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.