As the definitive master of the tenor sax, John Coltrane has touched many with his extraordinary gift for improvisation.
Born into a musical family, John Coltrane (1926-1967) started playing the clarinet and alto horn at an early age before switching to the alto saxophone in his teens. Soon after, he developed a keen interest in the jazz stars of the day, including Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. Coltrane would eventually settle on the lower pitched tenor saxophone as his primary instrument, and he set out to explore the full range and various tonal possibilities that the instrument had to offer. He often favoured the upper register of the instrument and became recognisable for his ‘screeching’ high notes that can be heard in many of his solos. Later in his career, Coltrane would be one of the first musicians to use the higher pitched soprano saxophone in a jazz context on his album ‘My Favourite Things’.
Surprisingly for such a colossal figure in Jazz history, Coltrane could be described as a late bloomer. it was only in the last 14 or so years of his life from the mid 1950s onwards that he started to create ripples in the jazz world. For much of the 50s he recorded primarily as a sideman, featuring on albums with the Miles Davis quintet and Thelonius Monk. His recordings as a leader for the Prestige label helped establish him as an important mainstream jazz soloist, although they have been somewhat overshadowed by his more innovative releases from the 1960s.
The album Giant Steps (1959) represents a turning point in Coltrane’s musical development. The title track has rightly earned a place in jazz history for its relentless energy and speed. It is also notable for its use of ‘Coltrane changes’, an innovative harmonic technique that gives the song an ambiguous and wandering character, owing to the fact that there are multiple tonal centres or tonics in the piece. Coltrane’s mastery of jazz improvisation meant that whilst other musicians floundered (Tommy Flanagan, the pianist on the recording date, was handed the music on the day and you can hear him struggle to keep up with the pace of the music), Coltrane was able to execute a highly energetic and well structured solo over this difficult harmonic progression. Coltrane used other innovative techniques in his soloing, such as the ‘sheets of sound’ technique. This can be described as strings of very fast notes played in succession, sounding almost like glissandi in character. The technique can be heard on the track ’Summertime’, where he uses it effectively to build tension throughout his solo.
Coltrane’s musical creativity was fuelled by an insatiable desire to explore new avenues of expression. He used a wide variety of materials within the practice room to improve his technique and expand his musical vocabulary. He also delved into many different aural cultures from around the world including that of India and Africa, and was keenly interested in contemporary classical music. He was also widely read, having works ranging from Aristotle to ‘the Autobiography of a Yogi’ on his bookshelves. This continuous desire to explore new horizons may help us understand how the polished mainstream player of the late 1950s turned into the innovative and experimental player heard on his later releases like ‘A Love Supreme’.
Coltrane was married twice. His first wife Naima whom he married in 1955 is said to have had a profound influence on his spirituality. He dedicated one of his most well known and celebrated compositions to her – ‘Naima’ (Giant Steps). His second wife, Alice, with whom he had two children, was a well known jazz pianist herself. Coltrane was raised in a Christian family where religion and spirituality played an important role in his musical development. He has described having a religious experience in 1957 which helped him get off drugs and alcohol, after which he asked for ‘the privilege to make others happy through music.’
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