Friday, June 30, 2017

Mulgrew Miller: “Living in the Shadows of Giants”


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Don’t cross a bridge to get home or to work:” I guess the expression contains more than a hint of caution and admonition, especially if you’ve lived some time in the San Francisco Bay area and seen the nightmarish traffic back-ups a closed bridge can cause on the local, television news.

Thankfully, I never experienced such a delay in all the years I lived and worked in San Francisco,

But I sure caught a taste of what such an experience would be like as I was headed north back to the Oakland, CA airport to catch a return flight to my relocated home in southern California following some business appointments in the Silicon Valley.

A major accident on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland had caused a traffic back-up so serious that it extended south on US 880 to about 10 miles below the airport.

The was no alternative and plenty of later flights so I just relaxed and turned on the FM-Jazz station while I waited things out in the rental car that was crawling along at death-defying speed of 3 MPH.

The radio broadcast that I tuned into was an interview with pianist Mulgrew Miller who was appearing through the upcoming weekend with his trio at Yoshi’s Jazz Club located on a portion of the waterfront which the City of Oakland had reclaimed from surplus shipping docks and refurbished into a lovely commercial-cum-residential area.

I knew of Mulgrew’s work through recordings he had made during his long association with drummer Tony Williams’ quintet in the 1980s and 1990s, but I had never heard him play in person.

He sounded very warm and cordial during the radio interview and I thought, “Well, at the rate things are going with the crawling traffic, maybe I’ll just book into a local hotel and catch one of Mulgrew’s sets at Yoshi’s.”

Of all the remarks Mulgrew made during the exchange with the interviewer, one stayed with me: “It’s tough to get any recognition as a Jazz musician today because we are living in the shadow of Giants.”

This is not verbatim, but earlier in his talk, Mulgrew had said that many of the pianists  during the bebop era, for example Al Haig, Joe Albany, Dodo Marmarosa, John Lewis, and even some pianists during the later hard bop era like Sonny Clark, Horace Silver and Walter Bishop, Jr., were not original stylists.

They basically played in the manner of Bud Powell and gained a certain measure of recognition and approval for being able to do so.

But musicians like himself, who continue in this bebop piano tradition and perhaps add some of the newer influences like Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner or Keith Jarrett to their approach get little respect because we are not “… the next Bud Powell or Art Tatum or Bill Evans.”

“Why? Not all of us can be giants like Bud and Art or Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. We are doing our part to keep the Jazz tradition alive and even move it forward a little, but we get little respect for what we do accomplish and put down for what we don’t.”


None of this was conveyed with animosity by Mulgrew, but you could certainly sense his disappointment and his displeasure.

The interview then trailed off and was replaced by the playing of one of Mulgrew’s recordings in its entirety.

By some miracle I was just pulling into the hired car parking lot when the interviewer returned so I did not get to hear the rest of Mulgrew’s talk.

The following year The Mulgrew Miller Trio Live at Yoshi’s was issued as a double CD on MaxJazz [[MXJ 212/208] and I picked up a copy along with the March 1, 2005 edition of Downbeat in which the following article about Mulgrew by Ted Panken appeared.

Mulgrew passed away on May 28, 2013 and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to remember him on these pages with a reprint of his Downbeat interview and the Nat Chinen obituary that was published in The New York Times.  

Copyright © Downbeat/Ted Panken/2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Mulgrew Miller: No Apologies 

“Ironies abound in the world of Mulgrew Miller. On the one hand, the 49-year-old pianist is, as Eric Reed pointed out, "the most imitated pianist of the last 25 years." On the other, he finds it difficult to translate his exalted status into full-blown acceptance from the jazz business.

"It's a funny thing about my career," Miller said. "Promoters won't hire my band, but they'll book me as a sideman and make that the selling point of the gig. That boggles my mind."

Miller would seem to possess unsurpassed qualifications for leadership. As the 2004 trio release Live At Yoshi's (MaxJazz) makes evident, no pianist of Miller's generation brings such a wide stylistic palette to the table. A resolute modernist with an old-school attitude, he's assimilated the pentagonal contemporary canon of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, as well as Woody Shaw's harmonic innovations, and created a fluid personal argot.

His concept draws on such piano-as-orchestra signposts as Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, the "blowing piano" of Bud Powell, the disjunctive syncopations and voicings of Thelonious Monk, and the melodic ingenuity of gums like Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton. With technique to burn, he finds ways to conjure beauty from pentatonics and odd intervals, infusing his lines with church and blues strains and propelling them with a joyous, incessant beat.


"I played with some of the greatest swinging people who ever played jazz, and I want to get the quality of feeling I heard with them," Miller said. "It's a sublime way to play music, and the most creative way to express myself. You can be both as intellectual and as soulful as you want, and the swing beat is powerful but subtle. I think you have to devote yourself to it exclusively to do it at that level."

Consequential apprenticeships with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, Betty Carter, Johnny Griffin and Shaw launched Miller's career. A 1983-'86 stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers put his name on the map, and he cemented his reputation during a long association with Tony Williams' great cuspof-the-'90s band, a sink-or-swim environment in which Miller thrived, playing, as pianist Anthony Wonsey recalls, "with fire but also the maturity of not rushing."

By the mid '80s, Miller was a fixture on
New York's saloon scene. Later, he sidemanned extensively with Bobby Hutcherson, Benny Golson, James Moody and Joe Lovano, and from 1987 to 1996 he recorded nine trio and ensemble albums for Landmark and RCANovus.

Not long after his 40th birthday, Miller resolved to eschew club dates and one-offs, and to focus on his own original music. There followed a six-year recording hiatus, as companies snapped up young artists with tenuous ties to the legacy of hardcore jazz.

"I won't call any names," Miller says, "but a lot of people do what a friend of mine calls 'interview music.' You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention. Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art, and I've observed it to be heavily critiqued by people who attribute progressivity to music that lacks a folk element. When Charlie Parker developed his great conception, the folk element was the same as Lester Young and the blues shouters before him. Even when Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane played their conceptions, the folk element was intact. But now, people almost get applauded if they don't include that in their expression. If I reflected a heavy involvement in Arnold Schoenberg or some other ultra-modern composers, then I would be viewed differently than I am. Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.

