John Coltrane's life-changing sound

Last updated 09:35 22/08/2011

My brother arrived home from university with The Stardust Sessions and A Love Supreme. These two albums were life-changing. That's such a cliché but it's a cliché for a reason - it's something that does happen, that has happened often. I carried on playing sport, going to school. In so many ways life was the same - but life was never really the same for me after hearing The Stardust Sessions and A Love Supreme. Those albums were my introduction to John Coltrane. And that introduction was, as the cliché has already said, life-changing.

It changed my expectations for music, for what music can do. For what it can be. For how it can make you feel.

Recently I wrote about A Love Supreme and how it just might be my favourite album of all time by anyone (see here).

And that got me to thinking back to John Coltrane's influence and appeal for me; he's one of my all-time favourite musicians, a musical hero.

A Love Supreme is an album you can really get inside. I find myself in the album often - hardly a week goes by when I don't play it or at least a track from it. Most often I listen to the whole album - it is so very much a complete album - but that first track, the first part excerpts well also.

Hearing A Love Supreme for the first time blew my mind. Elvin Jones is so colourful, daubing at the toms, splashing across the cymbals. McCoy Tyner plays bold, elegant piano. Jimmy Garrison's bass sound is huge. The perfect moans behind Coltrane's dulcet tones.

We sat and listened to the album. And instantly I wanted to hear it again. So that is what I did - pressed play and sat back to again take it all in. It was all at once like being inside a very good book or film and yet the cup was just spilling over as I tried to drink in this thing; this so-huge sound.

I've been listening to A Love Supreme for more than half my life. It's travelled with me - it's been a comfort. It's been so much more than just an album.

From A Love Supreme and The Stardust Sessions (a compilation of earlier Coltrane albums) I collected as much as I could find. Original albums, compilations, live records, box-sets, sessions featuring Coltrane, work where he was the sideman but it's now rebranded to pitch him as the star. I have an iPod that has about 50 discs' worth of Coltrane recordings. Sometimes I'll spend a big part of a week working through some of the favourites: Giant Steps, OM, Ascension, Live a the Village Vanguard, Soultrane, The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions. And there are another half-dozen I could name. At least.

One album leads you to another - they hook you in from the gorgeous ballads (hear where he takes Stardust or his own Naima) through to the several choruses that form the unstoppable force that is Chasin' the Trane. Then there was the free jazz he helped to pioneer. The amazing thing I find, still, in working through all this material (and actually it's not really a chore at all, so "working" is the wrong word) is that there was no one definable Coltrane Sound. There were several sounds. But he put himself entirely in to all of them. So you can always know that it's him.

What I mean by that is the very early playing was often sloppy, slightly shaky, not fully formed. He lacked confidence as a sideman to begin with. Then he started to develop the "sheets of sound" approach to soloing - and the ability to play several notes at once helped him to layer his sounds, peppering his solos with ideas. As he moved in to being a leader, releasing albums under his own name, running that incredible quartet that peaked with A Love Supreme, he was in charge not only of his sound but a very distinctive band sound.

Check out this version of Softly As in a Morning Sunrise - you don't hear Coltrane at first but you know who it is (in the band) as you spot a lovely solo from Tyner on piano. When Coltrane comes in and the brushes are dropped so that sticks can pick up the swing it's on - it is so totally, obviously Coltrane. And it is so totally, obviously The John Coltrane Quartet; one of modern jazz's greatest groups.

The Coltrane that blew so furiously, so passionately across Live at the Village Vanguard (1961) and the albums that followed had to find its way out the other side of drug addiction, of crippling self-confidence issues, battling with demons and emerging as the life-force that kept its owner both free to explore sounds and impossibly shackled to music.

As the owner of the Coltrane sound - something so influential and yet so inimitable - John Coltrane became one of jazz's true legends.

He was significant as a member of one of the great Miles Davis groups. Davis had kicked his habit and required that Coltrane do the same. As Coltrane was fired and moved around to work with other huge names, Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk for example, he did kick the habit. He found peace through religion; or at least attempted to. And he emerged with the Giant Steps album in 1960, which is his real debut as a leader. He had recorded a couple of albums already but Giant Steps is the start of the defining Coltrane work. It is, to this day, a stunning album of all original compositions - at least half a dozen of them (almost the entire album) became jazz standards.

