Dec 10, 2017

10 Years to Go: John Coltrane's Ascent to Saxophone Sainthood

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

During this period, Coltrane was not considered the pinnacle for tenor saxophonists, this title would go to the great Sonny Rollins, who had deservedly made his bones in that regard since the early 50's.

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 has always amazed me how Coltrane was able to beat his Heroin addiction, when others like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Art Pepper, and Dexter Gordon Struggled so mightily with it.

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

1957 was the year things began to really take off for Coltrane: He records with Thelonious Monk, and does a stint at the Five Spot, and records his first truly landmark recording as a leader Blue Train which incorporated the famous Coltrane changes.

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.

3 jazz standards, "Moments Notice", "Lazy Bird", and the title track, show a real growth for the leader. The title track "Blue Train" is actually one the greatest hard bop tunes in history, with one of the most recognizable themes ever.

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

Recorded in October of 1960 and released in March 1961 My Favorite Things was an album of standards, with none composed by Coltrane.

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

A Love Supreme is quite simply an other worldly listening experience for a serious jazz fan. If you find your way into modern jazz, this will be a landmark for you in your jazz journey.

Along with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, It's considered a cornerstone of
Coltrane's quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums performs a tightly composed piece of devotional music.

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?

Interstellar Space

Interstellar Space is a duet between drummer Rashied Ali and John Coltrane. An album that really grew on me after repeated plays, It's such a stripped down album with Coltrane at the top of his game.

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

After the release of the classic Giant Steps in 1960, Coltrane did a stint at the Village Vanguard with Eric Dolphy for Impulse Records. The early 60's saw Impulse Records, and piggy backed Atlantic releases reach classic status almost immediately.

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:

The final 2 years Coltrane created a template for Free Jazz, unfortunately that music is equally derided as it's applauded. His albums like Sun Ship and Ascension are incredible free form statements.

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

Dec 6, 2017

A List of Albums You'll Like if You Like Bitches Brew From Miles Davis

 Once I was sucked into the electric music of Miles Davis after hearing Bitches Brew for the first time, I developed a thirst for other similar music. I will reveal those albums below.

The Electric Period of Miles Davis 1968 to 1975 is my favorite of the Davis time periods.

That's not to slight the other periods, the Gil Evans collaboration from 1958 Porgy & Bess happens to be my favorite Miles Davis album. All the time periods were so fruitful with groundbreaking music, you're are splitting hairs trying to pick only one.

Bitches Brew features open ended combinations of jazz, rock, and funk, with a particular free avant garde style that keeps the music abstract to some extent, without going into the pure commercial jazz funk realm.

Many of the sidemen who appeared on Bitches Brew created other albums in the style, artists like Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, and Larry Young.  Artists like Ian Carr and Eddie Henderson made a living with their own takes on this style.

Emphasis needed:

For my list below, I have not chosen generic jazz rock albums. There are many great albums from Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever that are their own thing and a completely different style, even though Miles undoubtedly opened the door for this music to be commercially viable, and worth producing to the record companies.

For this article I have added only albums that capture the mood of Bitches Brew. Music that may be funky but not overtly funky, music that is spacious and at times avant-garde.

When analyzing Bitches Brew you realize this was not at all commercial sell-out music. Its not easy listening and demands your attention. I've tried to focus on this thought process when selecting the albums below.

Here is a list of albums I have come to enjoy, some as much as Bitches Brew its self:

Note: Albums with a link to are my top picks.

Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions
This 4 CD set more than any other is what you're looking for. From the man himself, nearly 2 discs of unreleased at the time music from the sessions. Some of this also appeared on the Davis album Big Fun. The same vibe obviously throughout the box.

Herbie Hancock: Crossings

Herbie Hancock: Mwandishi: The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings
This set gives you all the music Herbie recorded for Warner Bros from 1969 to 1972. Crossings Mwandishi, and the soundtrack to Fat Albert Rotunda. The latter being more of a jazz funk commercial piece that foreshadowed the Headhunters music to come in the Mid 70's.

The former, are indispensable examples of this style of music, but with Hancock's original unique take on the music. In Many ways, I consider this music as the definitive example, if not better and more fully realized than Bitches Brew its self. Eddie Henderson on trumpet shines brightly on
Mwandishi and Crossings..

Herbie Hancock: Sextant
Sextant is a transition alum, showing nearly the perfect balance of the Bitches Brew style and the Headhunters more commercial music to come.

Larry Young: Lawrence of Newark

Weather Report: Live in Tokyo

Weather Report: Weather Report, and I Sing The Body Electric.

Soft Machine: Third

Miles Davis: Bootleg Box number 2

Mike Westbrook: Metropolis

Ian Carr's Nucleus (Many to choose from)
It should be noted, many of Carr's albums during the 70's leaned more toward the funky sound of "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down" side of Bitches Brew and not the spaced-out Title Track or "Pharaoh's Dance" style. Carr was one of the first to dedicate his music almost entirely to the Davis electric period. All of these albums are worth having, I have them all and all offer their own unique surprises.

Eddie Henderson: Realization/Inside Out

Benny Maupin: Slow Traffic to the Right.

Other Albums from today influenced by Bitches Brew. Some of these are straight tribute albums but completely worthy of a listen, and a few must haves for your jazz rock collection.

Lettuce: Witches Stew

Bob Belden's Animation: Agemo

Bob Belden's Animation: ReAnimation

Mat Maneri: Pentagon

Radiohead: OK Computer
Radiohead? Well, many have commented, including the band how influential Bitches Brew was on this record. Personally I have found that connection is purely in mood. Playing the records side by side will not inspire an epiphany on the subject

 After a time I was able to understand the connection. It's all about vibe, a chilly desolate mood that does make sense when compared together.

Nicholas Payton: Sonic Trance

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