Lynn René Bayley
, November 2010
This is, by far, the most complex and interesting of the DVDs in EuroArts’ series “Masters of American Music” because John Coltrane was one of the most complex and interesting of musicians. He and the much lesser-known Eric Dolphy existed on an exalted musical plane reserved for only a handful of jazz musicians of the 1960s and ’70s, a plateau that also included Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Lennie Tristano, George Russell, and—more controversially—Ornette Coleman. It’s interesting, though never mentioned in this video, that Coltrane played and/or recorded with Evans, Mingus, and Russell, though they do (very briefly) mention his association with Monk.
Coltrane came out of the bebop school but by the mid 1950s was already looking for ways to expand its, and his, musical vocabulary. His solution was to improvise for long stretches of time on one or two chords, exploring and exploding the music into ever-denser shards of notes, scatter-gunning beyond the range of even the most extended chords. One of his early experiments in this direction, My Favorite Things, became a surprise hit both for him and his label (Atlantic), when in fact it was a number that he used only as a framework for his constant explorations and note explosions. Because he played with such a huge tone, and because his flurries of notes followed such jagged lines that the notes ran into each other, his style was described by critics as “sheets of sound.”
One of the video’s claims is that Coltrane helped influence the minimalist school of classical composition. I’ve heard this claim before, but it just isn’t true. What they mean is that minimalism, like Coltrane, tries to induce trance states in listeners by repeating patterns, but there’s a vast chasm between Coltrane’s hyper-busy, Stravinskyish approach to improvisation and the reduction of music to baby-simple melodic and rhythmic patterns. In effect, it’s like saying London Bridge is Falling Down evolved from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Indeed, one can easily refute this claim from the fact that minimalism has become extremely popular whereas Coltrane, after My Favorite Things, gradually began to lose his public and, eventually, many jazz critics as well. Complicated musical patterns are never popular or easy to grasp, regardless of genre. Ironically, Coltrane began losing his audience at about the same time that Stravinsky was losing his by writing 12-tone compositions. Both men jumped off a musical deep end from which there was no going back.
The video clips used in this film are phenomenal, eye- and ear-popping, and extremely rare; only the opening clip from Ralph Gleason’s short-lived program Jazz Casual was formerly (and easily) available. There are two excerpts from an open-air live concert in Scandinavia, including a performance of My Favorite Things, where the weather was so cold that you could see the musicians’ breaths.
Trane had what you might call the “Lost Chord” syndrome, always reaching for something he could never quite attain. Perhaps he’d have been more successful if he simplified his approach rather than making it ever denser, but that just wasn’t his nature. Although, as a bebopper, he got into heroin for a while, drugs didn’t kill him. He had kicked the habit even before Miles Davis did. Trane died from Type 1 diabetes, which he didn’t even know he had until he was in his 30s. Since he didn’t feel bad, he thought he could contain it his own way without taking his medications every day. He was wrong. I’m not sure if any classical music lover is reading this review, but you should, especially if you enjoy modern classical composers. John Coltrane was a genius whose body of work still awes and inspires musicians, and a lot of them are not jazz players.