And then from 1960 to 1967 the workload is hard to fathom - the amount of music is close to overwhelming, particularly given the stylistic variations. He showed skill at interpreting pop tunes (My Favourite Things) and ballads. And then moving past modal jazz and straight ahead/bop styles to work without structure, to work at free music, to record duets/dialogues with only himself and a drummer; to perform as a solo saxophonist, spitting and coughing and spluttering from the horn.

The other thing about the Coltrane sound is that he moved across instruments - these days the soprano saxophone has been all but ruined by Kenny G but in Coltrane's hands (and mouth) it was a magic stick.

Where someone like Sonny Rollins (see here for my interview with Sonny from earlier this year) remained a tenor player only, John Coltrane had success with more than one type of sax; it was part of his search for a sound, part of his quest, part of the improvisation and innovation.

The Coltrane sound was something John Coltrane was, obviously, the owner of - but it was fluid. It was a sound he was searching for his whole life. And it kept him alive as long as it was able, as long as he was able to keep up with attempts to pin down that sound.

Liver cancer took him from this world when he was just 40 (in 1967). It makes his work all the more remarkable when you think of what is there - to still discover now - from the years when he was a leader. He started releasing that incredible run of albums when he was 33. In seven years he made so many different kinds of jazz that have left an indelible mark, that are still influential but so hard to replicate. There is, to this day, no one saxophonist that sounds quite like John Coltrane but there are so many that owe such a huge debt to his playing, to his writing - to that search he maintained, looking for a sound. His sound.

I've enjoyed thinking about John Coltrane - and I've named a lot of my favourite albums above. How about you? Are you a fan? Do you remember what hooked you in? Do you have favourite albums or pieces? Do you prefer his work as a leader or as a sideman? Do you agree that he remains a distinct voice in jazz - one of the great influences? Or are you not a fan?

And when I think about John Coltrane (as I have tried to do here) and when I listen to anything featuring him - or by him - I can still picture the much younger me, jaw on the ground, listening so intently that very first time to A Love Supreme in big brother's room. He's there too - showing me the ropes, handing the CD over in a sense. One of the greatest musical gifts I ever received. (Thanks Kane.)

Postscript: Garth Cartwright's excellent More Miles Than Money book begins with a story about visiting the Church of John Coltrane. (So thanks Garth.) Reading this got me around - finally - to using Blog on the Tracks to put down some of my thoughts, having been enraptured by the saxophone sermons for so many years. I thoroughly recommend Garth's book about travels through America and American music. And if you want a great book to guide you through some of Coltrane's work, to break it all down, get hold of Coltrane: The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff.

Keep up with Blog on the Tracks on Facebook and follow on Twitter.

And follow Off the Tracks to read 'The Vinyl Countdown' - an album-by-album review of my record collection.

11 comments
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Grant McDougall   #1   11:06 am Aug 22 2011

John Coltrane is one of the greatest figures of 20th century music, not just in jazz, but music in general.

His is music for the ages and will still be revered hundreds of years from now and quite rightly so.

He is one of those rare artists that never made a less-than-good album, some achievement given that he recorded dozens as a leader, let alone how many he played on as a sideman.

Even if he'd remained a sideman he'd still be one of jazz's most significant figures. That he broke out and excelled as a leader is an extraordinary bonus.

I first heard Coltrane in a cafe I worked in in the early '90s. We had an in-house stereo and among the tapes was a copy of A Love Supreme. I liked it, but didn't quite click with it. Then in 2001 I picked it up on CD and have never looked back.

My favourite Coltrane albums are pretty much any of the Atlantic and Impulse! albums, especially the Live At The Village Vanguard box-set, A Love Supreme, Giant Steps and Coltrane (an especially under-rated album). His latter-period free jazz is also as exhilerating and energetic as any rock music, too.

AS for books, I highly recommend Ashley Kahn's A Love Supreme which superbly articulates Coltrane in general and the album itself so well. Kahn's The House That Trane Built also outlines the '60s NYC jazz scene and the Impulse! label really well.

