Freddie Hubbard – “Sky Dive” (1972)

January 26, 2009 at 8:23 pm (Jazz)

Title track to the 1972 CTI album, in tribue to Freddie’s recent passing on Dec. 30, 2008 at the age of 70. RIP…

Permalink Leave a Comment

“A Feeling for Beauty”

January 26, 2009 at 5:30 pm (Poetry & Literature)

Friday afternoon,
watching an old film from Godard
A Bout de Souffle
a few snowflakes falling
outside my window

A new year upon us
hopefully it’ll be better than the last

“I have a feeling for beauty,

Deep cut, fast edit
eyes upon the road
looking for a passionate affair
a girl w/ deep blue eyes
& olive skin
maybe get married again
if I’m feeling insane

Perhaps I’ll go out
& get a drink
before darkness sets in.


Permalink Leave a Comment

Big Star – “Radio City” (1974)

January 26, 2009 at 5:22 pm (Reviews & Articles)

Gary Sperrazza’s review from Shakin’ Street Gazette, March 14, 1974, of this power pop classic. I highly recommend anything with the Big Star name on it. One of the great bands of the past 40 years…


OK, here’s the story: Alex Chilton, fresh from his Memphis residence with the Box Tops (‘The Letter’, ‘Cry Like a Baby’, ‘Sweet Cream Ladies’) heads to New York to lick his wounds and make a living. Well, jamming with semi-nobodies and doing solo sets in bars did not exactly pay for his Lincoln (which he didn’t have anyway), so he decided to return to his home in Memphis and get down to rock and roll business.

Culling their name from a local supermarket chain, Big Star was born with Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens. Nice English names, and these U.S. kids released their first album, jokingly titled No. 1 Record, which sounded like nothing to come out of Memphis, or the U.S., or anywhere for that matter. At least, not in the last five years.

Maybe it’s because we’ve been pelted with an extraordinary amount of pabulum lately. Maybe things have settled into such a state of despair. Maybe it’s because with No. 1 Record, Big Star took the best points of mid-60’s pop music (Yes, the stuff you grew up on, as ashamed as you seem to want to admit it these days) and combined it with the distinctive Big Star style. Maybe it’s because Big Star have their fingers in the Great ‘70s Pop Explosion that we’ll be reminiscing about ten years from now (as soon as it implements itself, which should be in a year or so). No matter what the reason, Big Star is one of the most distinctive, snappy, fresh bands to emerge in ages.

Memphis has been the home of soul for years. And with residents like Booker T. & the MG’s, the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, no one would expect this young foursome, decidedly Angloid in nature, to emerge with a clean pop-rock sound that owes its life to the eternally youthful spirit that was so much a part of the Byrds, the Beatles, the Who and the Searchers.

So here’s 1974: Chris Bell, who added much of the rich texture of the first LP’s tunes, split the band and has a solo LP already recorded just waiting for the lucky company to grab this fine talent. Big Star continues as a threesome and Ardent releases Radio City, their second album.

Now look, how many bands are you going to watch fall to pieces from lack of recognition? Aside from the deluge of national reviews on the way, I’ve seen reviews of this album in the Record Ethos, local papers whose music staff are people just like you who are going crazy over this band.

With Chilton as the mainstay, the band is rocking more. ‘0 My Soul’, ‘Mod Lang’, ‘She’s a Mover’ are based on simple but catchy riffs that don’t leap out and attack but instead lure you into the mood and beat of the tunes. The infectious melodies resulting from the Pop Revival stand out in ‘Back of a Car’, ‘September Guns’ and ‘You Get What You Deserve,’ based on traditionally teenage subjects that speak to all. OK, you don’t like dat crazy rock ‘n’ roll, it shakes your old rattly bones, then skip to ‘What’s Goin’ Ahn’, ‘Morpha Too’, ‘I’m in Love with a Girl’ or ‘Life is White’, where Chilton’s airy, fresh but solid voice (he sounds eight years younger here than he did in 1968!) carries those excruciatingly beautiful acoustic pieces across with a perfection beat only by ‘Watch the Sunrise’ and ‘El Goodo’ from the first Big Star album.

