Really HEARING John Coltrane

(Cover photo by Agence France-Presse)

When it comes to music, is there a difference between “listening” to it and “hearing” it?

One man’s opinion: yes. There most certainly is.

I’ve obsessed over many musicians through the years. Miles Davis, King Crimson, Frank Zappa … believe me when I say the list goes on for quite sometime.

And then there’s John Coltrane.

I’ve been a fan of Trane for nearly 40 years. The tenor and soprano saxophone sound like they were invented solely for him. I can’t get enough of albums like Blue Train, My Favorite Things, and Live at Birdland.

And then there’s the album that helped secure Coltrane’s place on the Mount Rushmore of jazz: A Love Supreme. No jazz collection is complete without it.

Sunday is the day I like to focus on jazz. This past Sunday was also New Year’s Day. There was something poetic and spiritual about making the opening strains of this album the first I heard in the new year.

I thought it might be interesting to play A Love Supreme Live in Seattle (released in 2021) immediately after the original studio album. It seems hard to believe I’d never done that before. And I think I know why.

To my ears, the live record felt like a completely different album compared to the original. For one thing, the band had been expanded to a septet, as opposed to the classic quartet (Trane, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums) performing the original. For this gig, the band added Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax and percussion, Carlos Ward on alto sax, and Donald Rafael Garrett on bass. New members means a new arrangement, so obviously the music would be affected by it.

But it was more than that. The live album’s playing was starting to gain that “free jazz” (aka avant-garde) feel Coltrane dove into over the last couple of years of his life. The original album was recorded in December of 1964 and released two months later. The Seattle gig was recorded the following October. Sadly, Trane passed away less than two years later. By then, his sound had gone out into the stratosphere.

Sadly, I didn’t get it.

I’m not a jazz snob. I’m willing to check out music from just about any era. Granted, I’m not overly fond of “smooth” jazz, but I can find a record or two I enjoy there, too. But free jazz? Nah … it doesn’t work for me. I need a discernible theme, coherent structure, and passionate solos from one player at a time. Free jazz doesn’t always do that.

Still, I like to make myself try new things, even if they’re relatively old. I’ve told myself time and time again that I need to give the avant-garde a fair shake. I’d get around to it eventually. Which leads us to the Live in Seattle record.

I had played the record just twice since acquiring it. Once for review, and again more or less for background music. Both times I was listening. The music was fine. I put the record away without any additional heavy thought.

This past Sunday was different. Maybe I was trying to make an intentional comparison between the two releases. Whatever the reason, something happened. The notes on the Live album started to make more sense. Coltrane was a passionate musician and it was clear he was pouring himself into this gig. In sports, coaches demand their athletes “leave it all on the field.” That’s what was happening on that Seattle stage. Trane was leaving NOTHING to chance. He was 100 percent (or was it the sports cliche of 110 percent) to this performance. He was leaving it all on the stage. And that’s when it hit me:

I could HEAR what Trane and company were doing. I wasn’t merely listening. I was completely engaged. And I could HEAR it.

Just like that, I was ready to step (carefully) toward the avant-garde. I ordered a copy of Trane’s Ascension album. The last time I listened to it was sometime in late 1992. I sold it back to record store almost immediately afterward. Would this be any different? There was only one way to find out.

The Ascension album is one continuous track. The CD contains both the original 38-minute release and a second 40-minute version Trane actually preferred. Both tracks were recorded the same day — June 28, 1965. This was a couple of months before the Seattle gig. From the moment the music started, I knew I was in for a bit of a challenge.

When someone has trouble understanding music they don’t quite get, I advise them to take hold of one element in the music and hold onto it. Once that’s accomplished, let the rest of the music wrap itself around that element. For me, it was the basslines being played by Garrison and Art Davis. As the remaining elements wrapped themselves around the basses, I started to understand. Slowly.

To my mind, the piece’s “theme” sounded like each member of the 10-piece band was given sheet music to play together. Thing is, each musician’s part of the theme started in a different place and they were all trying to play it that way as an ensemble. I made myself laugh when I suddenly thought of The Simpsons, when Mr. Burns recalled the first time he heard the Beatles. “Oh, yes. I remember hearing their off-key caterwauling on the old Sullivan show! What WAS Ed thinking?” Sorry … I’m still laughing.

While it definitely felt like caterwauling at first, I started to understand what was going on. More or less. Only once did I look at my CD player’s display to see how long the tune had been going on. I was starting to HEAR it! Is it the greatest Coltrane I’ve ever experienced? Not even close. But the door was open, and now I’m willing to let more avant-garde come through. Artists like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman are back on the table.

How did people grasp this album right off? A member of my Facebook group put it perfectly: “My experiences in listening to Coltrane’s move to free jazz (is) hearing someone who was trying to speak a different language because our language wasn’t cutting it for him,” he said. “I always felt Trane was wanting to create a new musical language.”

That is spot-on. And positively brilliant.

So it would seem I’m in the midst of learning a new jazz language. Progress will be slow, but hopefully I’ll get there eventually. Great thing about jazz: there’s always a new opportunity to learn something new. All you have to do is take the time to HEAR it.


Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

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