DESTINATION OUT: STEWART VOEGTLIN ON JOHN COLTRANE’S UNIVERSE SYMPHONIES

Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (Aug 2013) — BUY A PRINT COPY FOR $5 TO SEE THIS BEAUTIFUL ILLUSTRATION AT FULL SIZE…

Artwork by BEAVER. Top: ASTRAL PLANE (L to R): Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, Donald Garrett, McCoy Tyner. Bottom: MATERIAL PLANE (L to R): Sanders, Garrison, Garrett, Jones, Tyner, Coltrane.

GIANT STEPS
by STEWART VOEGTLIN

DISCOGRAPHY, 1965-1967
A Love Supreme Recorded Dec ‘64/released ‘65
The John Coltrane Quartet Plays Recorded Feb 65/May 65/March 65 released ’65
Transition Recorded May/June ‘65 released ‘70
Kulu Sé Mama (+Sanders, Garrett, Butler, Lewis) Recorded June 10-16/65 released ‘67
Ascension Recorded June 28/65 released ‘66
Sun Ship Recorded August ‘65 released ‘71
First Meditations Recorded Sept 2/65 released ‘77
Live in Seattle (+Sanders; Garrett) Recorded Sept 30/65/released ‘71
Om (+Sanders; Brazil) Recorded October ‘65 /released 68
Meditations (+Sanders; Ali) Recorded Nov 65/released 66
Interstellar Space Recorded Feb. ‘67/released ‘74
Expression (Sanders, Ali, Alice Coltrane) Recorded Feb. ‘67 & March ‘67/released ‘67

Forty-eight years ago the classic John Coltrane Quartet—along with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and multi-instrumentalist Don Garrett—played a gig at a small Seattle club called the Penthouse. The show—130 minutes, professionally recorded, released later as Live in Seattle—came three months after the release of Coltrane’s monumental Ascension, two months before the leader’s penultimate farewell, Meditations. Standards and originals are played. Ponderous intros are atomized by ecstatic solos. Notes dissolve into noise. Noise dissolves into pure sound. Themes struggle within a framework so volatile it shares more likeness with a riot than music. Whether you choose to believe rumors the players gobbled up LSD before hitting the stage doesn’t change opinion turned fact: this quartet could summon chaos like no other. That night in Seattle, Coltrane & Co. ground away at reality and its tyranny of time until any semblance of form surrendered to the void.

Live in Seattle didn’t arrive at a pivotal moment. It was the pivotal moment. Coltrane had undergone a sort of gale force ideation; let himself go to creativity. He behaved more like a speedfreak archivist at the time than leader of the world’s most cataclysmic quartet. Recorded incessantly. In studio. Remotely. Pecked away at graphic scores. Scribbled down ideas. Gave sparse but impassioned instruction to players en route to studio or gig, establishing structure in the moment, assembling by chance, intuition, power. Live in Seattle was the final push towards the symbolic rebirth Coltrane had begun working towards with A Love Supreme in 1964. It’s Coltrane himself in an almost monastic light, striving for purity, elation, elegance, exaltation. His breath and its vehicle not of this earth, but of something we know not what. A Love Supreme is the undeniably practiced and ceremonial unification of the quartet. Live in Seattle its mindful and unceremonious dissolution. It’s the sound of the classic quartet coming completely apart at its core.

That night in Seattle the rhythm section either bashed away in protest, or stood agitatedly indifferent to Coltrane and Sanders, their horns a screaming phoenix struggling to get off ground with the weight of the universe in its talons. Bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Elvin Jones surely tear through the set. But only Garrison sounds truly sympathetic, willfully adapting to Coltrane’s vision still in transition, shelving simple bass walks in lieu of strumming, plucking, coloring what sounds at times like blood ritual with strange flamenco and orchestral figures. Tyner alternately stomps and sprints up the keys, pointlessly competing with Jones who switches between raucous swing and athletic white noise. Ingredients are there. Forces in opposition. Each player pulling the music into a place he’s more comfortable with. Had it been a rock band it would’ve been salted with operatic whining and ego-oriented arguments that served no true end. All the quartet was doing was shaping its new sound. Crafting aesthetic. Loudly becoming. Here, within Live in Seattle, lies the set of directions for that sound, more cosmogony than loose aggregate of aped trope.

