“John Coltrane played in tongues”, said one of his fellow musicians about the saxophonist who died in 1967. Are Coltrane’s initials the reason why his admirers (like Johan Cruijff’s fans did) attribute superhuman abilities to him?
The reference to ‘higher things’ did not come out of the blue in Coltrane’s case: after years of struggling as a jazz musician, he kicked the habit of mind-expanding drugs in 1957 and felt like reborn. Coltrane saw it as pure grace that he managed to keep his head clear since that moment. Paradoxically, under the influence of alcohol and heroin, John Coltrane (1927-1967) had played rather traditionally. He might have improvised remarkably well and confidently, but not half as inspired as in the years that followed. After his ‘conversion’ he studied his instrument even more intensively than before. His wife Alice made sure that nobody disturbed the saxophonist during his hour-long scale sessions.
When John Coltrane formed his own band, he had made his name as a member of the Miles Davis band. He played on Davis’ best-selling jazz album Kind of Blue (1959), on which you can hear cautious references to his later free improvisations. With his own quartet he embarked on one of the greatest musical adventures in jazz in the 1960s. Pianist McCoy Tyner laid down solid block chords that made it possible for Coltrane to pile up his ever-expanding solos (that sometimes lasted longer than an hour). Drummer Elvin Jones was the driving, never faltering engine behind the quartet. Bassist Jimmy Garrison had the important task of ensuring that the others would not lose track when the band leader seemed to be ascending from the earth in soloing.
The documentary film Chasing Trane (2016) shows intriguing archive material of Coltrane. In addition, several fans of his work are interviewed. One of them is a saxophonist whose career took a completely different direction: Bill Clinton. “John Coltrane reached heights that mere mortals didn’t know,” said the former American president. The film, made by John Scheinfeld, follows Coltrane’s career closely: Coltrane making music during his naval service, working with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. The documentary focuses on the period of Coltrane’s ‘spiritual awakening’. Other musicians who shed their light on Coltrane and his music include Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, son Ravi Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner.
Coltrane’s masterpiece is A Love Supreme (Impulse! Records, 1965) a four-part suite dedicated to God. The album, recorded in one day and produced by Rudy van Gelder, made a deep impression worldwide. A Love Supreme is not only a wonderful example of the possibilities of modal jazz, it is also an epic ode to life, love and the universe. The saxophonist’s layered improvisations made this album the cornerstone of Coltrane’s catalogue.
A Love Supreme garnered a great deal of admirers. His later work met less resonance. Coltrane kept renewing himself to such an extent that even pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones could no longer follow him. During his final stretch, Coltrane crossed so many musical boundaries that hardly anyone was able to understand what he meant. Liver cancer drained the energy from his body and he finally died of this disease in 1967 at the much too young age of 40.
In 2021, 56 years after its release A Love Supreme was certified platinum (one million copies) in the US. In celebration of this milestone, Impulse! Records released a digital-only collection A Love Supreme: The Platinum Collection.
A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle is a rediscovered live recording of Coltrane’s iconic suite. It was recorded at The Penthouse in Seattle in 1965.
A Love Supreme: The Platinum Collection
John Coltrane Quartet – Impulse!, 2021
A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle
John Coltrane Quartet -Impulse!, 2021
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Directed by: John Scheinfeld, 99 minutes, 2016