Was Coltrane the greatest saxophonist of them all? In only 10 years time, John Coltrane went from being an undependable band mate, and good saxophonist; to being a mythical figure in jazz, and undoubtedly the best there ever was.
Volumes have been written about who the greatest saxophonist of all time was, many insist Coleman Hawkins was the greatest, perhaps Lester Young or Charlie Parker?
Coltrane albums like A Love Supreme, Ascension, and Giant Steps were each one unique and groundbreaking, and transcended jazz.
For other saxophonists, Trane's new developments on the instrument nearly destroyed the egos of players like Sonny Rollins, who himself had to cope with being eclipsed as the most groundbreaking tenor player of his own era
...But, before 1958, Trane was on a rocky road, he was fired by the great trumpeter/band leader Miles Davis because of his continued heroin use...
Pre 1958 Coltrane
Coltrane's own Prestige label work really comes off as derivative bop jazz in my opinion except the stunningly good Lush Life "pictured". It's always high quality, but nothing that sets its self apart from the groundbreaking bop he made with the Davis 1st Quintet. Actually Coltrane teamed up with Rollins on a Prestige LP Tenor Madness, that is really good and should be heard as well.
Of course Coltrane's lone Blue Note album Blue Train is a classic and made in 1957, so it's quite clear Coltrane could hold his own with other cock sure instrumentalists like trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller. Trane just had one hurdle to clear mentally before saxophone immortality.
How did John Coltrane ultimately beat heroin?
It seems the only way to beat an addiction is "habit replacement", preferably a new positive addiction. A valuable lesson for all of us.
When Miles Davis battled heroin during the mid 50's, he locked himself in his father's barn for days until the urges subsided. Miles continued with other substances like cocaine and alcohol throughout his life however, but they never became his true love.
Many heroin addicts must be on methadone maintenance the rest of their lives, Coltrane was able to kick heroin as well as tobacco later on, he just made a incontrovertible decision in his life. Miles and Coltrane simply said, that-was-it with that type of albatross, music became his addiction.
John Coltrane became completely obsessed with his music, and trying to get closer to god, studying diverse forms of eastern spirituality. During his final phase of recording, his music after 1965 became almost otherworldly in scope.
This free jazz avant-garde music is not for the faint of heart, it is an acquired taste. Free jazz was and is the ultimate niche music, there seems to be no middle ground, you either love it, or you despise it.
I have always felt, listening to albums like Ascension, Sun ship, and Interstellar Space, that Coltrane was baring his soul, not too many times have I felt this when listening to a music.
Monk, Blue Train, and sheets of sound
Coltrane started using something, a device that writer Ira Gitler coined in 1958 as "sheets of sound.
This was basically a very dense and fast use of arpeggios. Not unlike what shred guitarists might do in rock music.
This set his jazz contemporaries on notice, by 1960 Coltrane would be so far advanced, only the great Charlie Parker could even be mentioned in the same breath, when considering the amount of revolutionary changes brought to the instrument, and later the soprano sax as well.
Blue Train (Recorded on Sept 15, 1957)
Blue Train was an album that came out of nowhere. Recorded during the time he was working with Thelonious Monk, Blue Train is an album where Coltrane's writing and playing seemed to take a monumental leap.
There is something about have Coltrane match wits with trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist Curtis Fuller, who both with Coltrane form a wonderfully perfect front line.
Outside of Art Blakey's Moanin (Blue Note 4003) I can't think of another album that captures the spirit of independent jazz label Blue Note Records like Blue Train does.
It's a shame Blue Train was the only album as a leader Coltrane did for Blue Note. It would be a full 2 years before Coltrane's revolutionary album Giant Steps would be released.
In the mean time though, Coltrane would re-join Miles Davis and create history as a side-man with Miles' epic 1959 album Kind of Blue, widely considered the greatest modern jazz album of all-time.
My Favorite Things and the rise of the soprano sax
What Coltrane did do though, was re-work the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "My Favorite Things" into a world music hypnotic waltz time vamp of nearly 14 minutes.
Coltrane brought the rarely used in jazz instrument, the soprano saxophone to the forefront on the album.
Only Sidney Bichet, Steve Lacy, and Lucky Thompson were of any real note on the instrument prior.. Coltrane was actually demonstrating a virtuosity rivaling his tenor playing right away. I have really grown to appreciate this aspect of Coltrane's playing. In my opinion only Steve Lacy comes close to Coltrane in scope on the soprano, you could twist my arm and get me to say they are equals. I respect the late Steve Lacy immensely.
My favorite Coltrane soprano tune is "Afro Blue" from the Live at Birdland album, I just love the way he incorporates various world musics into his sound when showcasing the soprano.
A Love Supreme
Along with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, It's considered a cornerstone of
Trane is on a roll here, In complete control of his inner self, beating heroin years earlier and completely devoting himself to god; and this is the musical expression of that journey.
From the opening fan fare, the a-love-supreme chanting bass line lifts you up to perhaps the same spiritual heights as Coltrane himself felt creating the music?
Technically some of the things he does here are from another world, its hard to imagine the instrument being pushed any further, its almost as if God was speaking through him. I will concede this type of music seem to have a spontaneous way it grabs the listener. I think this type of music would be like nails to a chalkboard for many.
Rashied Ali is an often overlooked drummer because he replaced the great Elvin Jones. His playing is just as powerful, and maybe even more complex. Ali was perfectly suited for Coltrane during this period. Ali passed away in 2009.
The 60's Belonged to Trane
The Village Vanguard sessions received mixed reviews at the time, as many people couldn't get what Coltrane was trying to do with the relentless wall of notes approach on tracks like "Chaisin' the Train".
After a brief commercial bent, with album like Ballads, and albums with Duke Ellington and singer Johnny Hartman, Coltrane ran off a series of quartet albums that set the standard for quartet modern jazz in the 60's.
Other than the 60's Miles Davis quintet, the Coltrane quartet is the real bell-weather for post bop jazz groups, even today.
A Love Supreme sold 500,000 copies by 1970, an astounding number for a record that is not in the slightest way easy listening. A Love Supreme is actually mildly avant-garde and shows Trane playing with as much passion and fire as anything that was considered free jazz in his final 2 years.
The Final Period:
Considering what Coltrane did, beating heroin, and becoming the greatest saxophonist who ever lived; he is a living testament to what a human being can do if they are willing to work hard and devote absolutely to its positive outcome.
Coltrane said he wanted to become a saint. For the world of jazz, and those struggling with addiction, he did indeed become that.
John Coltrane passed away on July 17, 1967 of liver cancer at the age of 40. In ten y
Nearly 50 years after his death, no saxophonist has even come close to equaling what Trane did in those 10 short years as a leader and sideman after conquering his demons.
*All photos my own or used with permission via Amazon.com.