take you use as your model. Standard rock hovers around 120 beats per minute; punk ramps it up to a range of 140-200 beats per minute. It would be a YouTube-worthy feat if a rhythm guitar player could play the chord changes of “Giant Steps” at 120 beats per minute; impossible at 300. On a good day, I might get to play those chords in sequence at 40 beats a minute if I had a good night’s sleep and my finger memory was in working order, but I’m someone who thought she was absolute hot shit when she finally played the rapid chord changes to the chorus in Tull’s “Sweet Dreams,” a pattern that consists of a grand total of five familiar chords. To a rock musician, a barrage of chords at that speed is unintelligible, like speaking Farsi to a Finn. There doesn’t even seem to be an intelligible pattern to them, and because many rock musicians don’t know much about music theory, the lack of a detectable pattern is disorienting.
It certainly wasn’t disorienting to Wynton Marsalis when he was asked about Giant Steps in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. A pretty exuberant guy, he really lit up when talking about Giant Steps. “When it came out, everybody wanted to play Giant Steps,” he exulted.
Modern jazz has been attacked as unintelligible gibberish, but it’s really just music in a different language. Americans have never been comfortable with foreign languages, a phenomenon that may explain why jazz has held its popularity in Europe, where people are used to dealing with different languages, while continuing to decline in popularity in the States. The great innovators of the post-swing era—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane—were constantly exploring new forms of musical expression because they felt restricted by the limits imposed by the standard structures of popular music. They wanted to push the boundaries of musical language. The problem was that when they removed the dance beat and Charlie and Dizzy started playing odd chords at a blistering pace, Americans started checking out of the jazz scene. For American kids weaned on Glenn Miller, they couldn’t see the point in making music that you couldn’t sing or dance to, so jazz began its inexorable decline into cultural irrelevance in the United States.
Coltrane was part of that movement. Coltrane’s journey through the jazz scene was more introverted, intense, personal and spiritual. He played with many of the great musicians of the period, but while respected by those musicians for his amazingly fluid, high-speed style, he never really came into his own until Giant Steps, the first album consisting entirely of Coltrane compositions. He’d been the leader (or featured soloist) on a few albums but still hadn’t found his voice . . . or as he would have said, he hadn’t solved “the musical problem.” To Coltrane, music was a universe of endless possibilities and mathematical problems awaiting solutions; at the same time, it was also the gateway to the eternal soul. This unusual combination of deep technical study and a lifelong personal Hejira in search of eternal truth (and ten hours of practice a day) makes John Coltrane a somewhat intimidating figure at first. His reputation and ascension into sainthood via the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church only adds to the distance. From the church’s website:
The ascension of St. John Coltrane into one-ness with God is what we refer to as the Risen Trane. In dealing with the Saint, John Coltrane, we are not dealing with St. John the man but St. John the sound and St. John the Evangelist and Sound Baptist, who attained union with God through sound. From the standpoint of the biography of John Coltrane, the Risen Trane is the post 1957 John Coltrane. He who emerged from drug addiction onto a path of spiritual awakening and who gave testimony of the power and empowerment of grace of God in his life and in his Psalm on A Love Supreme, and in his music thereafter. (“At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”) We, too, having been touched by this anointed sound and being called and chosen by the Holy Ghost, endeavor to carry the holy ambition and mantle of sound baptism of St. John Coltrane.
We are fully aware of the universality of John Coltrane’s music and his philosophy, and that his spirit and legacy does reach and touch the lives of people of many different faiths, creeds, and religions. We, however, in this time and place, are grateful for the opportunity to lift up the Name of Jesus Christ through Saint John Coltrane’s music, knowing from personal experience and testimony, and from a great cloud of witnesses, that the Spirit of the Lord is in this Sound Praise as it is delivered from heaven through John.
I take issue with the dating of his ascension. Yes, he kicked drugs at that time, but he still had to finish his apprenticeship with Miles Davis before he achieved the alleged union with the Almighty. You can hear the difference on Giant Steps, and you’ll be surprised as to what gives it away as his ascension piece.
Coltrane is having one hell of a good time! I’ve always thought that ascension, nirvana, or achievement of the ultimate wisdom will be accompanied by howls of joyous laughter, because I have the feeling that when we get there, we’ll find out how beautifully obvious it was in the first place.