"A lot of today's musicians learn the rudiments of playing straight-ahead, think they've got it covered, become bored, and say, 'Let me try something else,'" Miller continued. "They develop a vision of expanding through different areas - reggae here, hip-hop there, blues here, soul there, classical music over here and being able to function at a certain level within all those styles. Rather than try to do a lot of things pretty good, I have a vision more of spiraling down to a core understanding of the essence of what music is."

This being said, Miller-who once wrote a lovely tune called "Farewell To Dogma" -continues to adhere to the principle that "there is no one way to play jazz piano and no one way that jazz is supposed to sound." He is not to be confused with the jazz police. His drummer, Karriem Riggins, has a second career as a hip-hop producer, and has at his fingertips a lexicon of up-to-the-second beats. When the urge strikes, bassist Derrick Hodge might deviate from a walking bass line to slap the bass Larry Graham style. It's an approach familiar to Miller, who grew up in
Greenwood, Miss., playing the music of James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Al Green in various Upper Delta cover bands.

"It still hits me where I live," he says. "It's Black music. That's my roots. When I go home, they all know me as the church organist from years ago, so it's nothing for me to walk up to the organ and fit right in. I once discussed my early involvement in music with Abdullah Ibrahim, and he described what I went through as a community-based experience. Before I became or wanted to become a jazz player, I played in church, in school plays, for dances and for cocktail parties. I was already improvising, and always on some level it was emotional or soul or whatever you want to call it. I was finding out how to connect with people through music.

"By now, I have played jazz twice as long as I played popular music, and although that style of playing is part of my basic musical being, I don't particularly feel that I need to express myself through it," he continued. "It's all blues. The folk element of the music doesn't change. The blues in 1995 and in 1925 is the same thing. The technology is different. But the chords are the same, the phrasing is the same, the language is the same-exact same. I grew up on that. It's a folk music. Folk music is not concerned with evolving."

For all his devotion to roots, Miller is adamant that expansion and evolution are key imperatives that drive his tonal personality. "I left my hometown to grow, and early on I intended to embrace as many styles and conceptions as I could," he said. "When I came to
New York I had my favorites, but there was a less celebrated, also brilliant tier of pianists who played the duo rooms, and I tried to hear all of those guys and learn from them. The sound of my bands changes as the musicians expand in their own right. I'm open, and all things are open to interpretation. I trust my musicians-their musicianship, insights, judgments and taste-and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. In the best groups I played with, spontaneity certainly was a strong element."

Quiet and laid-back, determined to follow his muse, Miller may never attain mass consumption. But he remains sanguine.

"I have moments, but I don't allow myself to stay discouraged for long," he said. "I worked hard to maintain a certain mental and emotional equilibrium. It's mostly due to my faith. I don't put all my eggs in that basket of being a rich and famous jazz guy. That allows me a certain amount of freedom, because I don't have to play music for money. I play music because I love it. I play the music I love with people I want to play with. I have a long career behind me. I don't have to apologize to anybody for any decisions I make." -Ted Panken” 

Mulgrew Miller, Dynamic Jazz Pianist, Dies at 57

Copyright © The New York Times/Nate Chinen/May 29, 2013.

“Mulgrew Miller, a jazz pianist whose soulful erudition, clarity of touch and rhythmic aplomb made him a fixture in the postbop mainstream for more than 30 years, died on Wednesday in Allentown, Pa. He was 57.

The cause was a stroke, said his longtime manager, Mark Gurley. Mr. Miller had been hospitalized since Friday.

Mr. Miller developed his voice in the 1970s, combining the bright precision of bebop, as exemplified by Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson, with the clattering intrigue of modal jazz, especially as defined by McCoy Tyner. His balanced but assertive style was a model of fluency, lucidity and bounce, and it influenced more than a generation of younger pianists.

He was a widely respected bandleader, working either with a trio or with the group he called Wingspan, after the title of his second album. The blend of alto saxophone and vibraphone on that album, released on Landmark Records in 1987, appealed enough to Mr. Miller that he revived it in 2002 on “The Sequel” (MaxJazz), working in both cases with the vibraphonist Steve Nelson. Among Mr. Miller’s releases in the last decade were an impeccable solo piano album and four live albums featuring his dynamic trio.


Mr. Miller could seem physically imposing on the bandstand — he stood taller than six feet, with a sturdy build — but his temperament was warm and gentlemanly. He was a dedicated mentor: his bands over the last decade included musicians in their 20s, and since 2005 he had been the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

If his sideman credentials overshadowed his solo career, it wasn’t hard to see why: he played on hundreds of albums and worked in a series of celebrated bands. His most visible recent work had been with the bassist Ron Carter, whose chamberlike Golden Striker Trio featured Mr. Miller and the guitarist Russell Malone on equal footing; the group released a live album, “San Sebastian” (In+Out), this year.

Born in Greenwood, Miss., on Aug. 13, 1955, Mr. Miller grew up immersed in Delta blues and gospel music. After picking out hymns by ear at the family piano, he began taking lessons at age 8. He played the organ in church and worked in soul cover bands, but devoted himself to jazz after seeing Mr. Peterson on television, a moment he later described as pivotal.

At Memphis State University, he befriended two pianists, James Williams and Donald Brown, both of whom later preceded him in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Mr. Miller spent several years with that band, just as he did with the trumpeter Woody Shaw, the singer Betty Carter and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, led by Ellington’s son, Mercer. Mr. Miller worked in an acclaimed quintet led by the drummer Tony Williams from the mid-1980s until shortly before Williams died in 1997.

Mr. Miller’s survivors include his wife, Tanya; his son, Darnell; his daughter, Leilani; and a grandson. He lived in Easton, Pa.

Though he harbored few resentments, Mr. Miller was clear about the limitations imposed on his career. “Jazz is part progressive art and part folk art,” he said in a 2005 interview with DownBeat magazine, differentiating his own unassuming style from the concept-laden, critically acclaimed fare that he described as “interview music.” He added, “Guys who do what I am doing are viewed as passé.”


But Mr. Miller worked with so many celebrated peers, like the alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, that his reputation among musicians was ironclad. And his legacy includes a formative imprint on some leading players of the next wave, including the drummer Karriem Riggins and the bassist Derrick Hodge, who were in one of his trios. The pianist Robert Glasper once recorded an original ballad called “One for ’Grew,” paying homage to a primary influence. On Monday, another prominent pianist, Geoffrey Keezer, attested on Twitter that seeing Mr. Miller one evening in 1986 was “what made me want to be a piano player professionally.”

