Tenor saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane was best known for the “sheets of sound” style he exemplified on the 1959 album “Giant Steps,” and for the cerebral but deeply spiritual long-form masterpiece “A Love Supreme.” Though his career was cut short by liver cancer—he died at just 40 in 1967—his two most famous works are only the tip of the iceberg in a body of work that ranges from thoughtful ballads to furied blasts of avant-garde jazz.
Coltrane with Miles Davis
Coltrane played in Miles Davis‘ quintet for years, appearing on several albums including “Kind of Blue,” which is the best-selling jazz album of all time and, in the minds of many, Davis’ artistic peak. Often when we think of Coltrane, we think of his ability to let loose with incredibly fast arpeggios of notes, but check out this gorgeously restrained solo, which begins about two minutes into “Flamenco Sketches.”
“My Favorite Things” and “Coltrane’s Sound”
If you like “Giant Steps,” you’ll love ‘Trane’s 1960 album “My Favorite Things,” too. Notes sparkle out of his soprano sax on the title track while the rhythm section reduces itself to a hypnotic two-chord figure. And Gershwin’s classic “Summertime” gets a virtuosic sheets-of-sound treatment:
Recorded in 1960 during the same sessions that yielded “My Favorite Things,” “Coltrane’s Sound” is much less acclaimed but just as great. Here, on “Central Park West,” he pulls back from the fusillade of notes that characterize much of his other work and creates a relaxed but moody atmosphere ending with an intimate, breathy saxophone tone that feels like someone whispering in your ear.
Like “A Love Supreme,” 1965’s “Ascension” is a long-form work of great spirituality, but in a style that is completely different. Here, Coltrane embraces the free jazz movement, leading a large group composed of five saxophonists, two trumpet players, two bassists, a pianist and a drummer—and often they are all soloing at the same time. Individual solos emerge like someone speaking in tongues and then return to a joyful congregation of noise as the rest of the group begins playing again What may sound chaotic and even, at times, angry, was in fact Coltrane’s expression of the intensity of his spiritual beliefs. Coltrane had suffered from heroin addiction and alcoholism throughout much of the 1950s, and he attributed his recovery to a religious awakening. For the rest of his life, he explored world religions, saying that “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music… To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am: my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
“Interstellar Space” continues the free jazz project of “Ascension,” but with a severely pared down lineup that features only Coltrane’s saxophone and a drum kit played by Rashied Ali. But there’s no sense that anything is missing from the composition: the two men play all-out for the entire length of the album, churning through space-themed improvisations on simple motifs with a relentlessness that is not frantic, but ecstatic.
This article merely scratches the surface of Coltrane’s discography. From early albums like “Blue Train” to the orchestral work “Africa/Brass” and free jazz explorations recorded close to the end of his life such as “Om” and “Meditations,” the jazz great’s oeuvre is vast despite his short life. And perhaps most importantly, nearly all of it is worth listening to.