Thursday, 22 October 2009

Tranes of Thought (Slow Review, Australia)

A look at an in-depth series of podcast interviews on the legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane.

The Traneumentary: Celebrating the Artistry and Recordings of John Coltrane is a series of audio-streamed interviews carried out and compiled by 'pod-caster extraordinaire’ Joseph Vella, whose previous pod-cast biographies include Brian Wilson, Pat Metheny, and Elvis Costello. Traneumentary interviewees include McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor, Robert Glasper and Jimmy Cobb, as well as producer Joel Dorn and writer Ashley Kahn, all discussing Coltrane; from blow-by-blow analyses of his work to recollections about his character, his evolution, and his love of butter rum sweets before gigs (amongst other things…).

'The music of John Coltrane just changes you,' Vella explains. 'His spiritual connection and expressiveness gets in your blood'. So, in an attempt to attain a deeper insight into Coltrane, Vella worked with Blue Note, Impulse, Prestige and Atlantic Records to pursue a 'podumentary' project. 'My goal for each podcast is to uncover new sides or new stories that we have not heard before. In a sense, I am really trying to pull out the human side of the artist. The common denominator of all of these experiences is intimacy'.

Podcasts achieve this depth and intimacy because, unlike radio and television, there are no constraints on the direction the interviews take, nor time limits or 'ad' breaks. Indeed, recording the entire series using a lapel microphone and an iMac also meant Vella was mobile and could carry out the interviews anywhere and at any time for low cost. 'The freedom that podcasting offers in terms of creative story-telling and distribution is refreshing,' agrees Vella. 'I believe that is what many people enjoy about podcasts and that is what excites me about the format'.

A rich picture of Coltrane emerges from Traneumentary; that of a man dedicated to musical exploration and evolution, from a heroin-addicted virtuoso given to 'multiphonics', 'overblowing' and a blustering 'sheets of sound' style, to a deeply religious artist who went on to produce some of the purest, most moving and controlled jazz of the age, culminating in the exquisite four-part suite A Love Supreme in 1964.

Of much interest to me personally is the opportunity to hear analysis, description, and recollection from other musicians about Coltrane, for while artists of his calibre always attract the attention of biographers and journalists, it is other musicians who will most fully recognize, and dissect, their talents. Joe Lovano, for instance, expresses with admirable clarity how Coltrane 'played like a pianist, like a drummer' and embraced the 'wide spectrum of possibilities' previously dormant in people's approach to the saxophone. It seems that Coltrane more than anyone has taught musicians such as Lovano the importance of restlessness, of constantly 'moving out of where you are' and seeing your instrument with fresh eyes.

Lovano and Terence Blanchard particularly discuss Coltrane's rhythmic sensibility, and the 'rhythmic propulsion that that band [on A Love Supreme] could manufacture' (Blanchard's words). Dr. Billy Taylor also draws attention to Coltrane's classical influences, which were deep and profound even if he wore them lightly. Taylor also recalls the specific occasion when Coltrane began trying to achieve the 'run' on notes on a saxophone in the way that Taylor could on piano.
Stories about the time and manner in which these then-young musicians came upon the music of Coltrane is also a great merit of this collection. Lovano recollects hearing Coltrane through his father's record collection, and how his father had once played a jam session with Coltrane in his hometown, which provides a refreshing picture of the nourishment musicians stumble upon — and the function it plays in their development. So too with Robert Glasper explaining how he almost 'jumped out of the shower' on hearing the mantric singing on A Love Supreme, so unusual was it to find such vocals on a jazz record.

Terence Blanchard, who recalls hearing Coltrane while growing up in New Orleans, professes to being 'highly mesmerized' at his first listen, while Coltrane's band-mate Steve Kuhn says 'Coltrane didn't really sound like anybody to me and I'd been listened to music a long time before I heard him'. Most amusing is Dave Shroeder's recollection of trying to locate Coltrane records in the local library of his provincial mid-West town and, unable to, filling out an order form requesting music by 'John Coaltrain'. Hearing how Coltrane affected musicians growing up, and the place and time in which they heard him, builds a touching picture of his legacy and is of particular interest when one considers that these teenagers would go on to become significant artists in their own right and band members with Coltrane.

The interviews also do much to locate Coltrane in the context in which he played, with musicians recalling specific dates and venues, who Coltrane related with and when, his position as a saxophonist, for instance in relation to his peers such as Lester Young, and the phases of his evolution, from his days in the Navy band as discussed by Shroeder, to his last recordings before his death.

There are two essential characteristics of Coltrane himself to which all interviewees seem to testify. The first was his diligence and perhaps obsessive work ethos. McCoy Tyner laughed in recalling that he 'had never met a man that is so involved in something, always diligent, always practicing in the dressing rooms, always working on something'. Shroeder also discusses how Coltrane was obsessed with the technical, physical minutiae of his saxophone — he was particularly concerned with mouthpieces; always amending them, rebuilding them, trying to shape them in different ways and often breaking them.

Yet despite his seriousness and focus, the other quality universally noted and admired was his warmth. I had always assumed, very wrongly it seems, that as a drug user, and as a man of considerable innate complexity, Coltrane would have been possessed of similar aggression, selfishness and arrogance as his great peer Miles Davis. But Coltrane seems to have impressed everyone that he came across with his warmth, sincerity and, surprisingly for an artist of such prodigious talent, humility (the latter two qualities flagged up particularly by Sonny Rollins). He was, according to Rollins, 'a saint'.

'I learned a great deal about Trane and his music through this project, and have grown to appreciate his work on a higher level,' concludes Vella. 'More importantly, I admire him as a human being. He was a genuine and loving man dedicated to communicating a message and never stopped working at it'.

Hear these personal testimonies about John Coltrane by sampling and subscribing to Vella's in-depth, superbly produced podcasts on