Posthumously released Sun Ship, recorded nearly a month before Live in Seattle, displays the immensity of changes overtaking the quartet. It’s a de facto therapy session, but coordinates are subtly hidden among these tunes. Coltrane shows us where he’s going. Ship’s gassed up. Ready to go. But its occupants would rather jaw at each other than board. Record opens with fire. Jones and Coltrane shouting each other down, while Tyner and Garrison unleash frustration in some of their most zealous playing on record. Gone are the lyrical leads. The subtle, tasteful brushwork from Jones. No sizzling cymbals. No sentimental keys. No winsome bass. Coltrane opens the title track with a starkly rubato sax figure. Ugly, annoying—like a malfunctioning air horn. Speeding up, slowing down. Staccato breaks jab with Jones who mimics its awkwardness and panic with fumbling toms and cymbals, then barrel rolls into brute polyrhythm, snare and cymbal accents coming two and three at a time with mere traces of swing clinging to them. For those holding fast to standards of Jazz, the quartet may as well have burned Duke Ellington in effigy and then extinguished the flames by pissing on it.

Tyner’s contribution in the opening seconds of “Sun Ship” is even more transparent. An irritated couplet of notes is played until Jones finally chases Coltrane’s horn from the microphone. Like a spurned pupil who’s outgrown his teacher’s tutelage, Tyner leaves everyone behind when given just enough space, including the usual juggernaut Jones, who flails about wildly, connecting only here and there with Tyner. When Coltrane reenters, he slaps and paws his sax until it warbles like bagpipes, and Jones does his best to bury him under the splinters of his tiny Gretsch kit. This should be the quintessence of what it means to play as a quartet. Duo playing. Trio playing. Solitary, solipsistic playing. Maddeningly greedy, and provocational playing. It’s all here. All at once, teetering on failure and wildy succeeding.

It’s gruesome, emotional music, a universe away from Blue Train’s straight-ahead cool, connoting neither urban landscape nor social unrest on the horizon. Sun Ship shows us the in-fighting, the pragmatic passivity of some, the extreme unease of others. Together, however, it’s removed from ideas of anger, idleness, ease. It’s even removed from the very ideas of Jazz that existed at the the time. Compare Sun Ship ballad “Dearly Beloved,” with “Soul Eyes” from Coltrane (1962). The two separated by only three years, but the quartet of “Soul Eyes” sounds absolutely ancient in his formality, each player defined by his role, and acts in accordance with Jazz’s unwritten law. “Soul Eyes,” as beautiful as it is, comes off as an exercise in decorum, the quartet sounding as clean and crisp as its critics asked of them, content with playing “Jazz” for Jazz’s sake. Coltrane shapes “Dearly Beloved” similarly, but immediately tires of articulating the theme, and retreats into fractal vibrato reminiscent of his contemporary Albert Ayler, while Jones works his kit over with mallets. When the 1950s came to a close, Ornette Coleman urged fellow musicians to play the music, and not the background. It may have taken Coltrane five years to heed Coleman’s call, but he went at it twice as hard to make up for lost time.

“Dearly Beloved” will not provide a documentarian opportunity to soundtrack images of college students shoving flowers into rifle muzzles. You can’t slurp soup to a ballad that sounds like Bellevue doing a group read of Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantras. We’re outside of time here, independent of headlines, genre constraints. Even Tyner skips the pissing match and hams up the tune’s last quarter, doing a bit for Buster Keaton going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. They hadn’t all bought Coltrane’s vision. And they didn’t keep their ideas about how it was to get fleshed out separate from the studio. Letting the two areas commingle added additional tension to that already ratcheted up by force generated from Coltrane’s improvisational ideas. Two zones lorded over by two different clocks, become one. Might not have come right out and said it, but the quartet had found a way to charm chaos’ snake, and they kept at it, basketing her until it was time to be brought out for the next gig.

Soon Coltrane would add another saxophonist, bassist, drummer—grabbing time by the throat, forcing it to do his bidding. He sought to expand time, create a music based in its plasticity, outside of chord progressions and bass walking, born of pure sound, of creation, of Om. How many horn players were sitting down with their rhythm sections and talking Leibnizian notion of time? Coltrane may not have articulated it as such, but his quartet played that way, especially when an extra horn, bass, or drum kit came into the mix, altering this structure that was neither thing nor event, immeasurable, non-navigable. This was the new frontier. A place within a music beyond boundary, beyond notes. Ordered around spiritual denominator in all things, pure sound, Om—and time, the condition making it possible to be in the first place.

