Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Tenor of His Saxophone Remains One of My Favorite Things -- Birthday Tribute: John Coltrane (b. Sept. 23, 1926; d. July 17, 1967)

I know and like a fair amount of jazz, particularly the legendary musicians and composers--Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins (who I saw earlier this year)--but am not quite an aficionado and 'Miles' short of being an expert.

But by far, my favorite jazz musician has long been saxophonist John Coltrane, whom I became aware of when Bono namechecked him--and Miles Davis--in Angel of Harlem, U2's 1988 song about Billie Holiday

'Trane' is typically cited just below 'Bird' (Charlie Parker) in the annals of all-time sax men, but I've liked him best since first hearing him and have come to own most of his major recordings.

More like Parker than their contemporary Rollins, whose career has stretched over 60 years, Coltrane's time in the limelight was rather brief. Born on this day in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, he first became known in 1955 as a sideman to Davis, and then Monk, recorded his own first album in 1957 and didn't form his "Classic Quartet" until 1962. Although he had kicked his heroin habit years earlier, Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40.

I can't really speak too intelligently about his innovations or influence--the Wikipedia article on Coltrane does so briefly and Lewis Porter's biography on him is quite good--I just like the way he sounds, particularly when he blazes through solos. And even a dilettante like me can tell that his playing is different than almost everything that came before, and even after.

There is really no bad place to start exploring Coltrane's music, as I haven't heard much that isn't phenomenal, across various styles, but his Ken Burns Jazz disc is a pretty good compilation and Giant Steps, Blue Train, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme are the albums I--and most essential.

In honor of what would have been John Coltrane's 84th birthday, below are four clips from YouTube that go a short but considerable distance in showing why 'Trane continues to blow my mind.

(Note: For those who want to hear the music but don't have time to click through all the videos, the final video below is a "Playlist" that will automatically cycle through the clips I've chosen.)

My Favorite Things - Although most Coltrane records as a group leader primarily include original compositions, his 1961 take on Rogers & Hammerstein's classic from The Sound of Music stands as one of his signature tunes. The audio on this clip isn't quite perfect, but it's worth watching just to see the master at work. And though Coltrane is most famed as a Tenor Sax player, here I think he is playing an Alto Sax. Coltrane's pianist, McCoy Tyner, is also masterful here and I've had the pleasure of seeing him perform several times in the last decade.

Giant Steps - This is a really cool video someone put together for what is probably my single favorite Coltrane track. According to Wikipedia, "The composition is a milestone for jazz musicians' progress, given the difficulty of improvising its rapid progression of chord changes that progress through three keys (see Coltrane changes) shifted by major thirds, creating an augmented triad."

Blue Train - An astonishing Coltrane composition from 1957. This is the studio version accompanied by a nice photo collage.

A Love Supreme - Mentioned in Angel Of Harlem, A Love Supreme is a four-part suite considered one of the greatest recordings in jazz history. This is a brief clip showing Coltrane playing Part 1: Acknowledgement in 1965. The full studio recording of Acknowledgement can be heard here.

As I said above, this is just a "Playlist" that automatically rolls through the four videos above, for the ease of those who prefer to have the music playing in the background.

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