While I love Coltrane’s previous work, on Giant Steps his exuberance, playfulness and sense of humor come to the fore in a joyous celebration of musical freedom. There are parts of Giant Steps that make me laugh out loud when I hear them; the vamps are sometimes unexpected and undeniably witty. As for the technical aspects, you can read good baseline descriptions of “sheets of sound” and “Coltrane Changes” on Wikipedia; if you’re really into the theoretical underpinnings and can read scores, I’d refer you to Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life in Music. If you’d like to understand the man, Coltrane on Coltrane, a series of interviews covering a good part of his career, is definitely the way to go.
But before you go there, just sit back and enjoy the music. The melodies here are phenomenal, intensely complex but curiously memorable, and the horizontal movement of the melody is endlessly enriched by the nimble vertical movement of all those chords. When I used to drive a car, I loved putting on Giant Steps and using it as the soundtrack for my journeys through urban and suburban America; sometimes the music echoed the hustle and bustle, sometimes the loneliness of it all, and sometimes the sheer beauty of a fleeting moment appearing and disappearing as I sped by.
As intimidating as that barrage of chords listed above may appear, when you listen to “Giant Steps” it sounds as smooth and flowing as a forest stream after the first heavy rain of the season. The dominant motif is quite catchy, a tune you’d hum when you’re feeling on top of your game and all is right with the world. Pianist Tommy Flanagan suggested in the Lewis Porter book that “I don’t think there was any melody, just the chord sequence, which spells out the melody, practically.” The speed of the piece tends to blur the distinctions, though, and Tommy did have a challenging time with the tempo. In discussing his compositions with Ralph Gleason, Coltrane said, “I have yet to write a song that had a melody [laughter]. ‘Syeeda’s Song Flute’ was one of the few, that had a melody. And—well, ‘Naima’ had a melody. That was a ballad, though. But these other things I write, I’ve just been goin’ to the piano, gettin’ chords, and then I’ll take a melody, after a while, somewhere out of the chords, you know?” Personally, I couldn’t care less how Coltrane got there . . . if you define melody as the notes in a horizontal sequence (chords are vertical), then “Giant Steps” has a very memorable melody. The music is upbeat, both in terms of speed and mood, and the patterns Coltrane plays not only knock you out because of the beauty of the movement but because of the superhuman fingering and voicing (modifying the inner mouth and tongue to vary the pitch and the “color” of the sound).
The following video from YouTube consists of animated sheet music of “Giant Steps” synchronized to the original recording. I love reading scores when I listen to music, and this one is not only a hoot but a great visual for people who don’t read music because it captures Coltrane’s speed and sophistication in visual form. Enjoy!
“Cousin Mary” will feel more familiar to most listeners because of the blues structure, but Coltrane had a hard time leaving anything alone, so this isn’t your I-IV-V blues. He spots you the I and the IV, but then all bets are off. I know that when I go into music theory most people tune out, so let me focus on Coltrane’s artistic intent. What he was trying to do is paint a musical picture of a cousin he described as an “earthy, folksy person”. Now, take that brief description and listen to the tune. I don’t know about you, but I can see Mary, with her big hips swinging and her mouth going a mile a minute rattling off gossip and bullshit containing more than a few words that were not intended for polite company. That opening three note motif is her signature move, telling you Mary uses three quick movements to announce herself to the people in the room: one step, two steps, hands on hips. Mary’s a gas! Jazz, especially modern jazz, is primarily instrumental music, so you don’t have spoken language to fall back on as an interpretive tool. Jazz at its best expresses the emotions we can’t put into words, so what I like to do is just let the music fill me with pictures and emotions. While your accuracy will improve if you know the composer’s intent (which is why I advise people new to jazz to start with Sketches of Spain, which is loaded with backstory), if the “meaning” or the “state” or the “feeling” that emerges from the experience gives you a sense of satisfaction, fuck trying to explain it. Enjoy! Before we leave “Cousin Mary,” I have to add that it is quite obvious that the rest of the band is much more comfortable with this piece than they were with “Giant Steps.” Paul Chambers has a fabulous turn on the bass and Tommy Flanagan is more into the groove on this one.
