‘John Coltrane played in tongues’, said one of his fellow musicians about the saxophonist who died fifty years ago. Are his initials the reason that Coltrane’s admirers attribute superhuman abilities to this free jazz musician?
Referring to ‘higher matters’ is in Coltrane’s case not far-fetched: after working as a jazz musician for many years he quit mind-expanding drugs in 1957 and presented himself as born-again. Coltrane regarded it as God’s grace that he succeeded in keeping his head and his mind clean. Paradoxically, John Coltrane (1927-1967) had played quite traditionally during the years that he used alcohol and heroin. Remarkably good and assertive, but not as mind blowing as he played in later years. After his ‘conversion’ he practised his instrument more intensively than he had done before. His wife Alice made sure that no one bothered Coltrane during these endless scale sessions.
When John Coltrane founded his own band in 1959, he had made his name as a musician with Miles Davis. He played on the best sold jazz album of all times Kind of Blue (1959), that carefully foreshadows his later free improvisations. With a permanent group of musicians, he started the greatest adventure of jazz in the early sixties. Pianist McCoy Tyner played solid block chords that provided Coltrane to create breathtakingly expanding solos (sometimes longer than an hour). Drummer Elvin Jones was Coltranes driving, reliable engine and bassist Jimmy Garrison had the important task of making sure that the others did not lose track when the band leader appeared to ascend.
Chasing Trane, about the life and the work of this great jazz innovator, contains interesting archival material. Many admirers of his work have their say in this documentary (now on Netflix). One of them is the saxophone player whose career took a different direction: Bill Clinton. ‘John Coltrane’s mind and his heart was so there in a place that everybody ought to reach for,’ said the former US president. The film, made by John Scheinfeld, closely follows Coltrane’s career: Coltrane making music during his military service in the Navy, his collaborations with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, but it focuses mainly on the period of Coltrane’s ‘spiritual awakening’. Other musicians who talk about how Coltrane influenced them are Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, son Ravi Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner.
Coltrane’s most interesting album is A Love Supreme (1965), a suite in four parts, that was dedicated to God. The album, produced by Rudy van Gelder, sounds intense, powerful and balanced. The record is like a concentrated eruption of wonder and awe for the Creator and the Universe. The lyrics of ‘Psalm’ were Coltrane’s creed: ‘God is all / Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses / In you all things are possible / Thank you God.’
A Love Supreme resulted in a large crowd of admirers, but the appreciation for his music decreased after 1965. Coltrane continued to renew himself to such an extent that pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones couldn’t follow him any longer. Coltrane crossed so many musical boundaries that hardly anyone understood what he was doing. John Coltrane had started on his last trajectory. Liver cancer took all the energy from his body and eventually the artist who was so far ahead of his time died at the age of 40 on 17 July 1967.
The album The Atlantic Years: In Mono consists of digitized versions of original recordings. Many original mastertapes have been lost in a fire, but the material that is left is definitely worth it. In Mono shows John Coltranes’ development without any fuss: from the energetic and original rhythm and blues saxophonist to the visionary virtuoso that left his audience completely confused and bewildered.