In the performance from the At Yoshi’s 2004 double CD that forms the sound track for this video tribute to him, Mulgrew has cleverly adopted Comes Love to the arrangement Ahmad Jamal used on Poinciana from his At The Pershing Room Argo LP, one of the most successful Jazz recordings ever issued.

The insistent rhythm is formed by Karriem Riggins use of mallets on the drum set’s tom toms and the insistent accent played by the high hat on the 2nd and 4th beat of each measure.

On the original version, instead of the usual “clicking” sound made by stepping on the high hat’s cymbals to close them, Ahmad’s drummer, Vernel Fournier, played the high hat cymbals open [barely touching them together] creating more of a “chinging” sound to simulate finger cymbals.

You can hear this effect in a more pronounced manner as played by Karriem at 4:21 minutes of Mulgrew’s version.




Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jim Snidero: Jazz Alto Saxophone Revisited


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“For most of the last three decades, the tenor saxophone has dominated the forest of jazz woodwinds, its dark, obviously romantic shadow all but obscuring the once-prominent alto sax. In recent years, though, the alto saxophone's singular, sexy intensity has again gained fashion, re-establishing its vital niche in the jazz environment. You can thank guys like Jim Snidero for helping make it so.”
- Neil Tesser, Jazz writer/critic

“I want to be as creative as possible.  But I don’t think you ever can exhaust straight-ahead music. There are so many things that you can do just by changing a few notes, by changing phrasing, by changing octaves. I sense something missing in the shape of a line and the time feel of cats who haven’t gotten deeply into Bird and bebop. Basically, I want my music not to sound straight-ahead but still have that bebop attitude—a bit of abstraction and a bit of grease.”
- Jim Snidero

“he takes this music for quartet and quintet beyond the jam session mentality that assures so many small-group sessions of only momentary interest. In an area of music that is underused—in fact, largely undiscovered—by most jazz artists, he invests his work with dynamics” as well as “harmonic shape and texture.”
- Doug Ramsey, Jazz author, writer, critic


Whenever I listen to the music of alto saxophonist Jim Snidero, it always makes me wonder why I don’t do so more often.

It’s all there: the bop tradition of Bird, Cannonball and Stitt; some freer post bop influences; gobs of technique; impressive improvisation ideas; an irrepressible sense of swing.

What makes the music of Jim Snidero even more impressive is that he didn’t begin his career in Jazz until the early 1980s.

Given the relative paucity of the US Jazz scene at that time, it’s amazing that he found the music at all, let alone his own direction in it.

Here’s a quick synopsis of Jim’s background and credentials as excerpted from the Concord Music website:

“A teenage student of Phil Woods and a product of the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton, Snidero received postgraduate training with organist Jack McDuff in 1982-83. He side-manned from 1983 to 2003 with the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band, played with Eddie Palmieri from 1994 to 1997 and with the Mingus Orchestra from 1999 to 2001, and has appeared as a sideman on albums by pianists David Hazeltine and Mike LeDonne [who also plays Hammond B-3 Organ], tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, and trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and Brian Lynch. Since the late Eighties, he’s led numerous ensembles featuring the top musicians of his peer group, and toured them extensively in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.”

Paralleling Jim education and work experience is the fact that Jim continues to grow and develop his own, personal vision and sound as a Jazz artist.

Or as Neil Tesser explains it:

“More to the point, Snidero has identified, studied, and even elaborated upon the classic virtues of his instrument. These include a fierce rhythmic authority, which dovetails with the instrument's natural bite (and without which the alto can sound gray and fallen), and the ability to really fill the horn: to "sing out," whether it be through a single note or a flurry of wildly complicated improvisation. But it all starts with the sound.


Perhaps no element in jazz strikes with the immediacy of sound; but in the case of the alto sax — the most "vocal" of saxophones, capable of an opera singer's proverbial "pear-shaped tones" — it takes on greater importance still. Such concerns are not lost on Snidero, who says that in the last few years, "I've been striving most to define my style and my sound. I think I do have my own sound, and I'm just trying to get closer to it; I want it to be more flexible, to have more colors, to be more characteristic, to make it both bigger and more focused. Sound has always been really important to me."

Another great feature of Jim Snidero’s music is that one gets to hear it against a backdrop of some of the best, young musicians on the New York City Jazz scene. Of the 16 recordings that he has issued to date under his own name, Jim is joined by the likes of trumpeters Tom Harrell, Brian Lynch and Joe Magnarelli, trombonist Conrad Herwig, alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo, tenor saxophonists Eric Alexander and Walt Weiskopf, guitarist Paul Bollenback, pianists Andy LaVerne, Renee Rosnes, Benny Green, David Hazeltine, Marc Copeland, Mulgrew Miller, and Mike LeDonne [who also plays Hammond B-3 organ on one date], bassists Peter Washington, Dennis Irwin, Steve LaSpina and Paul Gill and drummers Jeff Hirshfield, Kenny Washington, Tony Reedus, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Jeff “Tain” Watts and McClenty Hunter.

What a showcase of talent. Is it any wonder that Jim Snidero makes such great music? As Jazz columnist Ted Panken has observed: “Music is a social medium, and the palpable ensemble feel, the sense of co-equal voices transmuting notes and tones into four-way conversation, is directly attributable to the musician­ship and interpersonal chemistry of Snidero's band mates,  "These guys can play bebop, but each one adds something that's fresh but still hip," Snidero says.

Snidero sums up his approach to music best in his interview with Ted when he says:

"I grew up listening to a standard of excellence, be it Coltrane. Rollins, Bird, Joe Henderson. Cannonball or even as a kid, Phil Woods and Dave Leibman. It's an incredible achievement to play an instrument like that, and the music itself is so warm and spiritual. When you hear their tone, it's perfected and compete—it isn't missing any colors or nuance, it's expressive, it has a human quality. I'm not saying my sound is on that level, but I value those things. My goal, whether I'm playing inside or outside, slow or fast, Latin or swing, is to have those qualities in my playing, especially when I'm playing my own music. If it has a spiritual quality and it's very refined, then I think people get into it no matter what."