Do you think that we self-proclaimed “hotshot” rockwriters bury ourselves in the most obscure left-field groups and forms of music so we can sit and pat ourselves on our backs on how “intelligent” we are cuz we’re listening to something no one else can understand. For chrissakes, what we’re dealing with here is not some obscure zydeco mish-mush. Radio City is a full LP of incredibly listenable tunes, songs whose structural composition is so damned attractive that a first listen is enough to sell you. And if any band deserved the attention, it’s Big Star.

Gary Sperrazza

Permalink Leave a Comment

Richard Williams – “Phil Spector” (1972)

January 26, 2009 at 4:40 pm (Reviews & Articles)

This article on legendary producer Phil Spector comes from October 1972 issue of Let It Rock magazine…


One of the most celebrated moments in late-Sixties rock comes at the beginning of ‘To Be Alone With You’ on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album. As the guitars begin to strum, Dylan drawls, “Is it rolling, Bob?”


“Bob” is Bob Johnston, Dylan’s producer. With that single question Dylan brings to our attention Johnston’s role in the singer’s recording career. The producer is here acknowledged as a crucial part of the whole undertaking — as necessary as the tape machines, microphones, and instruments…almost as important as the singer himself.

By the end of the Sixties, most rock fans could give you the names of any number of important producers: Jimmy Miller (with the Rolling Stones), George Martin (with the Beatles), Kit Lambert (with the Who), the Holland Brothers and Lamont Dozier (with Motown’s Four Tops and the Supremes), and so on. It was important to know that Stephen Stills produced the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young albums, and that Bob Krasnow’s production techniques were a crucial factor in the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Strictly Personal album. Production methods had an immense influence on the aesthetics of the music in question.


It is pure speculation, and almost certainly untrue, to say that none of this would have happened without Phil Spector. But it’s equally certain that it was he, single handed, who turned the producer from an obscure back-room boy whose name was of little or no importance to the average record buyer, into a figure parallel with the great movie directors. The comparison is in fact valid. Just as we not only ask “Have you seen the new Brando movie?” but also “Have you seen the new Losey?” so in the mid-Sixties did we ask, “Have you heard the new Spector single?” neglecting, probably, to add whether the singers on the record were the Crystals, the Ronettes, or the Righteous Brothers.


Of course there were producers before Phil Spector, important men who helped mold the way music reached our ears. Some, like John Hammond, played a vital role in the history of popular music, by helping performers of real talent to overcome neglect and racial barriers. Beginning in 1931, Hammond started bringing to public attention jazz artists like Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Mildred Bailey, and Lionel Hampton. In fact it was he who persuaded Benny Goodman to hire the pianist Teddy Wilson — the first time a black musician was able to join a “name” band. It was a great step. Hammond maintained his track record after the war: while with Columbia Records he brought both Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to the label.


As a record producer, Hammond assumed the standard function of middleman between the artist and the engineer. He made sure that the material selected was suitable, that a good sound was obtained on the tape, and that all concerned were happy with the environment and results. He might have suggestions such as bringing certain musicians together for a date, but his aesthetic control did not extend beyond that. Which was how he wanted it, since his only desire was to allow musicians to place their particular talents on tape in the optimum circumstances. It is significant that after Aretha was taken from under Hammond’s wing, where she had been increasingly successful with Blues and Gospel material, she was forced to record supposedly commercial pop songs and became a dismal failure. Some years later she joined Atlantic, where producer Jerry Wexler reverted to Hammond’s pattern, with brilliant success, both artistic and commercial.