“Countdown,” a variation of a Miles Davis number called “Tune Up” (pun intended, btw), is probably the least accessible piece to the new listener. This is much more of a hard bop piece played at a tempo even faster than “Giant Steps,” well over 300 beats per minute. Art Taylor opens the piece with an energetic drum intro, shifting to an extremely rapid high-hat rhythm once Coltrane takes center stage . . . excuse me . . . once Coltrane is shot out of a cannon to take the lead. Porter calls this a “blistering improvisation,” and I have no better way to describe it. Coltrane’s wondrous abilities aside, I’ve always considered “Countdown” a superb example of jazz collaboration and a reaffirmation of my Count Basie Theory that the little stuff often matters more than the big stuff. A little more than a minute into the song, Tommy Flanagan enters in deep background, comping Coltrane with supporting chords. It’s very subtle, but as his volume increases, the dynamics of the piece completely change, creating a high-speed urban, rush-hour mood that gives Coltrane’s solo a richer context. About thirty seconds before the piece ends, Paul Chambers comes in with the bass, filling in the canvas. What we’re left with is a musical story of self-expression merging into the flow of life. And all this takes place in less than two-and-a-half minutes. If you can force yourself not to let Coltrane’s opening improv befuddle you and accept it as a solo voice in search of a chorus, you’ll deeply appreciate this wonderful slice of music.
“Spiral” is probably the song on Giant Steps that gets the least amount of attention. Too bad, because this is cabaret jazz at its best! Kick back, take a sip of your very dry martini, light a smoke and dig the music! I love following Paul Chambers’ bass line on this one, and when he gets to his solo, the voices he creates from bending those big fat strings gives me the shivers. Even when he’s soloing, Chambers never loses the beat, one good reason why Coltrane said he always tried to focus on what the bass was doing to keep him on track.
I mentioned that Giant Steps is full of humor, and I laugh every time I hear Coltrane play the motif of “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Coltrane wrote this piece with his 10-year old daughter in mind, commenting on the liner notes, “When I ran across it on the piano, it reminded me of her because it sounded like a happy, child’s song.” I didn’t know that back-story when I first heard it sometime in my teens, but that’s exactly the image that came to mind: a child trying to make music. It’s an almost jolly piece, with some of Coltrane’s most relaxed and exuberant playing. It’s also noticeable that the quartet is really into this one, too: they sound crisp and more involved in creating the overall sound. There’s a hint of Thelonious Monk’s playfulness in Tommy Flanagan’s solo, and Chambers nails it once again with confident, marvelously nimble bass work. That moment when Coltrane brings it all back together with a series of single harmonic notes is another brilliantly subtle move.
And then there’s “Naima.” Oh my fucking God, “Naima.” You don’t need to know dick about music theory to appreciate “Naima.” One of the most sensuous pieces of music ever created, “Naima” is a slow-tempo number where Coltrane demonstrates he can express as much inner fire through simple melody and subtle voicing as he does on his improvisational explosions. The perfect way to savor “Naima” is to wrap your lover in your arms and guide him or her through a close, tender slow dance full of the kind of deep kissing where both of you moan in delight. Sometimes I’ll get in a “Naima” mood, leave the whips and chains for another day and simply melt into my lover’s body as we move to the music. Ecstasy!
Coltrane changed the quartet for this piece, going with Jimmy Cobb on drums and Wynton Kelly on piano. Cobb is superb with the brushes, and Wynton Kelly has a certain touch reminiscent of Bill Evans that works beautifully in a sweet number like this. Coltrane considered “Naima” his best composition, and it’s hard to argue with that as long as you consider A Love Supreme a completely different thing altogether.
“Giant Steps” closes with a bang, so if you’ve set up “Naima” as instructed and end the piece on a deep, sensuous kiss, you’ll want to make sure that a.) You have a servant handy who can lift the needle from the turntable or b.) You were smart enough to prepare an iPod playlist that allows you to transition to something a bit less mood-shattering . . . maybe something by Sade or Patti Austin. “Mr P. C.” takes off with the speed of the proverbial bat out of hell, not exactly what you want to hear when you are in a deeply romantic mood. Stunning juxtaposition aside, “Mr P. C.” is great fun, a simple minor blues number that really swings. Mr. P. C. is Paul Chambers, who gives as energetic a performance on that big double bass as Coltrane does on the tenor sax. The motif is another musical fragment that cracks me up; it would make for a fabulous background to a Monty Python secret agent movie. Whatever pictures it brings up in your mind, “Mr. P. C.” is one of the hottest pieces of jazz you’ll ever hear and the perfect way to close a work of joyous liberation.
As I am not particularly fond of religion, she says in the understatement of the century, I can’t really get behind the whole Coltrane-as-saint thing. But I do consider myself a spiritual person, and I can certainly understand the concept of a union with the eternal soul through music. The church calls that eternal soul god; my feeling is that it’s a presence that cannot be explained in language or understood by mortals. Whatever you want to call it, I firmly believe that great music is a path to something greater than ourselves, and that was the path John Coltrane needed to take to achieve his artistic goals. Giant Steps is the exuberant sound of a man who has found the way.