All of these qualities are on exhibit in the following video tribute to Jim. The tune is his original composition Enforcement which is based on the chord progression to Kurt Weill's Speak Low. Joining him are Brian Lynch, trumpet, Benny Green, piano, Peter Washington, bass and Marvin "Smitty" Smith on drums.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Brian Lynch - Peer Pressure [From the Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


In his incisive and informative insert notes for Brian Lynch's Peer Pressure, a Criss Cross recording [1029 CD], Mike Hennessy offers up the following rhetorical question – “Where are the Gillespies, Parkers, Rollinses, Getzes, J.J. Johnsons and Miles Davieses of the new Jazz generation? [To which he answers] “There aren’t any.”

Hennessy goes on to explain that the implication of this question and answer is “… intended to imply that the general level of [Jazz] artistry and creativity today is in a state of decline.”

To this charge, Hennessy offers two pertinent quotations, taken appropriately from members of today’s Jazz generation.

The first is from trumpeter Terence Blanchard: “The real problem is that people keep looking for new Dizzys, Birds and Tranes instead of judging the new generation of musicians on their own terms and evaluating their music objectively.  Why should they be expected to be clones of other musicians?”

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Blanchard’s partner at the time of this writing continues the sentiment by adding: “The general standard of playing among today’s young Jazz musicians is getting higher and higher all the time.”

Any doubt about the merit contained in these assertions by Blanchard and Harrison is further swept away by listening to the playing of the musicians that trumpeter Brian Lynch has assembled on Peer Pressure

After stints with the Horace Silver Quintet, the Mel Lewis big band and the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Peer Pressure was the first album that trumpeter Brian recorded under his own name.  On it, he is ably assisted by tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore, his front-line mate with Horace’s quintet, and alto saxophonist Jim Snidero, also a member of Toshiko’s big band.

The cookin’ rhythm section is made-up of Kirk Lightsey on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Victor Lewis on drums who was to spend most of the decade of the 1980s as Stan Getz’s drummer.

In evidence throughout the seven tracks on this album are the general high standards which Harrison uses to characterize the players on today’s Jazz scene.

A great deal of thought and care has gone into this recording from the standpoint of the selection of tunes and their sequence, the seeking out of Rudy van Gelder to engineer the recording in his inimitable style which makes the listener feel enveloped by the sound of the music, and especially, the high quality that went into the crafting of the solos.

Every one is listening to everyone else; adding something to what the soloist is saying through the use of background riffs and dynamics, pulsating bass lines, piano “comping” that’s just right and just enough, with the whole thing encapsulated by Lewis’ beautiful time-keeping and wonderful “kicks” and “licks.”

All of these qualities are discernible in the opening track of the CD; the rarely heard Thomasville, a looping blues by the trumpeter Tommy Turrentine that gives everyone a chance to get loose at a relaxed tempo that includes all three horn players trading four’s with Victor before Victor takes his own 12-bar solo.

This is followed by Park Avenue Petite another rarely heard tune, although this one is by Benny Golson one of modern Jazz’s prolific composers, and it becomes a beautifully played ballad feature for Lynch.

Sandwiched in between Peer Pressure and Change of Plan, two originals by Lynch, is a superb version of Horace Silver’s The Outlaw.

This composition is vintage Horace with its twists and turns containing all sorts of surprises due to its unusual structural form.  Like Ecaroh, it employs both 4/4 straight-ahead and Latin-inflected rhythmic passages, but The Outlaw does so within an asymmetric construction that employs two sections of thirteen [13] bars divided into seven [7] measures of straight-ahead 4/4 and six [6] of Latin rhythms, a ten [10] bar 4/4 section which acts as a bridge followed by a sixteen [16] bar Latin vamp [or Latin pedal] with a two [2] break that leads into the next solo.

It’s a masterpiece whose seemingly disparate parts generate a powerful “tension and release” effect that will leave you wanting to listen to this sprightly bit of musical magic over and over again.

While we all miss the great musicians who created modern Jazz, the music on this recording is an example that their legacy of excellence in musicianship, creativity and improvisation lives on and that the music is in good hands.

Treat yourself – these guys can PLAY!

Friday, June 23, 2017

Paul Horn's Jazz Impressions of CLEOPATRA [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Recent research has revealed that Antony and Cleopatra - one of history's most romantic couples - were not the great beauties that Hollywood would have us believe.

A study of a 2,000-year-old silver coin found the Egyptian queen, famously portrayed by a sultry Elizabeth Taylor, had a shallow forehead, pointed chin, thin lips and sharp nose.

On the other side, her Roman lover, played in the 1963 movie by Richard Burton, Taylor's husband at the time, had bulging eyes, a hook nose and a thick neck.

History has depicted Cleopatra as a great beauty, befitting a woman who as Queen of Egypt seduced Julius Caesar, and then his rival Mark Antony.

But the coin, which goes on show on Wednesday at Newcastle University for Valentine's Day, after years lying in a bank, is much less flattering about both famous faces.

The 32 BC artifact was in a collection belonging to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, which is being researched in preparation for the opening of the new Great North Museum.

Clare Pickersgill, the university's assistant director of archaeological museums, said: "The popular image we have of Cleopatra is that of a beautiful queen who was adored by Roman politicians and generals. The relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra has long been romanticized by writers, artists and film-makers.

"Shakespeare wrote his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra in 1608, while the Orientalist artists of the 19th century and the modern Hollywood depictions, such as that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1963 film, have added to the idea that Cleopatra was a great beauty. Recent research would seem to disagree with this portrayal, however."

The university's director of archaeological museums, Lindsay Allason-Jones, said: "The image on the coin is far from being that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

"Roman writers tell us that Cleopatra was intelligent and charismatic, and that she had a seductive voice but, tellingly, they do not mention her beauty. The image of Cleopatra as a beautiful seductress is a more recent image."

While the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is saddened to learn that Hollywood didn’t get it right, again, we were delighted when producers at Columbia Records commissioned Paul Horn to make a “Jazz Impressions” LP of composer Alex North’s fine score to Cleopatra [he is also the composer of the film score for the movie Spartacus].

