The Spirit Music of John Coltrane
In the music of John Coltrane, I come face to face with the question of what I can learn by analysis and what I can only learn though internalization. Some musical events are mystical but others are not. Bering this in mind, I’ll analyze a few of the tangible events in Coltrane’s music that I’ve identified as crucial components of his methods. This analysis can serve multiple purposes. By looking from many different angles we can take these tangible and mystical elements and use them in our own music. At the end of this analysis, I’ll ask that each of you internalize a few duplicable elements from your own encounters with important music. Tonight, Luke Bergman, Chris Icasiano, Brian Kinsella and I will perform music directly influenced by late, or “third period” Coltrane.
Many universal and duplicable themes from the third period include:
Tonal Centers Function as a Drone
Album examples include: Acknowledgement, from A Love Supreme, The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, from Meditations, Ogunde, from Expression (not the classic quartet).
Many if not all compositions/free improvisations from the above albums have one central tonal center. This is despite their high level of overall freedom. Though the chords, scales and sound textures may conflict with this center, they are continually framed by melodic references and resolutions back into the original tonic or scale center. I feel this push and pull adds a depth and resonance to the music which so many of us find to be the epicenter of our love of this sound.
Strong Use of Pentatonic Melodies and Improvisations
Examples include: Africa, from Africa/Brass, Selflessness, from Selflessness , Impressions, from Live at the Village Vanguard, Ascension, from Ascension
From his recordings it’s clear that Coltrane had deep faith in the minor pentatonic scale and its place in world music. Coltrane often oscillates between several minor and major pentatonic scales at liberty. A great example of this is his solo on Acknowledgment, from A Love Supreme. In concert key, Coltrane uses primarily the F minor and C minor pentatonic scales. But, the central bass line theme: 1-b3-1-4 becomes a pivot point. He often plays the 1 b3 1 4 motive verbatim, but shifts key centers while doing so. While Coltrane may play in the original key of F minor, McCoy Tyner will shift key centers beneath this, creating a resonant and transitional atmosphere in the music.
Long Form Improvisation Examples:
Up Down on Up, from Live at the Half Note, Out of This World, from Live In Seattle, Naima, from Live at the Village Vanguard Again.
Trane utilized his group as an ensemble liberated from the constraints of traditional song length. This is true of recorded album material, and almost always the case in live performances. It seems the length of the tune itself becomes a compositional element. Each member of the group is given generous time to construct and deconstruct ideas.
Beat cycles of 4 or 8 bars.
Examples of the above include Transition, from Transition, Afro Blue, from Live at Birdland, My Favorite Things from Live at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Drummer Elvin Jones would often break 4 bars phrases into big beats, creating two large beats per bar, and phrasing these in 12/8. This then makes the two bar cycle into 1 bar of 12/8. When 4 bar of 12/8 are played, 8 bars of actual 4/4 time are achieved. In this sense a feeling of 4 and 8 bar phrases are felt simultaneously. Further, the piano solo is often used to begin the slow but powerful buildup, generally felt in 4/4, ¾ over 4/4, or 4 bars of 12/8. When the build-up finishes and we arrive at the begin of the beat cycle, Coltrane often enters and a new level of energy is achieved.
The Prepared Music
Tonight we will play one extended composition and improvisation. It’s well documented that Coltrane explored pitch sounds and scales intended to evoke certain moods. We will perform an initial improvisation based on the 3 pitches used in Vedic chants, which I will phrase melodically at will. These pitches are the b7, 1, and b2. This will be followed by a melody based heavily on the Dorian minor and minor pentatonic scales. From many of the themes discussed above, we’ll perform our own interpretation of this period in his music.
Please consider the center or your artistic life, be it music, a specific musician, or something aside from music all together. Identify some of the elements which make their craft so affective. Tear it down, pick it apart and find something to grab onto as a structure for an improvisation. Rather than emulating “Ornette Coleman,” explore an element of his style, such as the color of his tone, inflection in his phrases, overall affect on the listener, etc. Any ensemble size is acceptable, but I ask that one or more elements be identified and then explored with each ensemble.
Acknowledgment, from the John Coltrane album A Love Supreme
Transition, from the John Coltrane album Transition