So today is the birthday of John Coltrane (1926-1967), a towering figure in the history of jazz like no other. Several years ago, in a moment of inspiration, I quipped to a friend that while it was clear to me that Charlie Parker the Mozart of jazz, it was even more clear that Coltrane was the Beethoven of jazz.
What did I mean by that remark? I meant it on philosophical, historical, and musical levels.
Mozart to Beethoven; Parker to Coltrane
- Mozart refined the Classical style inherited from Haydn and became a most admired practitioner of it; Mozart was accused (perhaps only fictionally) of writing “too many notes” in his music.
Beethoven started off in the Classical tradition and then went beyond that in his “middle” period, and then even further beyond that in his “late” period, to the point where he became completely unique and an existential challenge (to emulate or reject) to all future composers of Western art music.
Charlie Parker refined bebop in jazz, which, among other things, involved packing in quite a lot of notes.
Coltrane started off in the bebop tradition and then went beyond that along with Miles Davis and others, and then even further beyond that, to the point of challenging notions of what jazz even was or should be.
Just as I find Beethoven in his late period to be among the most sublime, yet most bizarre music of the entire history of Western art music, and was a hard act to follow, so too Coltrane. Just as many composers after Beethoven judged that he ruined Western art music permanently, so did many jazz musicians react in the same way toward Coltrane.
A Coltrane sampler
There's a lot of good music by Coltrane I could discuss for pages and pages. Look up popular examples such as “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme”, for example. But for today, I celebrated not with those favorites (which I do love), but a different set:
Giant Steps (1960)
“Giant Steps” features some of the most amazing yet fluid improvisation I have ever encountered, and I love this video someone created to show transcribed notes. This is a classic that I never tire of listening to.
“Vigil” is intense and even almost chaotic. It makes strange sense to me, a flow, an expression. I love it, although I don't watch it very often; I have to be in the right mood.
OK, “Ascension” makes no sense to me, and is not something I enjoy trying to listen to. You be the judge, but he lost me here. I'm just speaking the truth.
A Beethoven sampler
For kicks, even though I'm not celebrating Beethoven today, here are examples of my favorite late Beethoven.
Diabelli Variations (1819)
Truly amazing set of theme and variations for the piano, taking the listener to alternate realities before returning back to earth.
Große Fuge (1825)
Nobody at this point in history was writing stuff like this. Beethoven just went wild and created this dissonant, difficult, and emotionally cathartic movement. Amazing.