In a way, the Paul’s Jazz Impressions of Cleopatra turned out to be a family affair as both of my drum teachers, Victor Feldman and Larry Bunker played piano and percussion, respectively, on the album. In addition to Paul [who plays flute exclusively], Victor and Larry, the LP features the talents of Emil Richards on vibes and Chuck Israels on bass.

The following video features the Paul Horn Quintet performing  Grant Me an Honorable Way to Die from the Columbia LP Cleopatra [CL 2050] as the audio track.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tom Harrell, Like Night and Day by Jonathan Eig, Esquire, December 1998

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



The editorial staff has received a number of requests to select out of our longer profile on Tom Harrell the following Like Night and Day interview by Jonathan Eig which appeared in Esquire, December 1998.

"The [schizophrenia] disorder is such that Tommy's mind can deal with only one thing at a time, be it answering a question, playing a solo, or something as simple as pouring a glass of water.

Tom is perfectly aware of his own con­dition, and is quite droll about it. He is well read, gentle, highly perceptive. And he is held in enormous affection and respect by other musicians.

Phil's evaluation: 'Tom Harrell is the best musician I ever worked with.’

Tom's art remains a thing of beauty, his life an act of courage.”
- Gene Lees, Jazz author

Tommy’s  sense of melodic development is astounding — pure genius.
- Phil Woods, alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader

“TOM HARRELL, dressed all in black, stands in a dark corner of a crowded Chicago nightclub. Sometimes he prefers a closet, but tonight the corner will do. He's clearing the voices from his head, trying to stay cool. Don't worry, he tells himself over and over, be positive...believe in yourself...count your blessings....The banalities don't stick, but they help push aside the voices a bit, and now he is ready to go to work.

Harrell shuffles out of the darkness and onto the stage, where the four members of his band wait, and he begins shaking. His eyebrows twitch. His lips smack. He stares at the ground, trying hard not to make eye contact with his audience. He doesn't want to give the voices or the hallucinations a chance to pop back into his head. "I apologize for my lack of charisma," he once told a club full of people. As he raises his trumpet, the golden spotlight strikes stars on the horn's bell. Even as he puts the cold mouthpiece to his lips, his twitching never quite stops. He takes a deep breath, and for one frozen moment, all is quiet. Tranquillity hangs on an unplayed note.

The trumpeter begins to blow, playing silky ribbons of sixteenth notes that rise and fall. Behind him, the band beats a latin-jazz rhythm. Then he tosses in a handful of slower, cloudier notes that curl and fade away.

Harrell is one of the finest jazz trumpeters in the world. He is also schizophrenic. Backstage after the set, he is impossible to talk to. He sits alone on a ragged sofa in a small dressing room. His wife, Angela, ushers me into the room and makes the introduction. I try small talk, but he is unable to speak. His head shakes, and his lips move as if he's trying to release trapped words.

"Jonathan plays the trumpet," Angela tells her husband, trying to break the ice.
I tell him that I would like to interview him at his home in New York.

He tries again to form sounds. Nothing. Fifteen seconds of silence pass, and I am tempted several times to fill the empty space with babble.
"Bring your trumpet," he finally says.

I arrive on a hot Friday afternoon in August, trumpet case slung over my shoulder. Harrell lives in Washington Heights, and his apartment has a gorgeous view of the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and the Palisades. But on the day of my visit, as on most days, the curtains are drawn. The place smells of grilled steak, which Harrell eats, entirely without seasoning, at least once a day. He puts away his dishes and walks slowly out of the kitchen to shake my hand and lead me to a chair. Most of the walls are lined with dark wooden cabinets that hold Harrell's music. Each drawer contains the score for a different composition, and by a quick count, there are at least two hundred drawers.

After saying hello, Harrell vanishes for fifteen minutes, then suddenly joins me at a darkwood dining room table. He appears much as he did in the club: nervous, shaky, and reluctant or unable to communicate. He is dressed all in black, same as always, and he is even taller than I remembered. His shaggy hair and beard have begun turning gray. His lips are purple and moist, like thin slices of raw sirloin, and his pale-blue eyes match almost perfectly the clear sky beyond his curtained windows.

Even though there are no buildings within sight of the apartment, Harrell sometimes believes he is being watched. At other times, he believes his home has been bugged. Quite often, he hears voices. Tom Harrell did this to somebody. Tom Harrell did that to somebody, they say, and those voices sometimes hurl him deep into a ravine of guilt and depression. When the voices speak, or when visual hallucinations beset him, his shaking worsens. Angela advises me not to use a tape recorder during the interview and to be prepared to come back another day if he doesn't want to talk.

Tom Harrell was born in 1946 in Urbana, Illinois, and grew up in Los Altos, California. His father taught business psychology at Stanford, and his mother worked as a statistician. Tom topped his father's IQ of 146, and he early on showed extraordinary talent in music and art. By the time he was eight, he was writing and illustrating his own children's books, which revealed the work of a precocious, original mind. In one book, young Tom told the story of a little boy who goes to a doctor for treatment of a mosquito bite and gets diagnosed with '< and scissor-birds, dog-turtles, as such animals hybrid invented he another, In neurosis.?>

It was his father's constant whistling and his impressive jazz record collection that inspired Tom to begin playing the trumpet. By the time he turned thirteen, he was jamming with professional bands around the Bay Area. When he was seventeen, he went off to Stanford, and it was at about that time that his parents and sister began to notice that the buoyancy was draining from his personality. He became surly and aloof, a social misfit, and, at one very low point, he tried to kill himself.

When he was in his early twenties, Harrell was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, which combines the paranoia of schizophrenia with the wild mood swings of manic depression, and he was given drugs to help control the condition. The medication slowed his speech, gave him headaches, and robbed him of sleep, but he was able to carry on as a professional musician, working his way from band to band.

Only in the world of jazz, where abnormal behavior has always been the tradition, could Harrell fit so nicely. After all, Charles Mingus spent time in the mental ward at Bellevue, Bud Powell did his own tour of psychiatric hospitals, the great Sun Ra thought he came from another planet, and Thelonious Monk probably did.

Harrell has recorded a dozen albums for small record companies. But in the past two years, since he signed a contract with the RCA Victor label, he's begun to gain recognition outside the hardcore group of fans who had previously followed his work. The readers of Down Beat recently voted him the world's best trumpet player. With his major-label releases, most recently The Art of Rhythm, even the mainstream press has begun to take note. "Pure melodic genius," declared one discerning newsmagazine.