Another way of approaching a producer’s work was presented by George Goldner, one of the great rock and roll producers of the Fifties. In ’53 Goldner formed the Gee label — to which were added later Rama, Gone, End, and Goldisc. He specialized in street-corner groups, mostly black or Puerto Rican, who hung around the poor areas of New York, harmonizing endlessly either on current favourites or their own compositions. These groups were in the process of inventing a whole new sound. Goldner capitalized on it by going out, grabbing them up, pulling them into his recording studio, and cutting a couple of sides for which he’d pay them a few dollars. Rarely were these records anything more than regional hits around New York (how many people elsewhere remember the Hartbeats, the Wrens, or the Harptones?), but occasionally sales were so big that a record would reach the national charts, from where radio stations around the country would start picking it up. This happened to 13-year-old Frankie Lymon and his group, the Teenagers. Goldner cut a record with them called ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, a song written by Lymon. In the early part of 1956 the recording sold a million copies, reaching number seven on the national chart.


Goldner also launched Little Anthony and the Imperials on the End label, but his first really big recording (some have called it the first real rock and roll record) was ‘Gee’ by the Crows — the sound which former Creedence Clearwater guitarist Tom Fogarty has cited as the key which first turned him on to the potential power of pop music.


As a producer in the later sense of the term, Goldner was nothing. It is likely, as Bill Miller in his book The Drifters has suggested, that Goldner persuaded his black groups to sweeten their delivery for the huge white market, but, like Hammond, he was more of an organizer than a creator. Unlike Hammond though, he was a hustler, and that, to some extent, is how he came to influence Spector. Goldner knew how to get his records played on the radio — and there’s no denying that he extracted the maximum possible percentage for himself. For instance, he gave himself a co-authorship credit on ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, thus taking for himself half the composer royalties. In addition he organized a tie-up with the large Roulette complex and thus ensured that his records were exposed to the best advantage and widest distribution.


It was that commercial ability that Spector admired almost as much as he loved the sounds that Goldner’s groups made. It was a different kind of “producing”, which made its influence felt when Phil finally came to form his own independent record company, Philles, in 1961. Goldner had made the industry work for him, and that’s what Spector set out to emulate.


Spector’s real spiritual ancestor, however, was Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records in Memphis. It was Phillips who cut Elvis Presley’s first and greatest records: ‘That’s All Right’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, ‘You’re A Heart-breaker’, and so on — all characterized by an innovative use of tape-echo. Instead of producing the cavernous, bathroomy effect obtained by the over-lavish use of echo chamber so beloved of contemporary producers, Phillips’ method gave the records a larger-than-life quality. The snare drum and string bass snapped in unison. This “presence” gave the records an indefinable lift and vitality. It didn’t just happen on Presley’s records, either; Phillips did the same with Jerry Lee Lewis on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’, and on lesser known classics like Warren Smith’s ‘Rock and Roll Ruby’. The sound affected a whole generation, and it turned Spector around.


These, then, were the three basic types of producer before Spector came along: the more or less altruistic organizer, the shrewd businessman, and the studio innovator. Spector took all three, rolled them into one, added his own genius, and created a totally new concept: the producer as overall director. In the process he put out a group of the most memorable records in all of pop music.


He took control of everything. He picked the bands, wrote or chose the material, supervised the arrangements, told the singers how to phrase, masterminded all phases of the recording process, and released the result on his own label, a label with no affilitation with any of the supposedly all-powerful major record companies. He introduced many innovations: by concentrating all his efforts on one record at a time, he avoided the wasteful scattershot policy of the majors; by bringing the technique of overdubbing to a new peak, he created a sound never heard before, a sound which came to be known as The Spector Sound throughout the world’s recording industry.


He also revolutionized the industry’s attitude to youth. Previously, older men like Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Goldner, and the presidents of the major labels had exerted total control over the pop youth culture. Kids made the music, but they had no say in what happened after it got onto the tape, and they rarely saw much of the money. Because of this, they often fell back into obscurity after their brief glimpse of limelight, and often their lives (like that of Frankie Lymon) ended in squalid tragedy. The kids made it and the kids bought it, but it was the “cigar-chomping fatties” who first took the cream, and then the milk, and then threw the empty bottle into the trash can.


