In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

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