And the melodies are the genius's own. Harrell prefers his original compositions to standards, He warns listeners to work as they listen, to attempt to understand the feelings behind his songs.

The musicians who have worked with Harrell report some odd moments as well as magical ones. In an airport, if the hustle and bustle become too much for him, he might wander off to a quiet spot in a parking garage and blow his trumpet until the noises in his head hush. Sometimes he will hear a chord in the hum of the refrigerator or the engine of a passing jet and work the rest of the day writing a composition based on what he has heard. Once, on a cab ride in Los Angeles with bandmate Gregory Tardy, Harrell began weeping uncontrollably because he was struck by the beauty of a tune on the cabbies radio. Tardy can't remember the song, but he says it was some Top Forty pop number he had heard a hundred times and never paid attention to before.

Angela travels with Harrell and helps keep him from getting distracted. His need for intense periods of quiet concentration guides almost every moment of his life. When he has a gig, he won't leave his apartment or his hotel room until it is time to play. He sends Angela to do the sound check and bring him food. Harrell says he feels awfully alone at times. He sometimes thinks life would be easier if he were to work full-time as a composer and arranger, because he wouldn't have to face the pressures of travel and three-set-a-night gigs. But Angela and his band-mates account for almost all the human companionship he's got, and he can't stand the thought of being isolated.

Once, a few years ago, after his medicine caused a toxic reaction and nearly killed him, Harrell stopped taking it. The results were fascinating and frightening. His moods changed more quickly and furiously than ever, from happy to sad, confident to insecure. His posture improved, his tremors vanished, and he became something close to affable. He would buy bags of groceries and leave them in front of his neighbors' doors as anonymous gifts. On the bandstand, when his turn came to solo, he would stun his audiences by scat singing in falsetto. His emergent personality was wonderful, and it was terrifying. He would go for five-hour walks in the middle of the night, and he would frequently leave all the taps in the apartment running, in tribute, he said, to the Water God.

Harrell never quite looks me in the eye. He stares at his lap, hops quickly from one thought to the next, and raises his eyelids only briefly. At one point, he says he doesn't think he should go on speaking to me, because he feels tremendous guilt for not having been born black. Jazz is black music, he says, and it seems unfair for a white man to be celebrated for his work. He can't separate himself from these thoughts, and all my attempts to change the subject are in vain. He begins to cry, and he lets the tears roll into his beard. He excuses himself, and twenty minutes later he returns with a tall glass of milk and acts as if nothing had happened. He glances at my trumpet case and a book of music paper I have with me. "Do you compose?" he asks.

"No," I say. "But my teacher wants me to write a new melody based on the chords to 'Night and Day.' "

He looks at my weak attempt.

"Oh, this is really nice," he says. His voice is high and pinched in the throat, and my mind scrambles from one television cartoon character to another, trying to place it. "You have some nice ideas here,"

He is incapable of criticizing, except when it applies to himself, but we are off and running, at least, talking about flat nines and flat flat nines and some other nines I pretend to understand. He is most comfortable on the subject of music, about the lovely way Louis Armstrong used scat singing to show that words were not needed to communicate feelings, about how Miles Davis played many of the same rhythms as Armstrong yet cast them in darker colors, and about Charlie Parker's belief that great music is born when musicians forget their long hours of study at the moment of creation.

"You merge with the infinite and transcend your ego," he says, describing how it feels to play. He takes a long, shaky pause. "Sometimes it seems to flow without any conscious effort."

All music has the human cry at its base, he says, and even the saddest songs can lead people out of the darkness of depression. "I think the more emotion you experience, the more you can bring to the music," he says. "Some people say you don't have to suffer to play music...." He takes another long pause. "I don't know, but, umm..." His eyebrows begin leaping wildly, his mouth moves in silence, and his head shakes side to side so much I begin to think he's stable now and the whole room is moving behind him. "That's a really difficult question. You don't want to be self-destructive. At the same time, sadness is a part of everyone's life, and music can express the sadness people are feeling and bring them together. You shouldn't hide from your feelings.

"Sometimes, I guess when I get paranoid, it can make me distracted," he continues. "But sometimes, if I feel really depressed, it can give me humility, which makes it sometimes easier to concentrate, which makes it easier to transcend my ego. I may be drawn to worrying because it's a form of excitement."

When Harrell runs out of words, he takes me into his music studio, a sound-proof extra bedroom with double-paned windows and closed curtains. There are dozens of tubes of lip balm and hundreds of sheets of handwritten music scattered about. He sits at his keyboard and stares at a work in progress for trumpet and strings.

"Play it," Angela gently requests.

The opening chords are very sad. The music moves slowly, by half steps and subtle shades. The key signature is in a constant state of flux, like a chameleon moving from plant to wall, sunlight to shade. Harrell's spine curls into a question mark. He stares straight ahead at the lightly penciled notes, concentrating intensely as his milk-white fingers move slowly over the keys. I hear dark holes without bottom and chaos brought barely under the control of the composer's hand. This is the source of the strength in Harrell's music. He shows us the darkness and confusion, and he makes beauty from it.

Harrell is at peace now. When he finishes, he looks at me and holds his gaze.

"That was so sad," I say.

He smiles, for the first time.

"Thanks," he says. He takes a long pause. The twitching has almost vanished.

"Wanna do 'Night and Day'?" he asks.”




Wednesday, June 21, 2017

What Coltrane Wanted by Edward Strickland - The Atlantic Monthly, 1987

Copyright © 1987 by Edward Strickland. All rights reserved.


“Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the "more beautiful … more lyrical" sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.”
- Edward Strickland

This is one of the most interesting pieces on John Coltrane that I have ever come across, both from the standpoint of the quality of the writing, which is superb, and the uniqueness of the analysis, which reveals what Mr. Strickland thought Coltrane wanted to achieve from his musical quest.

The legendary saxophonist forsook lyricism for the quest for ecstasy

by Edward Strickland as originally published in The Atlantic Monthly December 1987

“JOHN COLTRANE died twenty years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work. In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms--blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works.