Spector set out to change all that. He fought the system through his own company. To make the changes he had to succeed, succeed, and succeed again. At 21 years of age even one failure would have been too costly. It would have enabled the fatties to smirk and tell themselves that the kids couldn’t handle it after all; that they actually needed the older guys to take care of business for them. But Spector did succeed, for more than four straight years. Eventually the industry got him, its rage no longer containable, but while he was hot he was always sowing the seeds for a new self-determination, the birthright now demanded by every rock musician. These days you won’t find a George Goldner telling Neil Young or John Fogerty what to do to get a hit record (of course this is not necessarily a good thing for all the Neil Youngs and John Fogertys).


Spector’s musical influence has been immense, both in general and in specific areas. Remember ‘I Got You Babe’, by Sonny and Cher? That record and that group happened because Sonny Bono wanted to be Phil Spector. So did Andrew Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ first producer: the sound and style of the early Stones owes a great debt to Spector, as does the studio sound of the Beach Boys as developed by Brian Wilson. The scale of Spector’s efforts prompted Wilson to investigate the technical resources at his command; it is likely that, had there not been a Phil Spector, there would not have been a ‘Good Vibrations’ either.


Neither would there have been a Shadow Morton. Not one of the best known producers, Morton nevertheless came up with some of the most interesting records of the middle and late Sixties, the epic ‘Leader of The Pack’ by the Shangri-Las, and the first album by Vanilla Fudge, one of rock’s great testaments.


All these men and their records have altered the face of pop. It can be said that they changed it from a performing art into an art which could exist only inside a recording studio, making possible such artifacts as the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’, or the Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’.


Surely no greater tribute could be paid to Spector’s giant importance than his appointment early in 1970 as virtual working head of the record division of Apple. Spector owns the ultimate power of veto over whatever goes out on the label. Since 1970 he has produced everything by John Lennon and George Harrison, thus fitting effortlessly into the fastest company in the entire rock world. And he looks so right there; other producers could give the ex-Beatles records an adequate sound, and could pander to their whims in the studio, but only Spector could stand with them on an equal footing, not fearing to lend his own ideas for the one goal of better music.

Richard Williams

Permalink Leave a Comment

Will Layman – “Celebrating John Coltrane, Personally” (2007)

January 26, 2009 at 9:50 am (Reviews & Articles)

A very good article about Coltrane, by jazz critic Will Layman from the excellent PopMatters website, March 9, 2007. I hope he doesn’t mind me re-posting this here…


John Coltrane was born 80 years ago and died 40 years ago, but any time is the right time to remember and celebrate him. I suspect I’m like most jazz fans, and maybe like you: at a moment’s notice I can conjure the sound of his art in my ear, letting it come up in the surges and waves that were so natural to it. Coltrane—more than any other musician—seems to have existed forever inside me, so that when I first heard him it was like coming home again.


A Personal History
Of course, what did I know about coming home? I was 14-years-old. I’d started listening to jazz because there was an eccentric DJ on a New York radio station who played great jazz records that seemed to relate to the way my world moved. I’d heard a few things from this guy, and I got to thinking I knew a thing or two about jazz. I bought a record by Dave Brubeck and another by a group called the Jazz Crusaders. I was pretty cool.

My friend Bobby and I were playing ping-pong in the most suburban of New Jersey basements one afternoon when his older brother, David, came down with a weird blue LP and a strange smile. “So, you guys are into jazz now, huh?”

G-nip, g-nop—Bobby slipped a smash past me and the ball rolled into the corner.  “Yeah,” Bobby said. “Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins. The Jazz Messengers.” This amounted to almost every jazz name we could come up with off the top of our heads.