Coltrane spent much of the ‘60s excavating Hindi and Buddhist texts, searching for a better understanding of what he experienced when enthralled within the music he made. Soon he’d begin to couch his music in Christian and Buddhist ideas of purification, rebirth. He would use the words “ascent” or “ascension” as often as articles, positing a sort of psychic launch, an echo of Jacob’s dream of the ladder leading to heaven, a series of angels without end ascending its very rungs to the beyond. He was also allegedly ingesting a lot of LSD at the time. Difficult to not correlate his consuming need to revolutionize Jazz, to submit horn playing to a sort of forced evolution, where pitches, tones and sounds were opened so wide there was nothing left to block it off. All that remained was everything, everyone, and its energy. Its energy was sound, and the sound was God.

This sort of idea empowers the omnipresent “messianic” idea of Coltrane. Jazz’s “savior.” The “restless experimentalist” showing fire blowers the path less travelled. It’s nearly impossible to read anything on the saxophonist without encountering this characterization—it’s incessantly reused because it doesn’t appear confining, limiting. Yet it actually is, and runs contrary to Coltrane’s method, execution. No wonder he was thought the prophet as he raked 30 years of genre history to the present stage and ceremoniously lit it afire. It is miraculous. It is godly. But critics and biographers were so eager to affix him to Jazz’s cross, they were blind to his cunning, his pragmatism. Coltrane wasn’t only some prophetic avant-gardist; he was a time bandit, laying future’s transparency over the past, marrying both with the biggest breath and a bone-rattling vibrato not heard since the masters of the 1930s.

***

But it wasn’t all fire music. Like Albert Ayler, Coltrane knew stranding listeners adrift in space without thematic buoy wouldn’t account for much of anything, much less a “musical experience.” No matter how much either pushed the envelope—shrieking through their sax mouthpieces until they nearly passed out, or climbing overblown altissimo levels into a dog whistle whine—they always held fast to the idiom’s nuts and bolts. Ayler pulled his aesthetic together from folk songs, negro spirituals. Coltrane looked initially to Count Basie Orchestra member Lester Young, whose sinewy playing bobbed and weaved like the boxers of his time. When Coltrane plays “Body and Soul” on Live in Seattle, we recognize it instantly. The buoy’s there. Sure, it’s the same tune Johnny Green wrote in 1930. The same tune Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, and Coleman Hawkins played. Opening notes hover. Drummer Elvin Jones pitter patters. Jimmy Garrison tries to tie it to the ground, to the core, to keep it from floating slowly away. But it does. And that’s what it was designed to do. By the time Jones accents the first break with a crashing cymbal, we’re rubbernecking nebulae, sizing up stars.

Once set into space, it’s easy to understand why Hawkins’ take on “Body and Soul” is so important. The “straight-ahead” player curved around the tune’s composition, merely suggesting Green’s melody and winging the rest purely on improvisation. Tune was only nine years old, but under Hawkins’ leadership, it was given an entirely new identity. It was as if Hawkins crawled into a wormhole with his horn and came out the other end with traces of the composition clinging to his hands, begging to be reborn from his sax’s bell. Scraped clean of primordial jelly, “Body and Soul” is preternaturally restored. Somewhere in New York a cab driver recognizes the refrain from an AM radio station. A hundred years later a conservatory student handles the yellowed sheet music, removes his saxophone’s mouthpiece cover, and breathes the first notes through the curve of his horn. Some critics pinpoint Hawkins’ liberty taken with “Body and Soul” as the unofficial beginning of bebop. Instead of clamoring to create a new genre designation, and draw a line demarcating past from present to future, they should’ve considered the possibility of Hawkins’ action as mere excavation: uncovering the tune’s possibilities and studying them through song. This sort of archeology provided a psychic blueprint for the young Coltrane, who by 1945 was playing in the Navy Jazz band, and would go on to study theory with Jazz guitarist Dennis Sandole a year later. Twenty years on, he would do for “Body and Soul” what Hawkins did, remaking body, soul, sending it out into the universe.

