A Journey to Interstellar Space

A Journey to Interstellar Space

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.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

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“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.

Coltrane

Coltrane

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.

John_Coltrane_Interstellar_SpaceThe 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.

Rashied Ali

Rashied Ali

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

John_Coltrane_Interstellar_Space

 

Eatin’ It All Up

Eatin’ It All Up

I have to admit, I ran across the name “Cannonball” Adderley for the first time on an album by the Miles Davis sextet.  Kind of Blue  is probably the best selling jazz album in history, and like many musicians, I have memorized every note.  Miles had fired John Coltrane for continued drug problems, and had filled the saxophone spot in his quintet with the bluesy sound of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley.  When Coltrane appeared to have gotten clean, Davis brought him back into the group and expanded his quintet to a sextet.  It was another stroke of genius by Miles, as the two saxophone players interacted brilliantly with each other.  (It also was a bit of insurance, if the new sobriety of Coltrane wasn’t as long lasting as hoped.)

Julian "Cannonball" Adderley

Julian “Cannonball” Adderley

Adderley was a big man, born and raised in Florida before moving to New York.  It was in high school that his schoolmates gave him the nickname “cannibal”, after his enthusiastic appetite for food.  Over time this morphed into “Cannonball”, and stuck with the alto saxophonist for the rest of his career.  Adderley was recognized in New York as one of the greatest alto sax players since Charlie Parker, and had some success as a bandleader with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet.  One album that just hit me in the gut like a cannonball is Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, Live at The Club.  Released in 1966, I have an endless appetite myself for listening to the bluesy, soulful playing on this record.

Cannonball is the leader of the group, and plays alto saxophone.  The rhythm section is Roy McCurdy on drums, Victor Gaskin on Bass, and Joe Zawinul on piano and electric piano.  The cornet player is Cannonball’s brother, Nat Adderley.  Nat always preferred the darker sound of the conical shaped cornet over the trumpet, and played on every record of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet I know of.  Now I dig this entire record, but my favorite tune and the big hit of the release is the title tune,  “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”.  I can listen to that one on repeat all day long.  The album is a live recording, and you can hear Adderley preach a little to the audience as he introduces the tune.  The crowd is engaged, and is eatin’ it all up.  The groove of this number, composed by Zawinul, just scratches right where it itches.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”

There is a bit of salesmanship on the album.   The original notes to the LP describe the album as being recorded at Club DeLisa in Chicago, which had recently been renamed “The Club”.  It wasn’t until I read the updated liner notes to the CD release that I learned the album was really recorded at Capital’s Hollywood studio, with a live audience.  Adderley was friends with the manager of “The Club”, and was willing to give a little free publicity to his friend by fabricating a tale about where the album was recorded.  In the end, I guess I don’t care where it was recorded, I am just very glad it was.  It is one of my favorites.

Nat Adderley

Nat Adderley

Nat Adderley always seemed to be a little bit in the shadow of his brother.  Among musicians, he is a very respected cornetist and composer.  While Julian died of a brain hemorrhage in 1975, Nat Adderley continued his career for another 25 years.   I absolutely love the playing of Nat Adderley, with its swinging blues based sound, and soulful tone.  He led small groups of his own, composed and taught at several colleges (including Harvard).  Like a number of jazz musicians of the time, he found himself more appreciated internationally than at home in the United States.  One of his most successful compositions is “Work Song”, a tune that has become a jazz standard and recorded by dozens of musicians.  Nat joked that it was his “Social Security’ song, as the royalties he earned from it would insure his bank account into his old age.

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, “Work Song”

Cannonball and NatAs a musician, I can tell you it is a special experience to play in a group with your brother or close friend.  Rubbing shoulders with other musicians, you meet some wonderfully colorful characters.  You get to know people both as persons and as musicians.  Playing music is an emotionally expressive experience, when done well.  To share that bond with a brother (or spiritual brother) is a connection that can’t be found in other places in life.  That is part of why listening to the albums of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet is so very good.  I highly recommend seeking out and listening to any recording of the group you can find.

Cannonball_Adderley_-_Mercy,_Mercy,_Mercy!_Live_At_'The_Club'

Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!  Live at the Club on Spotify

 

 

Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’

Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’

Miles_Davis_by_Palumbo

Miles Davis

Miles Dewey Davis III was a musician who let nothing stand in his way.  The late 1950’s were an especially fertile time in his recording career.  For the first half of the decade, Miles was under recording contract with Prestige records. His reputation grew, as well as his ambition.  Prestige was sometimes known as the “junkies” recording label, because of its willingness to let musician’s walk in, spontaneously record, and get paid cash on the spot.  For those players with drug addiction problems, this was a splendid business arrangement.  Miles himself finally beat his heroin troubles in 1954, and made a notable appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.

It was at the Newport Jazz Festival that Miles finally agreed, in principle, to signing with Columbia Records.  George Avakian at Columbia had long wanted Miles at his company, but Davis was under contract with Prestige until 1956.  Davis was ambitious, and wanted the resources of the larger company at his disposal.  Avakian had negotiated to try to buy out the Prestige contract, but failed to come to an agreement.  This situation led to one of the oddest “compromises” in music history.

Miles Davis Quintet, “If I Could Write a Book”

The folks at Prestige knew that Miles was leaving at the end of his contract.  They agreed to let him start recording with Colombia concurrently with the last six months of his Prestige commitment, provided he give them the four albums they were owed.  Miles had a new working band, and he fulfilled the letter of his contract, if not the spirit.

the-sound-of-miles-davis

The new group would eventually become known as the First Great Miles Davis Quintet.  The group consisted of Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  With this new quintet, Miles was itching to record for Columbia.  To finish his earlier commitment with Prestige, he took the group into the studio on two separate occasions for marathon recording sessions.  One occurred on May 11, 1956, and the second on October 26, 1956.  There were no such thing as second takes at these sessions, and the musicians knew it.  They played every tune and standard in their book, one right after the other, with long spaces for players to solo.  This kept everyone on edge, as none of the band wanted to sound bad on record, but knew they were only going to get one shot at it.  Miles wanted to escape from Prestige, and was determined to finish his work in these two days.

Miles Davis Quintet, “Airegin”

Enough material was banked up for the four albums that Davis owed his old company.  Prestige slowly released them in the years 1957 to 1961, under the generic titles “Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, “Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, “Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”, and “Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”.  This was quality music, put out by great musicians, even if it was a couple of years old by the time it was released.  Prestige actually benefited from the publicity machine at Columbia.  As Columbia was promoting the quintet and Davis, Prestige could piggyback their releases at the same time.  During the late 1950’s, Columbia released such great albums as “‘Round About Midnight”, “Milestones”, and the legendary sextet album “Kind of Blue”.  During the same period, the great collaboration albums Miles recorded with Gil Evans’ arrangements were put out by Columbia.  This included “Miles Ahead”, “Porgy and Bess”, and “Sketches of Spain”.  All told, Miles Davis released over 13 albums on two different labels between 1957 and 1961.  And this doesn’t even reach the halfway point of his recording career.

When you look up the word “prolific” in the dictionary, there is a picture of Miles Davis smiling all the way to the bank.

Find the albums on Spotify

“Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”

“Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”

“Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”

“Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”