JOHN COLTRANE, GIANT STEPS, 1959
So let's get this out in the open early-- I'm a rock 'n' soul man. Plenty of other stuff is going to come up from time to time, but I'm not a jazzbo. In fact, there are times when I share the opinion of a very good friend and brilliant musician whose response to jazz is always, "Jazz just makes me angry."
I know what he means-- there's nothing more fascist than a modern jazz concert. They are so often always the same. Here is a diagram of every song in the last jazz show I saw:
Band plays the head/lick
Sax player takes 128 bar solo
Guitarist takes 64 bar solo
Piano takes 64 bar solo
Bass takes 64 bar solo
Drums take 64 bar solo
Sax takes 128 bar solo
Band plays the head/lick
For two hours. Always the same, in the same order, every time! Can't the drummer go first sometimes? No? Never? And the audience resembled a tennis crowd more than anything: polite clapping after every solo, enthusiastic clapping at the end of the song. No whooping. No cheering. No interaction. I expected an umpire in a chair to say "Quiet, please" before each solo. I felt like I was there merely to keep an "important" art form alive, like going to a quilt-making fair.
Then there's the jazz show that's trying to bring back the reign of the Beatniks. Usually that show will also include some "confessional poetry" performers and maybe even a mime.
The thing I love about popular music is that it's music for the people. It's a living, breathing art in the right now. Jazz used to be that music, and now it's headed down the road that classical music has embraced; it has a niche audience with rules for how to enjoy it. That kind of stuff always makes me bristle. I hate golf courses with dress codes, private clubs, public decency ordinances... well, now that I live in Berkeley, that last one is probably more helpful than I realize. The point is that jazz brings with it a snootiness that is slowly killing it as an art form.
That all said, and with all my prejudices firmly admitted, I fell hard and immediately for the sound that John Coltrane makes with a saxophone. I don't have any understanding why it's so different, but it's so much more sonorous and full than other players. Part of it must be terrific engineering; his recordings for the Presitge label don't have the same impact as the ones made for Blue Note, Columbia (this one) and Impulse; Coltrane was blessed to work with talented recorders of music. But it also must just be the man himself and how much force, breath, talent and will he pushed into the instrument. The stories of Coltrane's commitment to his craft once he kicked heroin are legendary. He was a theorist who could play any scale in any key. His practice regimen makes David Helfgott's preparation for the Rach 3 in "Shine" look like band camp. There are plenty of guys with otherworldly chops who I find worthless. (Does anyone else remember when Clinton went on MTV and said his favorite sax player was Kenny G? Kenny G is definitely the Monica Lewinsky of sax players: brilliant at the one skill he has, but also kind of hateful for that skill at the same time.) So it's not the speed or the theory or the mathematics of his playing: it's the artfulness of it, and "Naima" is the perfect song to demonstrate what I mean.
I think "Naima" is Coltane's most beautiful song. Actually, I think it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard, as pretty as "Waterloo Sunset" or "O Holy Night." The melody, even though it's complicated chordally, is rich and immediately recognizable. The bass is just an octave pedal throughout, some of the most restrained playing on a jazz song that you'll find. The song is so light and wispy that if Coltrane weren't such a master of breath control, holding these notes out so elegantly, the song might not work. It's full of open space. Coltrane is so restrained, in fact, that he leaves the bulk of the solo section to Wynton Kelly's piano, who keeps it lovely and short-- he takes a chordal approach that McCoy Tyner would perfect in Coltrane's dream band that came together just a few months later. When Coltrane does come back in, he sticks to the melody, making every note count, until the song ends with a beautiful upward climb until it fades. It's only four and a half minutes, and the best word for it might be sublime. It has always sounded like dawn in New York City to me. The light is just breaking, street lights are turning off, cabs are the only cars on the road and most are out of service and headed to a garage, folks at diners are either just getting the day started or winding down a long night, and there's a peacefulness that will be interrupted soon.
Coltrane is as guilty as anyone sometimes of playing 5000 notes when five will do, but on "Naima" he's as tasteful as any musician can be. This song represents to me the heights jazz can reach. Below is a link to a great NPR site where they offer five Coltrane songs, including "Naima" (so check it out there). If you want to see how crazy things got in just eight years, scroll down to "Mars." It also allows you to hear "My Favorite Things," maybe in my personal all-time top twenty, so hopefully the Pod will get to that one soon.
And yes, I'm aware that many rock concerts are formulaic as well. I was a Kiss fan, remember?
LINK: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94891683 Just scroll down a bit for "Naima."