Jazz at 100 Hour 68: John Coltrane – The Final Act

John Coltrane

John Coltrane is undoubtedly one of the most influential players in the history of jazz, yet his important work fits within a brief twelve-year period (1955 – 1967). Previously in this series we have covered his work in the 1950s with Miles Davis for Prestige and Columbia, his blowing sessions on Prestige, his solo work with Blue Note (Blue Train), his breakout recordings for Atlantic (Giant Steps) and his collaborations with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. In this hour, we will summarize the Impulse years, the last chapter in the works of John Coltrane.

Live at the Village Vanguard, 1961.
“In 1961, John Coltrane signed with perhaps the most adventurous label of its time, Impulse!. Quickly, he recorded an outside live set at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy supplementing his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Many critics and much of his audience didn’t know what to make of this set that followed his more inside releases on Atlantic – My Favorite Things and Coltrane Plays The Blues or Someday My Prince Will Come on Columbia, his last release with Miles Davis.” – Gary Giddins & Scott DeVeaux

Down Beat critic John Tynan described the Village Vanguard set as “musical nonsense being peddled in the name of jazz … a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend.” Down Beat published two reviews, both of which focused on the 16-minute marathon, ‘Chasing The Trane,’ an extended exploration by Coltrane accompanied by Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Pete Welding described it as “a torrential and anguished outpouring, delivered with unmistakable power, conviction, and near-demonic ferocity.” On the other hand, Ira Gitler stated that “Coltrane may be searching for new avenues of expression, but if it is going to take this form of yawps, squawks, and countless repetitive runs, then it should be confined to the woodshed.” In the intervening half century, ‘Chasing The Trane’ has come to be seen as one of the most important recordings in the history of jazz.

Chasin’ The Trane. John Coltrane Trio
(John Coltrane-ts, Jimmy Garrison-b, Elvin Jones-d). From Live at the Village Vanguard. 11/2/1961

Then Coltrane made another detour. Giddins & DeVeaux wrote, “In 1962 and 1963, he participated in a series of romantic recordings in which improvisation takes a back seat to individualized statements of pure melody. He recorded albums with Duke Ellington and vocalist Johnny Hartman, and one called Ballads – eight songs associated with the pop crooners he had grown up with… the pinnacle was to follow, a personal outpouring like none other in jazz. This time the critics and the audience were on the same page.” We have featured selections from the Ellington and Hartman discs previously in this series.

Crescent, 1964.
“Midway through [1964] a year of impressive recording for Bob Thiele at Impulse! Coltrane made his last piece of mainstream jazz in Crescent, organizing a record around three ballads, one bright up-tempo piece, and one unconventional (even for Coltrane) drum concerto… Coltrane’s solo section in ‘Crescent’ after McCoy Tyner drops out is some of his simplest but best improvising, holding on to small, distilled patterns as he works through the chord changes. It was a new kind of ballad playing, one that didn’t connote physical love in the same way as before. Calling it a statement of spirituality or selflessness is much too easy. It was simply fresh, original musicianship.” – Ben Ratliff

Crescent. John Coltrane Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, McCoy Tyner-p, Jimmy Garrison-b, Elvin Jones-d). From Crescent. 6/1/1964

A Love Supreme, 1964.
“In time, Coltrane would push this technique to its limits. On pieces such as ‘Spiritual’ [From Live at the Village Vanguard] and ‘A Love Supreme,’ he builds Byzantine structures over simple bass lines, paltry foundations that—were one not confronted with the final, unimpeachable results—might otherwise seem incapable of supporting such colossal ambitions. In this regard, Coltrane was well served by a world-class rhythm section. These static harmonies might have sounded merely banal when played by lesser artists. But in pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane had found two of the finest musicians of the younger generation, both largely unheralded at the time, but each—like Coltrane himself—boasting a solid technique combined with a desire to develop and expand his musical vocabulary. These three players would mature in tandem over the next several years, feeding off each other’s energy, pushing each other deeper and deeper into the music.” – Ted Gioia