David held up the cardboard sleeve and walked toward the old turntable that was to the side of the ping-pong table. “Gentlemen,” he said, ”this is what you need.”

“Is that old stuff or new stuff,” Bobby asked, this being a distinction that we understood, with new stuff having guitars and electric pianos and old stuff more crackling with trumpets. “Is it good?”
“Well, boys, it was recorded the year that you were born. And it is very good.” And he put it on.
The album sleeve rested against the wall—and the guy on the cover was playing some straight horn we’d never seen before. He looked, in his dark suit and steady gaze, like a snake charmer on the stage of a Greenwich Village club. His shirt was buttoned all the way up, and the garish red-orange type announced his name, one we’d heard a few times on that radio station: “John Coltrane.” And then: “My Favorite Things.”
About a minute later the ping-pong game was over as we stood stock-still listening to the title track—a rocking incantation of personal intensity and group groove, an utterly alive neural pathway twisting and turning and knotting progressively into our heads. As soon as the track ended, we picked up the needle and moved it back to hear the song again. No Julie Andrews here—nope and uh-uh. What we heard was the sound of our own voices changing at puberty or the sound of our own taste in music suddenly hurtling forward.
A Bit of Textbook History
Coltrane’s own story, I suppose, was also one of revelation and investigation. One of the few jazz musicians to develop his own sound slowly and at a more advanced age, Coltrane was known for his preparation. He was a jazz musician who very much knew what he was doing and who embarked on musical and spiritual journeys.
Trane was born in North Carolina, and he played some clarinet and some alto sax in high school. He would practice obsessively for a while, then he’d give up music altogether for stretches. He moved to Philadelphia, then he joined the army and played in an army band. He was, of course, influenced by Charlie Parker, and he learned to play bebop, joining Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949. Still, in his mid-20s, Trane was nothing special as a jazz player. He picked up a heroin habit and he gigged with Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. He wasn’t about to change anyone’s life, much less make them stop playing ping-pong.
By 1955, Coltrane had a distinctive sound—nasal and “hard,” with the beginnings of a style in the way he would run his (now) tenor saxophone over whole scales in fast, syncopated rhythmic patterns. Miles Davis—now off drugs and forming the first of his great acoustic quintets—took notice and used Trane as a foil for his own fragile, lyrical sound. But—as great as the early recordings of this quintet were—Coltrane was constantly showing up late or missing gigs because of his addiction. Davis fired him; he couldn’t be bothered with an unreliable junkie.
In 1957, Coltrane turned a corner. He left drugs behind and had a religious awakening.  He started practicing obsessively. He returned to Davis, but not before a revelatory stint with Thelonious Monk. He recorded his first great record (and his only for Blue Note), Blue Train. By the time Bobby and I were on the way, he had formed his first band, a quartet featuring McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. They recorded “My Favorite Things” in October of 1960, two weeks before the nation elected John Kennedy.
The Astonishment That Is “My Favorite Things”
The opening strains of “My Favorite Things” sound precisely like an announcement.  McCoy Tyner rings a series of octaves in 6/8 time, and then Steve Davis drops low tones like he is James Jamerson in a Motown studio. Elvin Jones punches through on drums—heavy on his kick but dancing on the cymbals like a whole series of African drummers in polyrhythmic glory. The groove—and it is, as much as anything else, a groove—is hypnotic, insistent, irresistible. 

