Thursday, October 13, 2005

In 1960, John Coltrane released Giant Steps. The title track was a 16-bar tune based on a harmonic cycle descending in major thirds. Rather than explain in technical terms, let me put it this way: Coltrane walked into the session with the tune, passed around the music, and started to play. The pianist on the date was Tommy Flanagan, who was a heavyweight by anyone's measure -- and Flanagan was so befuddled by the changes that when his turn came to solo, he choked.

That's how the legend began. When Coltrane's concept caught Tommy Flanagan off guard, other musicians took notice; and it didn't take long for "Giant Steps" to become the fire baptism for jazz players. You can learn the concept, but it never becomes easy. It's routinely called at jam sessions; and if you can't hang the changes at a serious tempo, you won't be taken seriously as a jazz musician. It's unavoidable.

And to some degree, it's unfortunate. Because while I think it's healthy to throw down a few hurdles in the path of up-and-comers, "Giant Steps" continues to be recorded by seasoned pros. Occasionally someone will pitch a new angle, like Jerry Bergonzi's interpretation in 5/4; but usually it's the same old, same old cutting session. It's a shame, because that's not what Coltrane's legacy is about.

The famous story about 'Trane is that he practiced so much, he would often fall asleep with his horn in his mouth. Judging by his facility on the instrument, that's probably true. It's fair to say that a significant part of his identity as a musician was technical proficiency. But John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual man. His greatest work, recounted in 2003 by Ashley Kahn and certified as a gold record 25 years after his death, was A Love Supreme. It's a sublime prayer and a poignant piece of music. It's one of those great moments in art. It's transcendent.

So the question is, in an art form built upon reinterpretation, how did "Giant Steps" become the de facto Coltrane tribute while "A Love Supreme" remains virtually untouched?

There are no sacred cows in jazz. Imitation, in the form of adopting someone else's tune, is the highest form of flattery. And contrary to what Metallica would have you believe, jazz is the official music of testosterone-soaked brawling. Every tenor player can recite the stories of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young trading blows onstage. Jimi Hendrix's penchant for destroying guitars was inspired by Charles Mingus smashing an $800 upright bass during a concert in London. Point being, humility and temperance aren't part of the stereotype. If there's a mountain, a jazz musician will climb it. There's absolutely no credibility to the usual explanation, "Nobody touches 'A Love Supreme' because it's too hard."

Only two people have confronted the piece on record. The first recording is credited to Elvin Jones, for obvious reason; but actually, it was Wynton Marsalis's band. It's a spectacular recording, rarely acknowledged but among the high points of Wynton's career. Wynton's brother Branford has recorded the piece twice. The first, bundled as a bonus disc with an obscure compilation, received mixed reviews and apparently incurred Branford's own disappointment; but in 2002, he returned with a new band and knocked the ball out of the park.

So it can be done. And the standard repertoire is shifting, as contemporary artists are beginning to adapt structures from Radiohead, Nirvana, Pavement, and other bands into the jazz vernacular. "Giant Steps" was a watermark, but "A Love Supreme" was a watershed. It's time to elevate Coltrane's legacy. His material deserves better than to be fodder for arm wrestling and pissing contests. To date, "A Love Supreme" is jazz's premiere symphony. That's fertile ground, and we're not a delicate group. We ought to tear it up and find out what's underneath.


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