October 10, 2005


Coltrane: Volatile, but Always in Control (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/10/05)

In the spring of 1965, John Coltrane's quartet played several gigs at the Half Note Club in Manhattan, some of which were recorded for WABC-FM radio. Tape traders have long known about them, and the music has circulated since the late 1960's, but generally not in complete form, and not sounding nearly as good as they do now.

On One Down, One Up - the radio recordings from two nights at the Half Note - we're about six months before the last phase of Coltrane's career, before the moment when he changed his band, stopped for the most part playing in nightclubs and made his music generally more jarring and oceanic. Here his quartet is still intact, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums; as far out as it may get, the internal logic of a great band holds fast.

The album includes four tightly wound performances at the club, which was on Hudson Street near Spring, across from where the Jazz Gallery now stands. Taken as a whole, it amounts to an amazing display of controlled volatility in jazz. This is not the Coltrane of million-selling appeal; it's more fervid and rattling than studio records like "A Love Supreme." But by other measures it is the band at its peak, each member contributing an equal part to the sound, playing hard and loud and at the top of his imagination.

If there was ever a place to marvel at the connection Coltrane had with Jones - a connection that drove the band - this is it. Each of the four pieces is remarkable, but the killer is "One Down, One Up," in which the band reduces to just saxophone and drums for a 15-minute stretch, and then reduces even further because Jones's bass-drum pedal breaks midsong.

I really, really admire Trane...but he never grabbed me like Sonny Rollins.....it may be his earnestness...there is no humor in Coltrane's music...there is searching and yearning and exploring and pain and beauty, but no smiles....

Sonny searches and yearns and explores, and then throws in a piece of "Toot Toot Tootsie" or "Popeye the Sailor Man" or something else that makes you smile...so, for me at least, Sonny's music better represents the fullness of life, where (again, for me) Trane is only about the serious stuff...

Posted by Glenn Dryfoos at October 10, 2005 12:13 PM

I really, really admire Trane...but he never grabbed me like Sonny Rollins.....it may be his earnestness...there is no humor in Coltrane's music...there is searching and yearning and exploring and pain and beauty, but no smiles....

That's exactly the way I feel about Coltrane. And the reason I listen to lots of Rollins, but not so much Cotrane.

The folks in the very interesting Penguin Guide to Jazz describe Coltrane as "Godbothering", which about sums up why I prefer Rollins to Coltrane.

Posted by: Twn at October 10, 2005 1:39 PM

Comparing Coltrane to Sonny Rollins is like comparing Artie Shaw to Benny Goodman. Coltrane spent the last years of his life in a search for God; a desperate, parched, wounded and sincere yearning is what you hear in the last recordings ... listen to his solo on 'Round Midnight from the Miles Davis Quintet and talk to me about Sonny Rollins. Take your Popeye the Sailor Man/Jingle Bells riff-gags and go drink some egg nog.

Posted by: Jack at October 10, 2005 2:03 PM


The other irksome thing about Coltrane is his prickly, humorless fans.

Posted by: Twn at October 10, 2005 3:07 PM

"... is like comparing Artie Shaw to Benny Goodman."

I'll actually agree with that to a degree: it's comparing two unquestionably great musicians who were contemporaries, play the same instrument with unmatched skill, but who play with different styles.

I'm sure Jack meant that comment as a slam on both Rollins and Goodman, but the fact is Rollins and Trane, and Goodman and Shaw, are all great artists. And I believe that one can prefer Rollins to Trane (or visa versa) or Goodman to Shaw (or visa versa) without ignoring or denigrating the genius of the other.

Jack - Coltrane at the height of his powers (such as on "Round Midnight") was, of course, fantastic. I have listened to that solo scores of times...so I guess I then have your permission to talk about Sonny. His work from that period is pretty incredible. If I wanted to engage in a shouting match (instead of merely pointing out why I prefer Rollins), I could say listen to Saxphone Colossus before talking about any other tenor player, ever (except, of course, the great Hawkins).

And Sonny was (and remains) a spiritual, yearning person. His entire career is a reflection of a man who refuses to remain stuck in (or defined by) one style or period.

So there's no doubt: I love Trane's music. The genius of both Coltrane and Rollins is their ability to communicate what's in their soul through their music. I guess the difference for me is that in Trane's music, I hear his soul; in Sonny's I'm also able to hear a little of my own, as well.

Posted by: Foos at October 10, 2005 3:11 PM