Tag Archives: John Coltrane

Chasing Trane, 50 years on

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

I clearly remember the first time I played a John Coltrane recording.

It was in early 2000s, on a searingly-bright weekday morning in a house I shared with a group of others in Killester, Dublin. The previous night had been a late one, and I was feeling tender in body and mind as I gripped a coffee cup and pressed ‘play’ on my newly-purchased ‘Blue Train’ CD.

My initial response was faint recognition – I was sure I’d heard the title track at some point before, probably from a TV show or movie. But in my tired state, I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed – Coltrane’s first solo, a blistering example of his famous ‘sheets of sounds‘ technique, underscored with stabs of trombone and trumpet from Curtis Fuller and Lee Morgan.

I’ve probably listened to the track 100 or more times since that morning, to the extent that I can anticipate every note and shift, every soloist’s exit and entrance. Coltrane’s performance stands up to repeat listening, as do the performances of all six musicians on the session. (It took just one listen to Paul Chamber’s short bass solo to dispel my years of rock music-based, dismissive ignorance around rhythm section solos.)

I’ve also listened to plenty of other Coltrane recordings since that morning – from his groundbreaking take on ‘My Favorite Things‘, to his spiritual suite ‘A Love Supreme‘, to his genre-twisting take on ‘Greensleeves‘.

But I always return to ‘Blue Train’, the pulsing, pushing hard bop number that kicked off what became one of Coltrane’s top-selling albums. And it was the song I turned to this week to mark the 50th anniversary of the saxophonist’s 1967 death, an event which remains a painful loss for jazz fans and for any lovers of unfettered, creative expression.

And ‘unfettered’ is the word. Although Trane would record freer, more adventurous music in the 10 years after ‘Blue Train’, none of it quite combines the Atomic Age feeling of motion, speed, progress, and freedom that this recording does. Just try keeping your foot still.

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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Fear and foreboding in My Favourite Things

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember
My favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad.

Everything’s going to be ok. We’re kids again, in our pyjamas and Julie Andrews is telling us not to worry about the thunderstorm outside. Silver white winters melt into spring.

Don’t listen to Maria. The real ‘My Favorite Things’ was recorded four years before the movie version of The Sound Of Music and just a year after Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical debuted on Broadway.

In October 1960 – 55 years ago last week – John Coltrane took the then barely-known song into the studio, recording a version of it with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones.

Over 13 minutes the bandleader and Tyner unlocked the dread in the lyric. Maria becomes unsettled, her soprano sax voice begins with the familiar list (“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…”) but soon sounds terrified, trembling at the thunder in Davis’ bass. Remembering’s not working this time.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

Eight minutes in she is screaming, as Coltrane pulls the melody way out, beyond the musical, beyond reassurance, and far beyond from Julie Andrews’ smile four years later.

It’s unsettling, but hypnotic. Once you’re into the music you can’t escape – not until McCoy Tyner frees you from the locked-in rhythm, not until Steve Davis’ storm abates.

Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ is many things –  a classic example of modal jazz, a subversion of the American songbook, a blend of Eastern and Western idioms.

Most unlikely of all it was a hit single, in 1961, and remains one of the most popular songs in a less-than-popular genre of music. The saxophonist would return to it often – on foot of public requests – in live performance.

Listening to it today the beauty and optimism are still there, on the song’s surface –  small comforts which scarely conceal the dread running underneath.

Fifty-five years later, with fear and anxiety the dominant emotions of a boom-and-bust, post-9/11 21st century, Coltrane’s performance sounds like the song of our age.
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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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