When Trane Stopped a-Rollin’

It’s hard to do a saxophonecentric issue without talking about the instrument’s most influential practitioner, John Coltrane. Hosannas are regularly and rightfully sung about Coltrane, but even his most ardent admirers pause when it comes to Trane’s later works like Live in Japan, Expression and Stellar Regions. He was still searching, but it’s hard to say what he was looking for.

“I’ve had that expressed to me by those who were involved with him at that time,” says Coltrane authority Andrew White, featured in this month’s Overdue Ovation. “They would say, ‘I didn’t know where he was going’ or ‘I don’t think he knew where he was going either.’ Somebody asked Jimmy Garrison, ‘Where you guys going next?’ And he said, ‘Crazy!’”

While White has transcribed all of Coltrane’s solos from his final albums, he says, “I’m not that enamored of much of his later stuff because I don’t feel he was warranted in doing that. I believe he really exhausted his resources for dealing in the [older jazz] idioms that were presented to him, but when he got to the end of the rope with that, which is thoroughly documented in the transcriptions, I don’t think he had the [theoretical] background to support the kind of exploration he made.”

White discusses these views on his two-volume LP set The Coltrane Interviews (Andrew’s Music) and in his book Trane ‘n Me; his primary complaint is that Coltrane went in a direction he didn’t fully comprehend. “When [musicians] start going off into third stream or avant-garde, you’re bringing in properties of other idioms, which are not basically street-corner idioms [like jazz]. They’ve got their own history and dogma, and they require study,” White says.

“I don’t hear any manifestation of that kind of scholarship in Coltrane’s playing; he was a good bebop saxophone player, and that’s as far as it went—and there’s nothing wrong with that. He was playing his bebop thing till the end. You can hear it on Interstellar Space and Sunship and everything; he still has that 1940s bebop, Dizzy Gillespie-band inflection. He’s changed his language, and he’s brought his vibrato, but he’s still swingin’. He’s still got the doinks!

“He doesn’t sound like Anthony Braxton or several avant-garde players who have really divorced themselves from traditional jazz inflection to make their avant-garde points; Trane never did that. They took the street-corner out of their playing; Trane, he walked bars! The shackles of bebop cannot be broken; once you’re stung by that…” he trails off laughing. “Unless you study with the intent to break the shackles, and I never got that out of Coltrane’s playing.”

Originally published in June 2001

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