Where John Coltrane went first

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John Coltrane: Interstellar Space

I thought I knew how much avant garde jazz musicians owed John Coltrane. From the intricate, sometimes challenging, almost always breakneck-paced solos he would weave around the melody, even on ballads. And from the way he would suddenly veer off from the melody completely and leave you wondering where he’d gone until he just as suddenly returned, showing you where he’d been.

Yeah, I thought I knew. Then I heard this album.

Interstellar Space, recorded just months before Coltrane died of liver cancer, shows just how far he pushed the free jazz envelope. And just how much everyone since owes him.

As he ventured more and more into experimental improvisation, his renowned 60s quartet fell apart, with veteran sidemen leaving the group, most notably legendary drummer Elvin Jones. In response, Coltrane retreated into the studio where, as jazz critic Stuart Broomer puts it, he “reduced the idea of the group to its absolute minimum, a duo with drummer Rashied Ali. Without the fixed harmonic frame of reference provided by piano or bass, Coltrane takes each of his brief themes and submits it to extended testing—repeating, contracting, and expanding phrases until they melt into a new inspiration.”

That lack of a “fixed harmonic frame of reference” makes Interstellar Space a challenging disk, especially the first listen or two. It is all out and out experimentation, with no melodies or refrains or ensemble playing to push against—or to be anchored by. But on multiple listens, even my less than trained ear picked up on the patterns, rhythms and structure in the pieces here. Another reviewer described it thus: “In some parts, Coltrane is conducting a saxophone dialogue with himself.”

And drummer Ali was every bit the match for him. Often, a piece would begin with Coltrane giving him a bit of a melody and telling him he wanted to go in and out of tempo. Then they would begin. Ali described how all this experimentation still managed to hang together compositionally: “I’m not playing regular time, but the feeling of regular time is there. I’m thinking in time.”

The six tracks on Interstellar Space range from fierce to lyrical. And though recorded some 40 years ago, they remain as fresh, as challenging, as exciting as anything I’m listening to these days.

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One Response to “Where John Coltrane went first”

  1. Big band giant thinks small, plays big « What’s on the kitchen boombox? Says:

    […] garde saxophone being played today. The adventurous—even savage—all out blowing on Interstellar Space, for instance. But he was also capable of heartachingly beautiful lyricism, and Ellington brings it […]

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