Saturday, November 3

up against the limits

When I think of our artistic age, I sometimes think of the recently remastered 1958 Prestige sessions John Coltrane: Fearless Leader. In these CDs you can hear Coltrane straining against the formal conventions of hard-bop standards. Particularly in med-tempo and upbeat songs like "Spring is Here" and "Come Rain or Come Shine," tempi are not only speeded up (as Miles Davis subsequently did with his own compositions from Kind of Blue), but sound rushed, as if Coltrane were not only impatient, but even frustrated with the constraints of convention. His solos seem jumpy and jittery, the trills ultimately don't lead him anywhere, that is, anywhere new. But you can hear the first signs of his odd fingerings and the beginnings of those rippling "sheets of sound" he became renowned for later in his own groups with "the quartet." Usually we think of 1961, specifically the Village Vanguard sessions, as Coltrane's breakthrough into free jazz, but the earlier sessions are interesting not only musically but also because they reveal Coltrane up against the limits of his age: there were few models for what would come next. In the following two years he'd work with Miles Davis and avant-garde players like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry—so he seems in these late-fifties recordings, retrospectively at least, trapped in a musical culture that had exhausted its capacity for invention. The musical instrument and the word, in spite of our longing to make language an expression of individuality do not exist in a vacuum, do not remain static, as in Blake's parody of the "crystal palace" of heaven. I'm reminded of Mao Tse-Tung's famous aphorism: "Where do correct ideas come from? Do they fall out of the sky? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice..."

-- Ira Sadoff, in "History Matters: A Minority Report" American Poetry Review 36:6

Ira Sadoff

John Coltrane: Fearless Leader

Sibelius and Coltrane on the town (Alex Ross on shared intervals)