The album My Favorite Things is not widely considered Coltrane’s masterpiece. That distinction probably goes to 1964’s A Love Supreme, though other fans have an affection for the prior record, Crescent. The 1959 album Giant Steps was groundbreaking and has its hard-bop advocates, while out-jazz experts will give the nod to Ascension from ‘65.  In fact, Favorite Things is hardly a likely candidate for classic status. It was planned as a standards album with no original compositions—two Gershwin tunes, one Cole Porter, and the Rogers/Hammerstein title tune. Atlantic hoped to have a small hit with their new saxophonist, and this would, in fact, be it.
Atop the groove, Coltrane enters. If you’d been following his career, you wouldn’t expect the sound, however—an octave higher than the tenor, a nasal, Eastern sound, a snake charmer’s twisting rise and fall. The groove is a drone, and Coltrane is a raga master, even though the melody is familiar. He doesn’t abstract the melody or hide it, but he adds trills and rhythmic syncopation on this soprano saxophone, stringing together statements of the main melody with swooping interludes. If you are playing ping-pong in a basement, you stop. You’ve never heard anything like it.
By the time he recorded the tunes for My Favorite Things, Trane had already been present for a least one genre-shirting jazz session, Miles Davis’s free-modal beauty, Kind of Blue. There, Trane’s gentle side blended beautifully with pianist Bill Evans and a set of medium tempo sketches that allowed every player to blow freely. Live, Coltrane had begun to play longer and longer solos, which he explained in interviews were simply attempts to “get out” all the ideas that he was working through at the time. And so the lead song on this album—an album that Atlantic hoped would be a “hit”—is almost 14 minutes long, with Coltrane soloing obsessively for the much of the time. Did anyone really think that a 14-minute soprano saxophone solo was going to be a hit?
But as you listen to Trane’s solo (really two solos: a short one, then a chordal statement by Tyner, then a long, colossal statement that takes over the track) you can hear him thinking through his ideas. In fact, it is odd to be so captivated by something that seems so utterly introspective and private, maybe akin to reading someone’s diary. The rhythm section, rocking over just a very few chords, rises and falls like the ocean under the soprano sax, and you find yourself floating in the foam with Trane’s ideas—his curving rises and swooping falls, and then his complex intervallic patterns alternating a single high note with a series of different lower notes. All this is done so quickly, with such command of embouchure and air that it sounds absolutely as if Coltrane is playing two separate lines from a single horn. It seems, standing there in your best friend’s basement, that the man is Houdini with a saxophone, performing the impossible on vinyl.
You know, at that moment, that you’ll be listening to him forever.

Remembering Trane Through Other Musicians and Critics
Reasons to be thinking of Coltrane have come fast and furious in the past two years.  The discovery of the recording of Trane and Monk at Carnegie Hall had the jolt of a jazz missing link. And last fall, Prestige started reissuing early Trane in a series of box sets (the first is Fearless Leader, featuring often overlooked material from the late 50s) that impress you with the man’s energy and industry around the time that he got off drugs.
But the real kicker for me has been a series of documentary podcasts that are now being released under the title “Traneumentary.” Produced and implemented by Joe Vella, the Traneumentary is presenting a series of podcasts—to be released one-per-week between early February and mid-July—each of which features an interview with a musician, historian, or critic with something interesting to say or remember about Coltrane. The fun of the project is twofold. First, the podcasts frequently give the “witnesses” the chance to comment on Trane’s music as you are listening to it. This is a riveting technique, breathing insight into the notes and soul into the commentary. When historian Lewis Porter reads a poem along with a portion of “A Love Supreme” to illustrate how Coltrane was—note for syllable—speaking through his horn, you come to a whole new appreciation for the art.
Second, the diversity of the “witnesses”—ranging from McCoy Tyner and Sonny Rollins to Anton Fig (Letterman’s drummer) and Lenny Pickett (tenor player for SNL and Tower of Power)—makes clear that Coltrane’s influence and meaning goes well beyond jazz. The episodes available to date are a fair mix. The first, appropriately, is made of the words of the master himself, drawn from old interviews in which he discusses his long-form approach to soloing.