Imagine someone who’d seen Louis Armstrong perform “Body and Soul” in the 1930s, and happened to be there for Coltrane’s Seattle gig. Perhaps near the end of their life, there watching, hearing a tune exactly the way they’d heard it in the ‘30s, then somewhat like the way they’d heard it, and then unrecognizable, unknown. Would’ve moved them to tears—like catching scent of a deceased spouse in a piece of clothing, feeling memories building them quickly back, bit by bit, and then having it slip slowly away, traceless—unrecognizable, unknown. Coltrane played “Body and Soul” how it would’ve been played in the future, a future maybe decades from 1965. The melody’s there, then—as Hawkins engineered—merely suggested, then a future self, a traceless self, transitioning, and gone. Pianist McCoy Tyner lays murky accents behind the rhythm section. Garrison and Jones syncopate, intertwine, and unfurl, Garrison humming along as his hands wring out notes. Even when Tyner’s accents come as before, and do so for 10 or more minutes, they begin to slowly break up, disintegrate, reform. Around the 15 minute mark, Tyner’s taking rubber hammers to his keys. Pounding away on the void’s door. Sanders’ sax trills and whines around him, Jones and Garrison climbing, Sanders ascending, descending, hovering, screaming. When Coltrane renters with the theme, it’s like he’s splashed down out of the sky, a psychonaut travelling from future to past, marrying both with breath big enough to animate body, soul. Maybe Johnny Green could’ve imagined a fifth of this in 1930. Maybe he would’ve been moved to tears hearing Coltrane re-enter the past tune in the present moment from a distant future, helmet shield up.

The “psychic blueprint” Coltrane drew from early on was a fur-soft palimpsest by the time he made his “big band” debut with Ascension. Saxophonist Marion Brown remembered Coltrane explaining what he wanted, how they would all play the simple thematic in their separate ensembles, and follow with crescendi until everyone came together, cohered. Jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase, “sheets of sound,” to describe Coltrane’s tendency to resort to endless streams of arpeggios while improvising. Media rode the term into the ground while struggling to wrap their heads around Ascension. Recorded the same year as the Seattle gig (1965), and released a year later, the single 40 minute composition built around shattering interplay and ordered around a base theme begged for inchoate intellectualizing. End result is not unlike Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony, which sounds like two big bands marching into each other while playing at full tilt.

Some looked to connect dots with posthumous “revelations” from Coltrane’s wife, Alice, about a sort of pictographic, mathematic model he tinkered with—a “psychic blueprint” grown around a global shape, littered with scales, strange computations. Makes sense. Coltrane, who once confessed to Ayler he often had dreams he could play like him (Ayler, coincidentally, reciprocated), took his experimental acumen and broke it down to its base atoms, microtones, overtones, phantom octaves his horn wasn’t even capable of producing. It’s the sound of a player reaching, stretching, trying to steal sound that remains, at least for a moment, elusive. The “sheets of sound” Gitler talked about wasn’t a technique, it was a state, a way to access that once thought inaccessible. It wasn’t about producing the sound; it was about receiving it, becoming it.

Twenty minutes into Live in Seattle’s “Evolution,” the quartet does just that, with, presumably, Don Garrett shirking his horn and resorting to humming, groaning, chanting. In short time Garrett, presumably, repeats the sanskrit word, Om, invokes Dharma, invites his fellow bandmates to embrace the invocational utterance. And they do. It lasts only a minute, but the sound of Garrett, Sanders, Coltrane—and who knows else—screaming “Om” over and over again while Jones and Garrison swing right into the deepest recesses of unexplored space brings the sort of ecstatic chaos Appalachian Pentecostals are known for to the Jazz stage. The rumors about the band eating acid that night ring true momentarily; there’s an energy present here that rarely snaps and pops around folks who aren’t going out of their way to become woven into creation’s very fabric. That’s when the “psychic blueprint” begins to reveal itself. The tunes picked that night, their titles, are separate instructions, prayers: “Cosmos,” “Out of This World,” “Evolution,” “Tapestry of Sound,” “Body and Soul,” etc. When taken together, it’s like an unpublished Upanishadic fragment holding the key to unification with God.

As the quartet steers the ship “Out of This World,” the suits and well-kept afros and beards deliquesce. They become Saharan bushmen plucked out of timelessness, herb bathed, hung with beads, amulets, eyes attuned to cosmos. While Coltrane and Sanders tear at their horns, others, in the shadow of the great ship, clack together tortoise shells, scrape rocks, click sticks, shake gourds half full of dried seeds. Its transport comes from the tunes. Where any head armed with a bong can tell you in so many words he’s his own personal Magellan, those looking to “receive sound” go parsecs beyond that, careening through future’s past through  “Out of This World,” a tune composed by the earthbound Harold Arlen in the early 1940s. The global shape checked for coordinates, and then they’re off, circumnavigating a realm then—and now—unmapped.

