Avant Garde, a Force for Good: at the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper (Ashley Kahn, Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)

Avant Garde, a Force for Good

At the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper.

by Ashley Kahn

Excerpted from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn. Copyright (c) Ashley Kahn, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. 

Perhaps it was a four-year itch.

Not that John Coltrane planned his career turns with any exactitude, but the timeline of his most creative period does imply a certain regularity: one year bursting with diverse activity and unsettled exploration—1957, 1961—followed by three of relatively focused progress. By that schedule, 1965 promised another creative eruption.

On cue—while the sound of A Love Supreme threaded its way into the cultural tapestry—Coltrane again accelerated his experimental drive in contexts large and small, in the process testing the bonds that held his core group together. Before the year was out, the reign of the Classic Quartet would come to a close, and Coltrane would front a new band and a new sound.

The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane’s measured key-hopping on “Acknowledgement” presaged a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like “Om”; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Se Mama. His explicitly hymnlike titles became an unbroken theme among the many tracks recorded in 1965—”Dear Lord,” “Welcome,” “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—and their meditative sonority a looser reflection of that on A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme also left its trace in the extended, suitelike compositions Coltrane brought into the studio throughout 1965. He even chose the title “Suite” for a five-part work with sectional names again suggesting spiritual focus–“Prayer and Meditation: Day,” “Peace and After,” “Affirmation.” The album Meditations (and the later release First Meditations, among the final sessions with the Classic Quartet) furthered Coltrane’s trend to multisectioned constructions presented in continuous performance. Meditations also elicited questions as to whether he was consciously following in his own footsteps. Coltrane’s response leaned more to the spiritual than the musical, as he saw his current efforts as points along the same continuum:

“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, [Meditations] is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.”

As Alice [Coltrane] noted, “From A Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”

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Originally published in Arthur No. 35 (Aug 2013)…

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.


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.

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New in 2010! ARTHUR RADIO: Episode One

Arthur is excited to present ARTHUR RADIO, an all-new Arthur-sponsored radio show broadcasting over the internet via Newtown Radio out of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Tune in live every Sunday from 4-6PM EST, or listen to the podcast at any time, from anywhere in the world. Arthur Radio will feature an uninterrupted music hour followed by interviews, live performances and other special guest segments. Anything and everything is possible…

Listen to the first episode below, hosted by DJs Hairy Painter and Ivy Meadows with special guest Tyler McWilliams from the Naturalismo blog…

Stream: [audio:http://www.arthurmag.com/magpie/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/ARTHUR-RADIO-INTRO-1-17-2010.mp3%5D

Download: Arthur Radio Intro 1-17-2010