Jazz musicians continue John Coltrane's legacy
Publication: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Author: Calvin Wilson
Date: January 14, 2012
Of all the saxophonists who have found their sound in jazz, few have been as influential as John Coltrane. Almost 45 years after his death, his music continues to enjoy mainstream popularity, and his name retains its cultural capital. Recently, a commercial for an updated cellphone boasted its ability to “play some Coltrane.”
Coltrane became famous as a bebop practitioner, but he became legendary as an avant-garde visionary. Along the way, he served as sideman to fellow legends Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and established a quartet — with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones — that set a standard for jazz artistry.
Two saxophonists who have taken the legacy of “Trane” to heart are coming to St. Louis. His son Ravi Coltrane will lead a quartet at Jazz at the Bistro this week. And Branford Marsalis, who covered Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” on the album “Footsteps of Our Fathers,” will perform with pianist Joey Calderazzo on Jan. 22 at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
“It’s hard to imagine jazz without John Coltrane,” Ravi Coltrane said. “Just like it would be hard to imagine jazz without Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. Because they weren’t just great players who existed in one or two periods. They were part of the progression of jazz — the moving of it, the shifting of it, the changing of it.”
The music of John Coltrane, Marsalis said, “is very similar to Beethoven’s music. On the face of it, it’s not very hard at all. No tricks, no secrets. Yet there’s a large amount of passion that you have to bring to the music to make it work. And he’s certainly had an influence on me as a player.”
Marsalis’ concert at the Sheldon will focus on tunes from his duo album last year with Calderazzo, “Songs of Mirth and Melancholy.” The pianist is a longtime member of Marsalis’ quartet.
At the Bistro, Ravi Coltrane will play alongside guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Johnathan Blake. Coltrane’s next album, featuring two other bands, is due for release in the spring. It’s his debut on the Blue Note label — for which his father recorded the classic album “Blue Train.”
Although John Coltrane’s early approach to the saxophone was rooted in bebop and R&B, he is perhaps best known for generating fiery, cascading solos that came to be known as “sheets of sound.” By the end of his career, it wasn’t unusual for such solos to turn into marathons. But that kind of individualism is in keeping with the tradition of finding one’s voice in jazz.
“John Coltrane would never have got into what he got into, if he was only content with just playing like the guys who came up before him,” Ravi Coltrane said. “He could have made that choice, and he could have been great at it. There was nothing getting in his way. But imagine if he had — we wouldn’t be talking about him today.”
Marsalis said Coltrane’s popularity with musicians owes quite a bit to the “emotional intensity” of his quartet with Tyner, Garrison and Jones, and the educational appeal of his saxophone style.
“He didn’t play with a lot of rhythm,” Marsalis said. “(Coltrane’s contemporary) Sonny Rollins is much more difficult to codify because of the rhythmic nature of his playing. Trane played very much up and down, and you could write it out and transcribe it, which makes it easy to analyze and discuss.”
Coltrane was an iconoclast — by turns accessible and adventurous, introspective and expansive. Not many artists could score a hit with the Rodgers and Hammerstein song “My Favorite Things,” yet also create music that some critics dismissed as “anti-jazz.” Poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin wrote in 1967, shortly after the saxophonist’s death, that he could not remember “ever suggesting that his music was anything but a pain between the ears.”
But resistance to progress in any art form is only to be expected, and Coltrane’s enduring relevance is beyond dispute.
“I understand that people like to hear things that they recognize, or that they have already accepted,” Ravi Coltrane said. “But that doesn’t help to move the music forward. John Coltrane went inside himself and found something unique, and that brand new thing ended up being revolutionary.”