Next day the band shook off the intergalactic gunk and holed up in a Lynwood, Washington studio to record what would become Om. Thumb pianos, chimes, gongs, flutes. Recitation, chanting. And then echo of “Evolution” just mere hours prior, “Om, Om, Om, Om!” Everything set into being. Every sound. Every place. Every space. It’s often derided as Coltrane’s worst record. Certainly doesn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with Meditations or Ascension. But it’s incomplete, unformed. Its players even amorphous. Sanders, in particular, sounds near reptilian. His horn hisses, coughs, screams. His solos couple respiratory acrobatics and strange tonal contouring. Coltrane’s playing, conversely, still maintains traces of swing, all but thrown to a funnel cloud of endless arpeggios. He doesn’t catch up to Sanders’ fragmentary approach for two years, but by the time he does, he’s assimilated everything, built it up into a pyramid, used it as a launching pad. Om was never a record—an artifact. It was an invocation—a countdown. A vedic notion of what had happened, and what was coming. Destination out.

“Space bebop….” That’s what Ayler called Coltrane’s early ‘60’s output. It’s apt. Difficult not to take it as a benign jibe, though. Coltrane never committed wholly to a single stylistic. He was a merger, a collagist, laying future’s transparency over the past—much like Ayler. Of course Ayler’s method was decidedly savage: he skinned folk music alive and donned its hide. Ghosts that rose from his horn bore irrefutable resemblance to its source material, smelled of it, dripped of its blood, but it was no longer bound to the earth. It was cosmic, ethereal. Coltrane got there, but he was more pragmatic about his compositional change and the ideas behind it. There’s a gradual naturalness to Coltrane’s mutation. His planned trip to stellar regions was slowly chiseled in stone over time. When Ascension had left earth’s atmosphere, Ayler was lauding Coltrane’s character, his spirituality. “[He’s] a beautiful person, a highly spiritual brother,” he told critic Nat Hentoff in 1966. “Imagine being able in one lifetime to move from the kind of peace he found in bebop to a new peace.” Coltrane’s newfound peace was out of this world, beyond notes, giant steps from his prior work and his contemporaries.

In 1967, the year of his death, Coltrane would return to the Sun Ship, perfecting its title track, naming it for Nemean Lion killed by Hercules, and then sent into sky. One of the earliest historically recognized constellations, “Leo” was noted by great civilizations throughout time—Mesopotamians, Persians, Babylonians. Coltrane, and then quartet drummer, Rashied Ali, built duo record Interstellar Space around this history, exploring heavenly bodies through instrumental and technical exploration, a type of “out” playing outside of “out” playing, where Coltrane’s advancements of the idiom are distilled into a pure metastasizing energy.

Coltrane’s lead on “Leo” weds the head of “Sun Ship” to Meditations’ trinity, “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost.” Melding the two results in a yield whose compositional instability is what actually stabilizes it, holds the mutable immutable. Ali’s omnidirectional “pulse” drumming allows Coltrane the freedom he never received from Jones who was unabashedly shackled to swing. Without time’s constraint, Coltrane carries on schizophrenically, 1,000 voices within one, his phrasing a continuous slur—much like the laconic North Carolina accent he spoke with.

With Ali’s bewildering attack presenting everywhere and nowhere, Coltrane dismantles swing—sheds harmony, chordal patterns, and any comprehensible idea of time along with it. Note upon note. Glissandi. Smears of sounds melodic and amelodic. Listeners reared on traditional structure left alone, out in space. They were forced to reckon with this music, to adapt to its division of time. Conversely, Coltrane didn’t adapt to the limitations of his horn. He made his horn adapt to him. Out of this world and into another. A final mission with no bass, no extra horns, no additional percussionists. Just a lone whirlwind drummer and himself. Head of fire, eyes of sun, tornadic breath, all below his footstool. Suit on, helmet shield down, floating in that void. The psychic blueprint wrapped about space’s boundless extent—scales, strange computations littering its quadrants like constellations. When Coltrane exhales finally, holds his horn to his chest, and Ali rests his sticks, and the cymbals stubbornly decay, sleigh bells rise high in transmission, and their sizzle, it falls slowly to stardust.

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