More interesting, in some ways, is the perspective a modern musician who first heard Trane much like the rest of us, as a fan and a school-kid—trumpeter Terrence Blanchard.  Blanchard was riveted by “the rhythmic propulsion that that band could manufacture.” Blanchard focuses on musical concerns but not technical matters. “People consider [his music] very spiritual, and I think the chant-like quality adds to that greatly. It was brilliant of Coltrane to bring that into the music as it was something we had never before experienced.” He also raises his appreciation to another level, discussing Coltrane as the perfect combination of technical mastery and spiritual awareness. “He used to say that you have to learn how to ‘play in tune’, but he didn’t mean pitch; he meant that you had to play in tune with what is happening in the universe.” The very next episode, however, brings you back in time as drummer Jimmy Cobb talks about recording with Trane in Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey living room for Prestige in the ‘50s. “My own approach was to be strong enough to stay with him, keeping it swinging.  All drummers had to do it—Elvin had to do it. Elvin used to be so wet when he came off the stand that he could wring sweat out of his pants.” That is the kind of documentary memory that keeps you listening.


Remember Trane, Down on Earth
Among my less rarefied friends, memories of Trane are also vivid and powerful. Bobby Atkins, whose brother initiated us and whose ping-pong serve I never quite solved, remembers Coltrane through the prism of our friendship—discussing “My Favorite Things” while we played driveway basketball, then listening together to records he did with Miles—the crack of Philly Jo Jones’s snare behind Trane seeming like rock ‘n’ roll of its own special kind. Bobby remembers that we yearned to (and did) go to the Village Vanguard in New York “primarily because Trane did a live album from that sacred venue” (Live from the Village Vanguard Again!), the cover of which showed the man standing before the club’s tattered awning and neon sign in a beige cap and skinny black tie. More timelessly, Bobby remembers “learning from someone—maybe David, maybe Ralph J, Gleason, maybe you—that what mattered to Coltrane was finding the notes between the notes, which has become a guiding principle ever since, metaphorically speaking.”

My friend Joe Chappelle remembers how forbidding Coltrane could seem to a kid who was trying to figure out his world. “In high school, I bought a copy of Interstellar Space, the 1966 album of drum and saxophone duets between Coltrane and Rashid Ali. I was overwhelmed by it, and it was another ten years before I even dared to give it a second listen.” Actually, I remember listening to that record with Joe. Even though we both hear it as beautiful and logical now, our young ears heard the music as a brilliant kind of noise—aggressive, severe, and abstract.

“The first time I heard him play with Miles Davis on ‘Round Midnight’,” explains my friend and poet Mike Tucker. “I had dived head-first into jazz at fifteen, and Coltrane helped me to realize what it means to move people as an artist, and that was a huge, life-changing moment for me.  The feeling was so real, so raw, poignant and rich, and I remembered my late grandfather telling me and my brother and sister in 1963 in Arizona, ‘Love is real.’ Listening to Coltrane, I could hear my grandfather say, ‘Love is real.’”

Joe Vella, the producer of the Traneumentary, recalls first hearing Coltrane playing with Davis on the track “Flamenco Sketches” from the sterling Kind of Blue. “Aside from loving Miles’s muted sound and Bill Evans’s beautiful piano work, Coltrane’s solo just sets you into a mode of calm with a hint of intensity. His unique sound was hard and soft and engaging all at the same time and the manner in which he blew this solo sounded just like a person singing. I don’t think I had ever heard a saxophonist create such a human-like sound and mood in a solo prior to that. After hearing this piece, and specifically Coltrane’s solo, it made me understand that brilliant musical expression exists at any tempo, on any instrument and in any context.”

A terrific musician that I work with, Tim Lyons, first heard Coltrane in college, where he was presented as a literally towering figure. “I walked into the Music Library one day and saw the maintenance guys putting up a HUGE black & white charcoal/pencil drawing of Trane playing a soprano. The piece was seven feet tall and four feet wide—BIGGER than life size. The only parts of the canvas that weren’t colored in were the reflective parts of his horn, his forehead, eyes, fingernails, the buttons on his suit jacket—a haunting and memorable thing, to say the least.  I immediately checked out A Love Supreme. I don’t remember if I liked it or not, but I remember thinking that it was weird, complicated, different, quiet and loud, annoying, interesting, big, and weird (again). Years later I was killing time in San Francisco and found a copy of A Love Supreme on sale for $6 at Amoeba Music. I picked it up, took the bus back downtown, put it on the stereo in my hotel room, and drank all the whiskey out of the mini-bar. Then, out of my tree, I went down to PacBell Stadium, bought what ended up being a 6th-row-behind-home-plate ticket from a scalper for $60 cash, ate three hot dogs and watched Bonds hit one into the bay.”