Finally, I'll pass on the advice I was given to anyone keen to get into Coltrane: if an album's got Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison in the line-up, go for it.

Jim   #2   11:26 am Aug 22 2011

I love listening to Coltrane when I have an MRI.

rory   #3   11:50 am Aug 22 2011

@Jim - best comment, ever.

gd   #4   02:38 pm Aug 22 2011

My first encounter with the name John Coltrane was this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXyX2-tdDbA (skip to 1.30).

Many years later when I actually heard the name in a more serious sense I realised he was just one of those people I had to check out. At the time the only jazz I knew was Miles so I went out and discovered 'Trane. As much as A Love Supreme is phenomenal, I'm quite a big fan of Giant Steps.

Darryl   #5   04:00 pm Aug 22 2011

I've tried hard to like Coltrane but often I found his playing to be like a maddened snake charmer on a cocktail of acid and amphetamines. I guess Bebop and Free jazz just aren't for me.

tim57   #6   10:51 am Aug 23 2011

Agree with you Grant 100%. I have a lot of Miles Davis stuff and John Coltrane of course features and that is how i first heard him. He really compliments Cannon Ball Adderly when they played together,esp on Kind of Blue ,pure beauty. I have only one Coltrane album which is Live at Birdland and he is backed by Jones,Tyner and Garrison,recorded in 1964.

Nate F   #7   10:57 am Aug 23 2011

Great piece Simon. I've been a devout Coltrane acolyte since 1999. I remember the album, flat I was living & the chair I was sitting in when I was absolutely gobsmacked by how brilliant and affecting this music was. Fast forward over a decade and so many revelatory listens since I feel exactly the same to this day. You're quite right, easily one of the most instantly recognisable instrumentalists of all time from the ballads to 'sheets of sound' he filtered his soul through the horn and played every note like it was his last. As usual a quality "positive" post and single figure comments. Guess the usual naysayers dragged their knuckles off to the racism thread... Anyways, nice work - appreciate it.

Japsy   #8   11:29 am Aug 23 2011

Only 7 comments.....well, I'm not surprised. Having come from JPN where jazz is much more appreciated and having lived in NZ for years, I'm well passed the point of being surprised or disappointed at this.

Regardless of genre (except classical), what I like most about music is thrilling improvisation. Thus my best fav rock albums are naturally live recorded ones; the Allman's "Fillmore Live", Bloomfield and Kooper's "Live Adventure", and Santana's "Lotus".

When I bought "Kind of Blue" CD a few years ago (I still have my worn-out LP), I was pleasantly surprised to read its liner notes by a music critic and musician, Robert Palmer (not that late singer). According to it, he often witnessed Duan Allman play great solos at Fillmore and was told his play was inspired by "Kind of Blue". Carlos Santana has always been explicit about his admiration for Miles and Coltrane, and Bloomfield was great playing modal.

Now, Coltrane.....his play was the epitome of improvisation. How he could come up with those choice notes and phrases is simply mind-boggling. Some say Parker was more melodic, but I like Trane better. I just love the tension and elation I get from his music.

Simon, I'm glad you took up Coltrane even though it didn't seem to attract much attention. Good critics are to inform and enlighten people just like good teachers. I know it's not easy. As there are lots of people out there who seriously think JK Rowling is as great as (or even greater than) Shakespeare as a storyteller, it shouldn't be surprising if many believe Elvis was greater than Miles as a "musician".

Simon Sweetman   #9   11:52 am Aug 23 2011

@Nate F - kind words. They have no place here! Nah, kidding. Thanks. And to tim57 and gd and Grant McDougall. Glad you guys responded. It was fun to write this. Thanks.

Callum   #10   12:11 am Aug 29 2011

Great article, Simon. It's interesting that you talk about Coltrane's diversification to soprano saxophone. Have you heard him on alto? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mMS2jZTO0k Most saxophonists have a hard time translating their sound between horns to some extent, but Coltrane sounded so personal on everything he played. IMO he has one of the most full, rich alto sounds in the history of the horn, even just from the few recordings there are of him.


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