If you delve deep into the discussion of truly influential artists, one name inevitably comes up, that of John Coltrane. Although he passed away 55 years ago today, it is a testament to the power of his work that he has managed to remain on everyone’s lips for so long and not see his relevance lost. For him it was quite the opposite, and its relevance has grown exponentially in the 21st century as the contemporary generation strives to find new ways to incorporate jazz into genres such as dance, rock, hip-hop and pop.
One of the most celebrated figures in jazz history, John Coltrane’s licks on the saxophone are second to none, and understandably he’s influenced everyone from Radiohead to Yusef Dayes.
Coltrane was born in North Carolina in 1926 and after high school moved to Philadelphia where he studied music, which would change his life forever. He was introduced to the path of bebop and hard bop forms early in his career, which gave him the foundation needed to pioneer what is now known as free jazz.
One of the most accomplished musicians in his field and one of the most fascinating saxophonists of his time, Coltrane led well over 50 recording sessions and collaborated with some of his most notable colleagues, including two trumpeters on Miles Davis’ classic 1959 record kind of blue he raised and the pianist Thelonius Monk with their 1961 opus Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane a must in every record collection. As for his own works, 1965 One Love Supreme and 1966s rise are indispensable.
It’s a clear reflection of Coltrane’s grandeur that he’s received a string of posthumous awards, including a special Pulitzer Prize, and has even been canonized by the African Orthodox Church, giving one the impression that his contributions don’t just affect the Musical.
In 1966, less than 12 months before his death, Coltraine presented an account of his work that explained much about the man behind such great music: “I know that there are evil forces, forces that bring suffering and misery to the world. I want to be the counter force. I want to be the force that is truly for good.”
Given that John Coltrane had such a transformative impact on culture, and that his spirit lives on through the myriad ways in which he shaped society, today we’ve listed his six definitive songs.
The six definitive songs by John Coltrane:
‘India’ – impressions (1963)
One of Coltrane’s defining moments, India is a masterpiece of avant-garde jazz. Recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club on November 3, 1961, it features the classic Coltrane quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy and bassist Reggie Workman.
A booming piece composed of many shifting emotions, reflecting Coltrane’s evolving musical palette as he blends the traditional music of India with the most refreshing sound of jazz. Dolphy delivers an extended bass clarinet solo on the track while Garrison helps to resemble the otherworldly drone of Indian classical music. The highlight, however, is Coltrane’s saxophone work, which stages every note perfectly and takes us into an avant-garde dreamland.
According to Roger McGuinn, frontman and guitarist for psychedelic heroes The Byrds, when the band toured in late 1965 they were blown away by the only cassette recording they had, indicating how far-reaching Coltrane’s influence was across “India”. heard on the street bus that had Ravi Shankar on one side, and Coltranes impressions and Africa/brass on the other. He said, “We played the damn thing 50 or 100 times, through a Fender amp hooked up to an alternator in the car.”
Totally inspired as the band recorded their most influential track “Eight Miles High” the following year Fifth Dimensionthey claimed it was a direct homage to Coltrane and ‘India’.
‘My Favorite Things’ – my favorite things (1960)
“My Favorite Things” is not only one of John Coltrane’s best tracks, it’s also one of his most important, and the emotional response you get from the key changes is quite impressive. In March 1960, while on a European tour with Miles Davis, the trumpeter bought Coltrane a soprano saxophone.
The instrument was popular in the early days of jazz, but by the ’50s it was almost obsolete save for the legendary Steve Lacy who kept his flame alive. Intrigued by it, Coltrane used it for his dates that summer and was fascinated by it.
That year Coltrane left Miles Davis and formed the first version of his quartet to further explore modal playing with a freer direction and an increasingly Indian-influenced sound. The highlight of this period is the cover of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”. The sound of music, turning it into a narcotic haze that far outshines the original. It became a hit and propelled Coltrane into the mainstream.
Coltrane was such a fan of the track that he once said it was “my favorite of all the tracks I’ve recorded”.
“Hunting the Trane” – Coltrane “Live” at Village Vanguard (1962)
The world wasn’t ready for the visceral style of jazz that the John Coltrane Quartet did on the live album Coltrane “Live” at Village Vanguard was published. A stark contrast to his much acclaimed previous album Africa/brass, This live album prompted a backlash from fans and critics alike, as the music’s challenging mood sent them into a meltdown. Coltrane didn’t care, the quartet was moving in an untapped realm.
Of course, “Chasin’ The Trane” was the culmination of that defiant spirit that launched the wave of avant-garde jazz that spawned the ’60s. “It had a pretty good intensity that I’d never gotten on a recording before,” Coltrane said in a 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky.
Additionally, in the liner notes for the album, Coltrane gives a glimpse of the track’s first recording, just the night before the album release: “Not only was the tune not written, it wasn’t even thought up before we played it.” We set the pace and got going.”
“Giant Steps” – giant steps (1960)
One of the most important jazz compositions of all time, “Giant Steps” was first recorded by Coltrane in 1959 before being released on what many consider to be his 1960s masterpiece giant steps. It was so impressive that the cyclic chord pattern it contains is considered a “Coltrane change”. Now a jazz standard, it’s a testament to how pioneering John Coltrane was.
A fast song moving through three keys, B major, G major and E♭ major, and since its release it has been one of the most challenging songs for jazz musicians in their repertoire, striking fear in their hearts as it is a Herculean task to improvise over the difficult chord progressions.
Coltrane named the song after the bass line: “The bass line is kind of a loping one. It goes from minor thirds to fourths, sort of a one-way pattern as opposed to a strict movement in fourths or half steps.”
‘Crescent’ – crescent (1964)
One of the saxophonist’s most swooning tracks, “Crescent” is perfect for a dimly lit, smoky jazz club on the evening when your drink of choice begins to cloud your perceptions. The sound of a James Ellroy work such as LA confidential or one of Dashiel Hammet’s many pulp fiction tunes, this track has a real vibe that builds as Coltrane’s solo playing shifts from the traditional to the pioneering in the blink of an eye.
The track, which uses tenor sax here, is notable for the way Coltrane’s busy work juxtaposes Jimmy Garrison’s upright bass, which in many ways is the glue that holds the entire piece together. In places, the two create the kind of dissonance that had become common in the now thriving avant-garde jazz.
‘Resolution’ – One Love Supreme (1965)
If you’re a die-hard Coltrane fan and you don’t pay attention giant steps than his magnum opus, then chances are it is One Love Supreme which you put at the top of the stack. Reflecting his genius, the album is a through-composed suite broken into four parts, with Coltrane playing his trusted tenor saxophone on all of them.
Considered a musical embodiment of Coltrane’s faith, as well as his interest in Ahmadiyya Islam and the struggle for purity, there is a conceptually sacred essence that carries the album. Recorded in one session on December 9th 1994 at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, it was hard to single out a highlight on the album, but it was ‘Resolution’ that finally pulled through.
With all the important facets of a Coltrane track, such as B. busy saxophone work, rolling dynamics and numerous key changes, this was the moment when the quartet had really taken their creative step.
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