The Coltrane Legacy, Decades On
In many ways, I’m still in that basement listening to Trane’s soprano snake in and out of time, through the notes that exist between the notes, then fly over the wall as certainly as any Bonds homer. More than any other jazz musician, Coltrane is the promise of tomorrow.
Trane did not start early, so his greatness reminds you of what yet may be. And Trane wasn’t just great once—he played magic with Miles, then he recorded Giant Steps; he arrested you with “Favorite Things” but also battled Elvin beat-for-beat on “Chasin’ the Trane”; he recorded make-out gold in his album with vocalist Johnny Hartman, but then he seemed to summon a glorious cataclysm with Ascension—so he embodies forward motion.

Maybe that’s why Coltrane’s sad, early death (in 1967 of liver cancer when he was only 40) was so shocking to the jazz community. It left a void at the vanguard of the music and the vacuum persists to this day. There is no jazz musician who has truly taken the mantle from Trane—musical, personal, and spiritual. (In fact, he’s the only jazz musician who has inspired his own church, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, which has recognized Trane as a saint since 1971.) Coltrane—who kicked heroin, who practiced his craft with a focus and purpose few ever touch, and who opened himself to every branch of religious, scientific, and philosophical influence—wanted only to inspire people “to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.” (Quoted from the 1965 accompanying his Meditations album). This he did and this he proved.

Traneumentary producer Vella sees Coltrane’s legacy as a challenge to us all. “What Coltrane demanded of himself, and his musicians, he demanded of us all as listeners. He challenged everyone to absorb his music and to push our own limits and boundaries in the abstract. He made us react and feel the music in all styles and in his unique way. “When you interview over 30 diverse people about an artist who has been gone for nearly 40 years, you realize that this isn’t just some artist who plays the saxophone well. This is an artist who on a mission that was deeper and greater than we could have ever imagined. He was not just playing jazz, he was not just improvising—he was pushing the limits of himself, his instrument, his music, and his spirit. John Coltrane’s music touches people of all walks of life and represents the true human soul.  He was a person who worked on his craft everyday and was able to bridge his creative and spiritual energies into music that will last forever. But most profoundly, he continues to inspire people to be better and to be open and to trust in the internal spirit of themselves and the universe as a whole.”

No matter how much I love that first recording of “My Favorite Things”, my favorite Coltrane work is his mournful and uplifting composition “Naima.” Written for his first wife Juanita Naima Grubb, the woman who introduced him to the spirituality that allowed him to free himself from drugs and to commence his greatest journey, “Naima” is a stately melody that floats over a pedal-point harmony stated in a compelling ballad pulse. When it first appeared on Giant Steps, it was gentle and delicate. As transformed on Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, it is still beautiful but also rapturously free—a blueprint for a fully explored human experience. It’s the kind of music that exists beyond style, genre, and era. It’s forever music.

My poet friend Mike Tucker deserves the last word.  “As a Spanish poet said in the 16th century, ‘Love is the reason for our survival.’ And listening to John Coltrane gives us reasons to survive and live and love and grow. Perhaps because that is what he is about. The spirit of love and the journey of the spirit and a quest for peace that pulses in his work cannot help but touch those with ears to hear and hearts open to his heart.”

And at that point in his conversation with me, Mike becomes aware of his grammar and of the way we both feel about this music.

And he says, “Coltrane is always present tense.”

Will Layman

Permalink Leave a Comment