The Lost John Coltrane Album, and Ponderings on Jazz

Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website Yonder and Home. Andrew is the host of Heard Tell podcast.

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27 Responses

  1. Mike Dwyer says:

    I am a mid-tier jazz fan in the sense that I own probably 20 jazz albums, but they are all the ‘must haves’ and I certainly don’t know the genre as in-depth as others. With that said, I came to jazz from two directions: The first was through the band Phish, who I was pretty obsessed with in the 90s. They had their roots in improvisational jazz so that got me curious and I started exploring it, attending live shows, etc. The second path for me, which was ultimately more important to understanding the technical side, was my time spent in a bluegrass band and going to a lot of live shows, participating in them, and also going to picking sessions. The improvisational nature is slightly different, breaks are more structured and have to retain the basic melody, but they still provide an opportunity for each participant to experiment with their instrument. When you reach a certain level of competence with your instrument, and feel comfortable going into a break with no real plan and just playing on instinct, it can be wildly exhilarating when things go well. I can remember playing with a group of much-more-talented-than-me musicians at convention and when I happened to find a unique groove completely by accident I heard one of them say, “Hell yeah,” as I was finishing. Very cool stuff.

    Jazz is definitely under-appreciated these days. It’s a beautiful art form and I’m glad this John Coltrane work has been found. I’d love to see a renaissance of it. There are so many kids out there still learning these instruments, and they are so damn creative, I’m going to remain optimistic that they will find jazz again.Report

    • I think jazz, and bluegrass and roots music has to some extent, will really benefit from streaming. My younger children would normally not be open to other forms of music but things like Pandora for example can randomly pull different artist and genres for them. Thus my two youngest while pop music loving have come to ask for me to play more roots music that they really like now. This rising generation is always searching for “different and original” and I think they can find it in things like Jazz that have such a creative force to them. Like you I grew up with people that played bluegrass/mountain music so when I saw jazz live, that dynamic you’re talking about seemed vaguely familiar and gave me a bit more insight into what was going on till my brain caught up to my ears in processing what was going on. Hopefully the cycle turns and jazz gets more play, and due, that it deserves.Report

      • It’s kind of interesting that jazz has faded but bluegrass has held on. Maybe the difference is that jazz was very much mainstream/popular at one time and I don’t know that you can say that about bluegrass. Maybe always existing on the periphery has kept it alive for the subversive nature of it.Report

        • Jim Heath (Reverend Horton Heat) made a comment once about never “breaking big” and he thought that actually helped them cause they maintained without a big jump and drop off. Maybe it’s the same for bluegrass, it’s kind of stayed in its niche with few exceptions but influences behind the scenes. History wise jazz sometimes gets pigeoned holed as “old” and become somewhat synonymous with the ’20s when so much of what we now call jazz came after. It’s an interesting history and dynamic. There is also that however hard clearing the gates into jazz can be for a listener, bluegrass may be even more of an acquired taste.Report

          • KenB in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

            IMO bluegrass is much more accessible to a typical Western listener than jazz. It generally has hummable tunes and conventional chord progressions and harmonies, so for someone used to listening to popular/folk music, it’s mostly just a matter of adapting to the different instrumentation and vocal techniques (and perhaps abandoning a learned distaste for the conventions of the genre).

            Jazz is a different story — it genuinely departs from popular music conventions, and the more it does, the less enjoyable it is to someone who hasn’t invested the time on it.Report

  2. Doctor Jay says:

    I really like the John Coltrane of “Kind of Blue”. The John Coltrane of “Giant Steps” not so much. There seems to be too much concern with technique and not enough with connecting with any listener. The track shared above represents yet another John Coltrane, and I like this one better.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Kind of Blue is, in my estimation, the greatest of all albums. Between Miles and ‘Trane there exists no finer sound. If this is better, I will be so happy. (Can’t listen now, Beavs are in the College World Series)Report

    • Maribou in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      @doctor-jay Your comment was interesting to me, because I feel like both Giant Steps and A Love Supreme are religious, not technical, works. As in, they give me the awe feeling that I associate with church. It’s not a real *personal* connection, but they definitely connect me with the numinous… Before reading your comment I would not even have thought to think of them as technique-focused.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Maribou says:

        Interesting. I drag it out and listen to it every so often, but I don’t connect to it that strongly. It overwhelms me, so maybe that is a connection to what you experience.Report

        • Maribou in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          Maybe. It’s also true that I’m a sax player myself, or at least I’ve dabbled on and off since middle school, so it’s possible that there’s a lot there that would be overwhelming if I weren’t a musician, and isn’t just because I already have the framework that allows me to ignore it?Report

  3. My posts here document some of my journey from a brain damaged induced inability to listen to music to a musical rehabilitation. The journey continues. After buying a turntable, I systematically listened to my vinyl jazz collection of more than 250 lps plus 100+ cd’s over a few months. There’s a lot to say about this experience, but one thing it did was give me access to a portion of the at-hand jazz knowledge I had before my brain injury. Yet of course, it was different too.

    Then I began to explore some contemporary stuff (for my purposes, 10 years old or less). Again, a lot to say about this, but one thing is that the genre is recognizably continuous while at the same time it has exploded in its reach.

    Back in the day, my friend Stuart and I would listen to Coltrane’s Ascension one day a year “whether we needed to or not”. Now the boundaries of jazz exceed what I could have imagined back then.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to Atomic Geography says:

      If you could name, say five albums/artists from the last 10 years that you think are worthwhile, I’d really like to hear it. I know of two. I’m sure that’s more my limitation than the artists.