The closest contemporary analogy to Coltrane's relentless search for possibilities was the Beatles' redefinition of rock from one album to the next. Yet the distance they traveled from conventional hard rock through sitars and Baroque obligatos to Sergeant Pepper psychedelia and the musical shards of Abbey Road seems short by comparison with Coltrane's journey from hard-bop saxist to daring harmonic and modal improviser to dying prophet speaking in tongues.

Asked by a Swedish disc jockey in 1960 if he was trying to "play what you hear," he said that he was working off set harmonic devices while experimenting with others of which he was not yet certain. Although he was trying to "get the one essential... the one single line," he felt forced to play everything, for he was unable to "work what I know down into a more lyrical line" that would be "easily understood."

Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the "more beautiful … more lyrical" sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.

BORN and raised in North Carolina, Coltrane studied in Philadelphia and after working as a clarinetist in Navy marching and dance bands in 1945-1946 he began a decade of playing with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges, and also such undistinguished rhythm-and-blues artists as King Kolax, Bull Moose Jackson, and Daisy Mae and the Hepcats. He came to wide notice in 1955 in the now legendary Miles Davis Quintet and was immediately acknowledged as an original--or an oddity. Critics who in Coltrane's last years all but waved banners to show their devotion to him were among those casting stones for much of his career.

At first many urged Davis to fire the weird tenor, but when, in April of 1957, after a year and a half with the quintet, Coltrane left or was dropped (the truth remains unclear), the reason seems to have been indulgence not in stylistic extremism but in heroin and alcohol, problems he conquered that same year. The controversy had to do not only with his harmonic experimentation, on which Dexter Gordon was initially the chief influence, but with the speed (to some, purely chaotic) of his playing and the jaggedness (to some, unmusical) of his phrasing.

All three characteristics were intensified in 1957 during several months with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, after which he rejoined Davis, who was now experimenting with sparer chord changes, and became fully involved in what Ira Gitler, in Down Beat, called the "sheets of sound" approach. This technique of runs so rapid as to make the notes virtually indistinguishable seems itself to have been a by-product of Coltrane's harmonic exploration. Coltrane spoke of playing the same chord three or four different ways within a measure or overlapping chords before the change, advancing further the investigation of upper harmonic intervals begun by Charlie Parker and the boppers. Attempting to articulate so many harmonic variants before the change, Coltrane was necessarily led to preternatural velocity and occasionally to asymmetrical subdivision of the beat. Despite Davis's suggestion that Coltrane could trim his twenty-seven or twenty-eight choruses if he tried taking the saxophone out of his mouth, Coltrane's attempt "to explore all the avenues" made him the perfect stylistic complement to Davis, with his cooler style, which featured sustained blue notes and brief cascades of sixteenths almost willfully retreating into silence, and also Monk, with his spare and unpredictable chords and clusters. Davis, characteristically, paid the tersest homage, when, on being told that his music was so complex that it required five saxophonists, he replied that he'd once had Coltrane.

Although in the late fifties Coltrane released a number of sessions for Prestige (and, more notably, Blue Train and Giant Steps for Blue Note and Atlantic respectively) in which he was the nominal bandleader, it was really after leaving Davis for the second time, in 1960, shortly after a European tour, that he came into his own as a creative as well as an interpretive force. His first recording session as leader after the break, on October 21, 1960, produced "My Favorite Things," an astonishing fourteen-minute reinterpretation, or overhaul, of the saccharine show tune, which thrilled jazz fans with its Oriental modalism and Atlantic executives with its unexpected commercial success. In it Coltrane revived the straight soprano sax (whose only previous master in jazz had been Sidney Bechet), and in so doing led a generation of young musicians, from Wayne Shorter to Keith Jarrett to Jon Gibson, to explore the instrument. The work remained Coltrane's signature piece until his death (of liver disease) despite bizarre stylistic metamorphoses in the next five and a half years.

Coltrane signed with Impulse Records in April of 1961 and the next month began rehearsing and playing the long studio sessions for Africa/Brass, a large-band experiment with arrangements by his close friend Eric Dolphy. This was in part an extension of the modal experimentation in which he had been involved with Davis in the late fifties, notably on the landmark Kind of Blue. The modal style replaced chordal progressions as the basis for improvisation, with a slower harmonic rhythm and patterns of intervals corresponding only vaguely to traditional major and minor scales. The modal approach proved to be the modulation from bop to free jazz, as is clear in Coltrane's revolutionary use of a single mode throughout "Africa," the piece that takes up all of side one of the album. Just as his prolonged modal solos were emulated by rock guitarists (the Grateful Dead, the Byrds of "Eight Miles High," the unlamented Iron Butterfly, and others), so the astonishing variety Coltrane superimposed on that single F was, according to the composer Steve Reich, a significant, if ostensibly an unlikely, influence on the development of minimalism. The originator of minimalism, La Monte Young, acknowledges the influence of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" on his use of rapid permutations and combinations of pitches on sopranino sax to simulate chords as sustained tones.

From the start, and especially from the opening notes of Coltrane's solo, which bursts forth like a tribal summons, "Africa" is the aural equivalent of a journey upriver. The elemental force of this polyrhythmic modalism was unknown in the popular music that came before it. Coltrane experimented with two bassists--a hint of wilder things to come, as he sought progressively to submerge himself in rhythm. He was later to employ congas, bata, various other Latin and African percussion instruments, and, incredibly, two drummers--incredibly insofar as Coltrane already had, in Elvin Jones, the most overpowering drummer in jazz. The addition of Rashied Ali to the drum corps, in November of 1965, made for a short-lived collaboration or, rather, competition between Jones and Ali; a disgruntled Jones left the Coltrane band in March of 1966 to join Duke Ellington's.

But it was the culmination of Coltrane's search for the rhythmic equivalent of the oceanic feeling of visionary experience. Having employed the gifted accompanists McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison during the years of the "classic quartet" (late 1961 to mid-1965), Coltrane tended to subordinate them, preferring that his accompanists play spare wide-interval chords and a solid rather than showy bass, which would permit him a maximum of flexibility as a soloist. Coltrane would often take long solos accompanied only by his drummer, and in his penultimate recording session, which produced the posthumous Interstellar Space, he is supported only by Ali. Solo sax against drums (against may be all too accurate a word to describe Coltrane's concert duets with the almost maniacal Jones) was Coltrane's conception of naked music, the lone voice crying not in the wilderness but from some primordial chaos. His music evokes not only the jungle but all that existed before the jungle.