“Coltrane’s sound instantly demands attention, with its heraldic phrases based on the pentatonic scale. It has the feeling of an invocation… If the movement opens and closes with incantations, the central section suggests spiritual wrestling as Coltrane works his way through those nagging motives to triumphant tonic chords, shadowed by the ever-alert rhythm section.” – Gary Giddins & Scott De Veaux

A Love Supreme, Part 1 – Acknowledgement. John Coltrane Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, McCoy Tyner-p, Jimmy Garrison-b, Elvin Jones-d). From A Love Supreme. 12/9/1964

Stellar Regions and Interstellar Space, 1967.
“These adventures, however, were merely a preamble to the full experimental zeal of Coltrane’s final evolution. Coltrane was increasingly drawn to the liberating possibilities of free jazz—a quest that resulted in uninhibited performances invariably dubbed with names drawn from mystical and religious literature. But even here the range of styles was impressive, with the ethereal ‘Offerings’ from the final quartet with Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali standing in contrast to the fire and brimstone of ‘Om,’ ‘Ascension,’ or ‘The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost’ from [the LP] Meditations. A whole career’s worth of music was crammed into these final six years [1961 – 1967], studio work for Impulse complemented by various live recordings (at the Village Vanguard, Birdland, the Newport Festival, on the road in Europe, Japan, and other locales).” – Ted Gioia

Offering. John Coltrane Quartet
(John Coltrane-ts, Alice Coltrane-p, Jimmy Garrison-b, Rashied Ali-d). From Stellar Regions. 2/15/1967

“The format of Interstellar Space, for all its intimidating reputation as an explosion of chaos, is actually rather astringently planned. At the beginning of each piece, Coltrane shakes little bells, and [Rashied] Ali begins a coloristic pattern; Coltrane then states the guiding melody fragment and begins to explore. At the end the bells return… Two minutes and twelve seconds into ‘Jupiter,’ Coltrane starts gushing descending scales, almost making them sound as if they’re overlapping; he starts altering these with shrieks a minutes later. Then around the five-minute mark he finally returns to the three-note theme, repeated and bounced around between octaves; when he’s finished, as always, he shakes the bells again – as much to signal to Ali that he’s finished as to the listener.” – Ben Ratliff

Jupiter. John Coltrane – Rashied Ali Duo
(John Coltrane-ts, Rashied Ali-d). From Interstellar Space. 2/22/1967

After the outpouring of music in February 1967, Coltrane was back in the studio with the Alice Coltrane – Jimmy Garrision, Rashied Ali quartet in March; was recorded in concert in April and May and then suddenly passed away from liver cancer in July, at age 40. Jazz saxophonists today are still learning from his recorded legacy.

No tenor player cast a larger shadow over the 1960’s than John Coltrane. Several contemporary tenor players who emerged as singular and important voices in the 1960s were specifically in his debt: his friend and colleague – Wayne Shorter, his protégé – Archie Shepp, his bandmate – Pharoah Sanders, and his disciple – Charles Lloyd. Each in his own way, reflected Trane’s characteristic tenor sound, his spirituality, his harmonic adventurism and his perpetual searching. Tenor players from The School of Trane in the next hour of Jazz at 100.

Recordings.
John Coltrane. Live at the Village Vanguard. Impulse LP AS-10
John Coltrane. Crescent. Impulse A 66
John Coltrane. A Love Supreme. Impulse A 77
John Coltrane. Stellar Regions. Impulse IMP 169
John Coltrane. Interstellar Space. Impulse ASD 9277

Resources.
Gioia, Ted. 2011. The History of Jazz. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 7. The Fragmentation of Jazz Styles
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
John Coltrane. A Love Supreme
Lewis Porter. 1999. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan Press.
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 66. John Coltrane Quartet, Crescent (1964)
Chapter 67. John Coltrane Quartet, A Love Supreme (1964)
Chapter 77. John Coltrane, Interstellar Space (1967)

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