      I would like to know more.Report

      • Here’s 3 I’ve been enjoying lately:

        Tomeka Reid Quartet – This eponymously titled album features Reid on cello in a highly collaborative setting. The music can be hard driving as well as laid back. Most notable though is the unusual-for-jazz palette Reid’s cello brings that quickly establishes its own groove rather than being mere novelty.

        Bennie Maupin – Early Reflections You may know Maupin as the bass clarinet slithering along the bottom of Bitches Brew era Miles. Here he teams up with 3 Polish jazz players with plenty of chops and heart illustrating the results of the 70’s jazz diaspora to Europe. Jazz is now a home grown form in Europe as well as the US.

        Rudresh Mahanthappa – Apti And a home grown form in much of the rest of the world too as this album illustrates. This is a quite successful merging of jazz with raga forms. Each piece emphasizes each form to varying degrees with pretty consistent successful results.

        I think the underlying logic of jazz radically changed to some extent with the development of bebop and then definitionally with the Cambrian explosion of 1959. Before that the pace of innovation was slow with band leaders acting as gatekeepers.

        The depth and breadth of innovation not only increased radically, but became a defining feature of the form. This dynamic pushed musicians into territory that not all of their listeners were able/willing to follow.

        I do think it’s important to distinguish this inability/unwillingness from the qualities and worth of the music.Report

        • Doctor Jay in reply to Atomic Geography says:

          I like your account of the history of jazz and its result. I experienced a lot of that stuff as a teenager who subscribed to Downbeat and checked records out of the library. That’s how I first heard Bitches Brew. Some of it, like Ornette Coleman, was stuff that just didn’t work for me, but seemed to me (and still does) to be something that needed to be tried.

          Thanks for the tips.Report

          • thanks

            Ornette, well I guess he’s one of those artists that you either get or you don’t. He certainly doesn’t make it easy on the listener, yet, if you can just let it exist in its own space, his music is very joyful.

            The Art of the Improvisers is as accessible as it gets and I’d suggest starting there. Listen to how blusey it is as a way in. Check this out from the album (unfortunately it cuts out before the end)


      • btw, an excellent resource for learning about and discovering all kinds of music is All Music. By creating a list of albums you’re familiar with, it will generate recommendations. Their reviews seem quite good ie I’ve agreed with just about all of them. Their jazz reviews are knowledgeable. If you can generate a data base of what you like, their recommendations are likely to be helpful.

        Of course they cover all kinds of music, so I’m sure they’re useful no matter what you’re tastes are. One thing, if you’re looking for more recent recommendations, you’ll need to load in some recent albums in your list. The Advanced Search function allows you to specify release dates,Report

  4. Maribou says:

    This track was beautiful and I’m glad you made sure we knew about it. I appreciate your factory analogy, too.Report

    • A good friend of mine, who I will loving and accurately call a jazz snob, was wounded in the soul that I would mention a factory in the same hallowed space as jazz, so I’m glad someone got where I was going with that. Appreciate you reading it.Report

      • It’s a really good analogy.

        Jazz as an art form is similar to all the other art forms. It’s quite possible to simply stumble upon it and find it enjoyable, but the more complex the artist the more you are assisted by have a working knowledge of the medium.

        I’ve always said that listening to Coltrane’s Giant Steps, for example, is similar to reading Finnegan’s Wake. Steps was his first real foray into using his signature harmonic progression changes, and if you don’t have a handle on what he’s trying to do it’s more likely to come across a noise — as it did for a lot of people when it first came out — in the same way Wake is more likely to read like gibberish if you don’t have a handle on what Joyce is trying to do.

        (Which is not to say that one can’t just listen to Coltrane or read Joyce out of the blue and not love & appreciate it, because one obviously can.)Report

        • One of the things I really want the Web that it doesn’t (or hasn’t so far) is help me organize a reading group for the Wake.Report

        • I’m more than a little relieved the analogy worked and appreciate you saying so. The Armstrong quote to the effect of “If you have to ask what it is…” kept running through my mind but I do very much enjoy the music, and often because of the challenge not in spite of. The same with literature, or film/theater, or anything else I like a bit of a require effort, and this certainly does that.Report

        • Aaron David in reply to Tod Kelly says:

          I have been thinking about this all day, and I think what you have just described is what has killed jazz @tod-kelly

          If one needs an ever-expanding literature to enjoy what was once a commonly listened to form of music, you are witnessing the death of it as it moves into more “intellectual” spheres. And as the music moves away from the common woman and her listening experience it becomes a less than common experience. Or, in the argot of our times, a dead experience.*

          *OK, I just made that up.

          For an example of what jazz was like, here is a clip from Rober Altmans ’96 movie Kansas City, which had great examples of period jazz, played by current musicians live mic’ed. Both listen and watch how exuberant it is, and not unlike the blues, being there, in the experience as it happens and witnessing the most important part of jazz, the liveness of it.

          This, by the way, is a reenactment of the Lester Younge/ Coleman Hawkins jazz duels.

        • I’m more than a little relieved the analogy worked and appreciate you saying so. The Armstrong quote to the effect of “If you have to ask what it is…” kept running through my mind but I do very much enjoy the music, and often because of the challenge not in spite of. The same with literature, or film/theater, or anything else I like a bit of a require effort, and this certainly does that. FReport

  1. July 11, 2018

    […] thanks to Andrew Donaldson  for his recent ponderings on jazz which inspired this […]Report