In the past few weeks, I’ve taken to daily walks of approximately two miles, which I usually find time for during a break at my job. Nothing spectacular, I’m not making any real effort to get in shape or even develop healthier habits; I still eat like an animal and sit around all the time like Jabba the Hutt’s lazy cousin. But all this aside, it’s good to go out and walk. Good for the mind, for the body, and even for the soul. To breathe the fresh air (or in the case of my town, the fresh smog), gaze upon the blooming flowers (or cigarette butts), and nod indulgently at the simple townsfolk (meth heads). I find that I’ll generally take more and more of these walks as the weather gets colder since – being fat and lazy – there’s less chance that I’ll arrive back at my job dripping with sweat and gasping for water. No, but all joking aside, I really do love taking a brisk morning stroll among the red and yellow leaves, the cool air, and the pleasant view.
I took one such walk this past Tuesday, and brought with me my iPod and a set of headphones. At first, I had it set to play random songs in the “jazz” genre, but I had to keep skipping because I have way more Sonny Rollins on there than I really need. So, I set about browsing my albums, and I came across something I hadn’t properly experienced in many moons: Soultrane by the man himself, John Coltrane.
Unlike many jazz fans, I don’t consider Coltrane to be the greatest saxophonist of all time; but there’s no denying his immense talent, and I think it’s fair to say that he was, at the very least, the most influential saxophonist in jazz history. My personal favorite saxophone player, Cannonball Adderley, was like the Mozart of his time; he produced the most beautiful music possible within the accepted norms and limits of jazz during his lifetime. John Coltrane, on the other hand, was more like Bach (I know, I know, different time periods – whatever). It wasn’t enough for him to simply follow the accepted pattern (in fact, I would argue that Coltrane’s music faltered whenever he attempted to conform to the common standards of jazz); no, he had to experiment. To pioneer. To create not only a body of work, but a legacy. And so, while his career had many downs and many ups, his influence on the genre of jazz has been one of the most lasting, and one of the most beneficial.
I discovered Soultrane when I was first entering the world of jazz, and I latched onto it because it’s a very easy album; that is to say, it’s simple enough that someone with no knowledge of the genre can both understand and enjoy it. The opening track, “Good Bait,” is an immediate hook (at least to my ears). The tune is so simple and fun; it’s almost as though Coltrane is inviting you along with him on some musical adventure (but not in a weird, illegal, van-with-shaded-windows way, just a fun Mr. Rogers type way … if that makes sense).
Soultrane (man, I love that album title) was the first record to heavily feature the new style of improvisation that Coltrane had developed, known as the “sheets of sound” technique (a term coined by music critic Ira Gitler in the liner notes of this selfsame album). Why is it called “sheets of sound,” you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
John Coltrane was an incredibly skilled musician, with impeccable tone and an unrivaled knowledge of scales and chords (for a lead-instrument musician, anyway). He spent years studying different types of musical scales from all over the world, and even more years memorizing with absolute precision every tone he could get out of his saxophone, and how to get it. His time, however, was nearly wasted, because for all of his knowledge and skill, he had very little imagination. Imagination is to a jazz musician what wood is to a carpenter; that is, without it he might as well find a new job. Now when I say “imagination,” I’m not talking in general terms; of COURSE John Coltrane was imaginative, he practically reinvented an entire genre! What I mean to say is that he didn’t have a lot of talent for improvisation. Some people are able to come up with a good melody right there on the spot, on command; Cannonball Adderley was a master when it came to melodic improvisation. John Coltrane could not, and when he tried to, he failed. (Note: I realize many people will argue that John Coltrane was chock-full of imagination and that he was the greatest man who ever wielded a horn and he could move objects with his mind, etc. This is just my personal opinion; please feel free to form your own.)
So, unable to improvise well in the conventional sense of the word, Coltrane invented a new style of improv that was more suitable to his skill set. The “sheets of sound” technique relies very heavily on skill and knowledge, and very lightly (but still somewhat) on true improvisation. In essence, the technique is this: while the rhythm instruments keep the pace and chord progression of the song in the background, the saxophonist fills the air with rapid and extremely dense scales and arpeggios, sliding both up and down, but not necessarily in a set pattern. The notes played are usually so fast that they can’t be singled out, or transcribed into a melody, which means that anyone transcribing a Coltrane solo would likely have most of it written out as a series of glissandos. Hence “sheets of sound.” This also made the style particularly conducive to the rising star of jazz genres at the time: hard bop. Coltrane rejected conventional melodies in favor of something brand new, something that is still experimented with today. I absolutely respect that, and I’m constantly in awe at the ingenuity of this invention when I listen to his recordings.
Imagine being a hip jazz-loving beatnik in 1958, going to the music store to get the latest ’Trane record and being met with the enormity of this album. It would be completely mind-blowing! Coltrane tweaked and perfected his style as the years went on, in masterpieces like Giant Steps, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme (not to mention his contribution to Miles Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue), but this first album was so revolutionary at the time, it stands out as one of his greatest achievements.
I’m pushing my word limit on this as it is, I apologize. Let me do a quick run-down of the songs and I’ll be out of your hair.
Track 1 is “Good Bait,” a fun and simple tune, but with an astonishingly good solo from Coltrane that takes up a good deal of time. “I Want to Talk About You,” the second track on the album, is a ballad; his way of reminding people that he’s not just a one-trick pony. He still employs the sheets of sound somewhat, but they’re softer, smoother, almost liquid; a very sweet song. Track 3 is “You Say You Care,” lifted from the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” It’s a fast-paced, hip rendition of the song, with a phenomenal piano solo from none other than Red Garland. Track 4 is “Theme for Ernie,” another ballad, this one more soulful than sweet. Another beautiful gliding solo from Coltrane, possibly my favorite on the album. The final track on the album is an ultra-fast rendition of Irving Berlin’s classic “Russian Lullaby.” Red Garland opens with a great rolling introduction that’s quickly left in the dust by drummer Art Taylor, who clears the path for Coltrane’s hectic but masterful playing. An incredibly powerful way to end the album.
I once heard an interview with John Cleese about the unique style of sketch comedy that he developed along with the other members of Monty Python. I remember him saying something along the lines of “It was like we had just discovered a completely untouched field of flowers, and we got to pick all the best ones before anyone else got there.” John Coltrane’s Soultrane definitely has a similar feeling to it; you can practically hear the machinery grinding away in Coltrane’s head as he powers out idea after idea, rarely stopping for a rest. The final moments of the album are astounding, with the other instruments dropping out as Coltrane continues his solo in a more literal manner for about twenty seconds of sheer beauty before the band comes back in for the big finale.
Jazz aficionados already have this album memorized, but I strongly advise anyone who’s interested in discovering more of the genre to give it a listen (or eight). I intend to keep this on my iPod to accompany my morning walks for many years to come (not JUST this though, that would get boring).
Recommended for fans of: Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker