Cleaning the mirror
Shortly before arriving in Banff I read a post on NPR's jazz blog that asked, "What's the first John Coltrane album you fell in love with?" Now Coltrane's status, by this point, is so indisputably canonic that it's kind of funny we have to ask this question. We could ask it regarding Miles or anyone else with a big varied discography, but if you read the post, the implication is different here. There is this idea that you probably had to hear more than one Coltrane record in order to fall in love with him; the music isn't easy, you need an entry point. That's what the author says, anyway -- that he heard the usual starter albums, the famous titles like Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, but it wasn't until he heard Live at Birdland that he was truly hooked.
This is also my experience. I have had the classic Coltrane albums for a long time, but have never fallen in love with any of them--despite having done so with a couple later albums by McCoy Tyner which, I now see, were clearly (heavily) influenced by close connection to Coltrane's ideas. Interesting, I thought. I got Live at Birdland and liked it a lot. Particularly "Alabama" made a strong impression -- the NPR post embeds a video of the tune that is stunning to watch.
It occurred to me that maybe I'd found my way into the Coltrane repertoire with this disc -- but I remained relatively unaffected.
Then I heard Crescent.
I remain caught between bitterness at the universe for not exposing me to this incredible piece of music earlier and gratefulness for receiving it now, during this specific chapter in my life.
Obviously, it happened. This was the album that made me love Coltrane's music. Now I've returned to the others that have floated in my iTunes ever since I've had iTunes and heard them differently as well. Crescent is an absolute masterpiece of musical atmosphere. I've rarely heard any piece that so personally and vulnerably explores such dark and moody territory while maintaining such steely, hair-raising strength. The whole band seems to have come through the same journey; each one is featured and each speaks with the same voice.
Reading a review of Live at Birdland I encountered this fairly common accusation--original author unknown--that Coltrane is perhaps "jazz's most boring genius." I nodded and entertained the thought for some time. It resonated with my experience; I had been impressed by his music, I recognized its technical greatness and influence, but it never found a place in me until Crescent. I feel immensely grateful.
I just finished a fairly average book about Coltrane. The author, who was around during the sixties, seemed preoccupied with dragging through the mud any critic who ever said something nasty about Coltrane, in spite of the decades gone by and the sax man's now unshakeable stature. But the book did offer a few genuine and touching revelations about Coltrane's musical conception, his studies, and his personality. Most memorably, the author mentions photos of Coltrane--in which he always wears an intense and dour expression--and suggests that they don't represent his personality. Actually, he was an introspective, soft-spoken and unassuming guy. Supposedly the reason he never smiled in pictures is because he was self-conscious about his bad teeth. (He had a lifelong addiction to sweets, especially sweet potato pie.) Doesn't that just break your heart?
There was also this quotation from Coltrane, a truly beautiful statement about what it is to live an honest artistic life:
"There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we discovered in its pure state. So we can see more clearly what we are. In that way we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of who we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep cleaning the mirror."
The last section of the book is a typical lament on the state of jazz since the late '60s, cataloging the shortcomings of fusion and lambasting the conservatism of everything that came after, using Wynton Marsalis as the scapegoat. I'm normally dismissive of anyone who fails to look deeper and find the interesting music occurring (in any place, at any time, in any genre) below the surface; but I actually found this narrative of '70s and '80s jazz a bit convincing and at least touching, worth consideration. Luckily I also, at around the same time, ran across this list of favorite jazz records from 1973-1990 by Ethan Iverson, pianist of the Bad Plus, an excellent corrective to anyone claiming nothing worthy was going on during those years.
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