COLTRANE'S spiritual concerns led him to a study of Indian music, some elements of which are present in the album Africa/Brass and more of which are in the cut from the album Impressions titled "India," which was recorded in November of 1961. The same month saw the birth of "Spiritual," featuring exotic and otherworldly solos by Coltrane on soprano sax and Dolphy on bass clarinet. Recorded at the Village Vanguard, the piece made clear, if any doubts remained, that Coltrane was attempting to raise jazz from the saloons to the heavens. No jazzman had attempted so overtly to offer his work as a form of religious expression. If Ornette Coleman was, as some have argued, the seminal stylistic force in sixties avant-garde jazz, Coltrane's Eastern imports were the main influence on the East-West "fusion" in the jazz and rock of the late sixties and afterward. In his use of jazz as prayer and meditation Coltrane was beyond all doubt the principal spiritual force in music.

This is further evident in "Alabama," a riveting elegy for the victims of the infamous Sunday-morning church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. Here, as in the early version of his most famous ballad, "Naima," Coltrane is as spare in phrasing as he is bleak in tone. That tone, criticized by many as hard-edged and emotionally impoverished, is inseparable from Coltrane's achievement, conveying as it does a sense of absolute purity through the abnegation of sentimentality. Sonny Rollins, the contemporary tenor most admired by Coltrane, always had a richer tone, and Coltrane himself said of the mellifluous Stan Getz, "Let's face it--we'd all sound like that if we could." Despite these frequent and generous tributes, Coltrane's aim was different, as is clear in his revival of the soprano sax. Rather than lushness he sought clarity and incisiveness. As with pre-nineteenth-century string players, the rare vibrato was dramatic ornamentation.

Coltrane's religious dedication, which as much as his music made him a role model, especially but by no means exclusively among young blacks, is clearest of all in the album titled A Love Supreme, recorded in late 1964 with Tyner, Jones, and Garrison. The album appeared in early 1965 to great popular and critical acclaim and remains generally acknowledged as Coltrane's masterpiece. In a sense, though, it is stylistically as much a summation as a new direction, for its modalism and incantatory style recall "Spiritual," "India," and the world-weary lyricism of his preceding and still underrated album, Crescent. Within months Coltrane was to shift his emphasis from incantation to the freer-form glossolalia of his last period--a transition evident in a European concert performance of A Love Supreme in mid-1965.

Meditations, recorded a year after A Love Supreme, is the finest creation of the late Coltrane, and possibly of any Coltrane. It may never be as accessible as A Love Supreme, but it is the more revolutionary and compelling work. While some of the creations of Coltrane's last two years are all but amorphous, Meditations succeeds not only for the transcendental force it shares with A Love Supreme but by virtue of the contrasts among the shamanistic frenzy of Coltrane and fellow tenor Pharoah Sanders in the opening movement "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" and elsewhere, the sense of stoic resignation and perseverance in the solos of Garrison and Tyner, and the repeated, spiraling phrases of yearning in Coltrane's "Love" and the concluding "Serenity." This unity, encompassing radical stylistic and affective diversity, is the unique feature of Meditations, even in relation to its Ur-version for quartet, which has an additional and quite obtrusive movement. Nothing that came after Meditations approached it in structural complexity and subtlety.

These may be the missing ingredients in the music of Coltrane's final period. The drummer Elvin Jones said, "Only poets can understand it," though maybe only mystics could, for until his final album Coltrane seemingly forsook lyricism for an unfettered quest for ecstasy. The results remain virtually indescribable, and they forestall criticism with the furious directness of their energy. Yet their effect depends more on the abandonment of rationality, which most listeners achieve only intermittently if at all. In fact, it may be the listener himself who is abandoned, for it seems clear that Coltrane is no longer primarily concerned with a human audience. His final recording of "My Favorite Things" and "Naima," at the Village Vanguard in 1966, uses the musical texts as springboards to visionary rhapsody--almost, in fact, as pretexts. All songs become virtually interchangeable, and there is really no point any longer in requests. The only favorite thing he is playing about now is salvation. Coltrane's second wife, Alice, who had by then replaced Tyner as the group's pianist, has remarked, "Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions." This may be their glory and their limitation, the latter progressively more evident in the uninspired emulation by the so-called "Coltrane machines" who followed the last footsteps of the master, and also in the current dismissal of free jazz as a dead end by both jazz mainstreamers and the experimental composer Anthony Davis (who nonetheless recently used Coltrane as a model in the "Mecca" section of his opera X).

The last album that Coltrane recorded was Expression, in February and March of 1967. The album has an aura of twilight, of limbo, particularly in the piece "To Be," in which Coltrane and Sanders play spectral flute and piccolo respectively. The sixteen ametrical minutes of "To Be," which could readily have added to its title the second part of Hamlet's question, are as eerie as any in music.

The most striking characteristic of the album is its sense of consummation, which is clear in the abandonment of developmental structure and often bar divisions, and in the phantasmal rather than propulsive lines that pervade the work. There had always been in Coltrane a profound tension between the pure virtuosity of his elongated phrases and the high sustained cries or eloquent rests that followed. The cries, wails, and shrieks remain in Expression but they are subsumed by the hard-won simplicity that predominates in the album--the lyricism not of "the one essential" line he had sought seven years earlier and never found but one born of courageous resignation. Pater said that all art aspires to the condition of music. Coltrane seems to suggest here that music in turn aspires to the condition of silence.

Those who criticize Coltrane's virtuosic profusion are of the same party as those who found Van Gogh's canvases "too full of paint"--a criticism Henry Miller once compared to the dismissal of a mystic as "too full of God." In Coltrane, sound--often discordant, chaotic, almost unbearable--became the spiritual form of the man, an identification perhaps possible only with a wind instrument, with which the player is of necessity fused more intimately than with strings or percussion. This physical intimacy was all the more intense for his characteristically tight embouchure, the preternatural duration and complexity of his phrases, and his increasing use of overblowing techniques. The whole spectrum of Coltrane's music--the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalic shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet--is at root merely a suffering man's breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is "breathing upon." This country has not produced a greater musician.

Copyright © 1987 by Edward Strickland. All rights reserved.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1987; "What Coltrane Wanted"; Volume 260, No. 6; pages 100-102.