John Coltrane is one of the most influential and imitated Jazz musicians to ever sound a note. I know the first music I ever heard Coltrane play is on the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue”. That started me on a lifelong quest to familiarize myself with every recorded sound Trane has made. If his tenor saxophone work as a sideman with Miles Davis was all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be an important figure in the history of Jazz.
Coltrane’s first albums as a leader are remarkable as well. Such releases on Prestige, Blue Note and Atlantic are essential listening to a fan of the music. If the albums “Blue Trane”, “Soultrane”, “Giant Steps”, and “My Favorite Things” were all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be a giant figure in the history of Jazz. I remember friends of my parents had a copy of “My Favorite Things”, which I borrowed and played over and over. If I had a nickel for every saxophone player that tried to play soprano sax after listening to this record, I could retire a rich man. (If I had just a nickel for the players that were out of tune on their soprano sax, I would still be wealthy.)
Trane’s albums with his “Classic” quartet on the Impulse label set a new standard for small group Jazz. McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and Coltrane had a musical telepathy that only master musicians playing closely together for a long time can approach. If the album “A Love Supreme” was all we had to know Coltrane by, he would be an essential figure in the history of Jazz. It is one of the most important albums for any music fan, of any genre, with which to become familiar.
“A Love Supreme” is only the beginning of a spiritual journey that can be traced through the late music of John Coltrane. Trane credited a spiritual awakening in 1957 with giving him the strength and direction to beat his substance abuse problems, and live a fuller life. He began to study music of other cultures, especially India, and world religions in great detail. His attitude toward God was an all-inclusive, universalist point of view. In the liner notes to “Meditations”, Trane said “I believe in all religions”. He was a deeply spiritual man, and this is reflected in many of the titles of his late music and albums.
His late music dives full force into the realm of “free jazz” and the avant-garde. So-called “free jazz” is admittedly, one spicy meatball to swallow. Upon first hearing, I probably would have written it off as a squeaky hoax if it weren’t for the association of Coltrane and his late albums. Trane was a genius in my ear, a musician of immense magnitude, and I couldn’t just ignore this direction his career took. I was already a huge fan of every other stage of his recording career, so my respect for his musicianship forced me to listen closer to his “free jazz” offerings. I still have to be in a certain frame of mind to pay full attention to some of his late recordings, but I have listened to them repeatedly, and gained a small understanding of them.
The album I want to share with you is one that is unique in my music collection, if not unique in all of Jazz music. “Interstellar Space” is an entire album of duets, with John Coltrane on tenor saxophone (and bells!) and Rashied Ali on drums. The suite is performed with no piano, no bass, no other musician at all except Trane and Ali. The recordings were made in the studio in 1967, just months before Coltrane’s death. They were released on an album posthumously in 1974, with the original album containing the tracks “Mars”, “Venus”, “Jupiter” and “Saturn”. Two further tracks were released on a compilation, “Leo” and “Jupiter Variation”, with all six of these tracks being included on the CD version from which I learned the pieces. In his later years, after studying Indian music in particular, Trane believed that certain sounds and scales could produce specific emotional meanings. In many of these recordings, he sounds like he is playing everything all at once. “Interstellar Space” is a supernova of sound, a hurricane powered by rocket fuel. Trane includes entire scales and modes, and every effect available to the saxophonist. There are altissimo passages, multi-phonics, overblowing, and modulations so fast it is fair to call the music atonal at times. The drumming of Rashied Ali is full of just as much energy, and makes each piece a dialog between the two men.
Most of the tracks follow a pattern. Coltrane opens with the sound of bells, then Ali comes in with complex rhythmic playing on the drums. Trane then presents the musical idea, mode or melodic fragment that is the basis for each improvisation. From there, Coltrane is off and running on the tenor saxophone, sounding like he is trying to include every permutation of the melodic idea possible. He plays modes and scalar passages so fast, he seems to be attempting to make the notes sound simultaneously. I really had to listen fast, and concentrate intensely to begin to catch some of the connections Trane is including in his improvisations. Each track has the intensity of a burning sun, and the two men give everything they have inside themselves on each take.
I must confess, the musical meaning and purpose of the bells escapes me. I have to trust that John Coltrane had a very serious intention when including these sounds at punctuation points in many of the tracks. He was a deeply spiritual man, and intensely serious about his music. What he meant with the bells is lost on me, and I am open to anyone’s suggestion at this point. It can’t be some free jazz quote of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, or a bizarre musical reference to St. Nicholas?? I refuse to believe that. Whatever the real meaning is, it must be deep. I just am not that deep yet.
Here is the album on Spotify. If this is your first exposure to this recording, I humbly suggest you give it a few listens before you form an opinion.
John Coltrane, “Interstellar Space” on Spotify
Reblogged this on and commented:
I love this album as well… Very contemplative and intense music!
I think that the sax/drum duo tended to be more prevalent oversees with people like Peter Brotzmann and Han Bennink, in Europe, and saxophonist, Kaoru Abe, in Japan. Actually, Rashied Ali cut another record, 1973’s Duo Exchange, on his own Survival label, with that setup, featuring Frank Lowe on Sax. Well worth investigating if you’re looking for more explorations similar to Interstellar Space
… here is an inference: LSD did not become federally illegal in the US until 1968 . . .
I’d say the bells are a sort of incantation to prepare for the higher spheres that follow. I also see them as the sound of a stellar background, on which the portraits of the spiritual planets are painted.
I take my hat off to you for trying so hard to return to this music, because of your respect for Coltrane. Maybe I will try one day. Great post as usual.
I have this album on vinyl. I love it, but haven’t listened to it in years. I’ll give it a spin soon.
It’s disheartening to not know where Trane was going with all this. He was clearly on a quest, and this was a pathway rather than a destination. Great post …
Coltrane’s thinking that certain notes/scales elicited certain emotional reactions coincides with Plato who thought the same, even going so far as to identifying which scales elicited which emotions. I appreciated this post a great deal. I’ve not heard Interstellar Space, but this post has convinced me to check it out. Thanks!
Great post! I’ve never heard “Interstellar Space” before and now I’m having a blast doing it!
Your article matches really well with my blog’s (Music Filter) series about listening to jazz albums. Would you mind if I reblog your post there?
Reblogged this on Music Filter and commented:
Here’s a great post from Good Music Speaks blog about John Coltrane!
If you don’t know Coltrane, I would recommend to listen his previous work with Miles Davis and other albums cited in the article before digging into “Interstellar Space”. But it’s up to you! It will be a great journey no matter how much music you’ve listened to!
I remember my first interaction with free jazz, and it was in a music appreciation class taught by a passionate jazz drummer. We focused a lot on blues and jazz in this class, and I wondered, at first, if there was a method to the madness. But it definitely takes multiple settings with the tunes to get the rhythm. Great read! It’s very clear you’re very passionate about Coltrane.
Thanks for this. I so loved Coltrane and saw him many times at Shelly’s Mannehole in LA. Even talked with him but somehow I got away from Jazz and LA in the mid-1960s, (can’t imagine what I could have been listening to in San Francisco then) – but somehow I managed to find something to listen to and go see there for a number of years. I was living there when I learned he had died.
Ornette Coleman was the free jazz guy back when I was listening to Coltrane. I always liked Coleman and he actually came to HK and gave a concert about 5 or 6 years ago, amazing.
And Herbie Hancock came here in 2013 and he is on a similar journey of leaving the structured and melodic frameworks of his past.
What do you think of the idea that humankind developed music from listening to and imitating birds singing/calling? (See my post about the most musical bird of all time!)