5 Minutes That Will Make You Love John Coltrane

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I could see the grief fill the eyes of the poet Askia Muhammad Touré: “It was like, oh, they are killing our babies?” Moments after recounting what it was to be Black and alive in the days after the Sept. 15, 1963, killings of four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., he was the first person to fully capture for me the meaning of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Composed as an offering of solidarity in the wake of Black collective grief, these are melodic lines atop a pulsating rhythm, imploring us — then, and especially now — to never allow the children to be sacrificed again.

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“Crescent” is my all-time favorite recording, presenting an amazing opportunity to get into the musical language that Trane was speaking. The power of the music lies in the great feel and skill of the rhythm section. “Crescent” has several outstanding elements. There is a very apparent, deep feeling that John carried with him all the time but especially in the late period, when his sound broadened and took on a darker tone quality. “Crescent” features some melodic passages that are clearly lyrical. Additionally, the harmony of the chord changes makes this track very interesting and moving. It demands attentive listening.

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John Coltrane had come a long ways from Hamlet, N.C. Trane could wail through brass, and then create a lyrical contrast that catches the listener slightly off guard. He even could take a popular tune and internalize it until it was his, and such is the case with “My Favorite Things.” Yes, one hears a practiced reaching and ascension — a translation of 14-hour rehearsals. His tone was mind and body, honed into a ritual of purification. Coltrane did not believe his fellow musicians were mere sidemen. As a group, they could articulate and blow true feeling — without sentimentality. Because a conversation grows between instruments, the listener participates without being over-conscious of popping fingers, tapping feet or shaking hips. Thus, listening is active, and perhaps this is why Coltrane said, “When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups.”

To lift myself up, I tune into a joyful reminder — yes, I return to Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” often. His spirit journeys to the melody, and we improvise our own personal catalog of delights. He elongates a tune into a precise tonal reckoning — no mishaps or blips on the cosmic screen. In fact, this man was blowing feeling as a way of dealing with the mind and heart at the same time, even holding himself accountable. There’s a taking apart, and then a putting back together tonally. Trane knew how to walk the listener to the edge of extended possibility, to peer down into the existential void, and then sweet-talk the listener to a sanctuary of the hour. And, in this sense, especially in a tune such as “My Favorite Things,” one may enter the John Coltrane Church, where we participants become co-creators of meaning.

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Pondering John Coltrane track recommendations, the inevitable faves float by the mind first: “Blue Train,” “My Favorite Things,” “Giant Steps,” “Africa” or the “A Love Supreme” suite. And don’t dare sleep on the hypnotic “Tunji,” used powerfully by Spike Lee in his 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues.” But the more I contemplated, I kept coming back to Trane’s engagement with “Out of This World,” from the “Coltrane” album (Impulse!), a classic example of his transforming a Great American Songbook selection. The Coltrane quartet takes that piece to regions the songwriters Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer doubtless never imagined, deep to an African realm, particularly courtesy of Elvin Jones’s distinctive, roiling drums, with Jimmy Garrison’s cascading bass lines and McCoy Tyner’s insistent block chords propelling Coltrane’s tenor saxophone theme statement and subsequent essay. Clocking in at over 14 minutes, there’s plenty to dig into for both the Trane-addicted and the newly initiated.

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Coltrane’s landmark suite “A Love Supreme” ends with “Psalm,” a slow, seeking devotional, its melody set to a poem giving thanks to God. It is a remarkably direct conversation between a musician and the divine, channeled through his roaring quartet. But the part of the suite that will stick most firmly in your mind and body comes at the start. Part 1, “Acknowledgment,” features a plodding incantation, first set by Jimmy Garrison’s bass, then played by the saxophone, then intoned in Coltrane’s husky voice: “A love supreme. A love supreme.” It is among the simplest things that this master of midair complexity would ever play. It feels so foundational, so grounding, that it’s almost like a creation myth. But jazz, as a discipline, had already been around for more than 50 years when he wrote it. What, then, was he creating? Once it was recorded, Coltrane knew he had reached some kind of summit: This was the beginning of the end for his legendary quartet. It had made some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century; its mission was accomplished.

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