Some Thoughts on How to Begin to Make Sense of John Coltrane's Early Abstract Expressionism

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Some Thoughts on How to Begin to Make Sense of John Coltrane's Early Abstract Expressionism

There are several ways to think about Coltrane’s experiments with dissonance and atonality and multiphonics and other concepts that may or may not have been instructive to CIA enhanced interrogation protocols. It’s fun to speculate about what exactly Coltrane was trying to do; what abstract truth he was trying to render more material by pushing his horn — and himself — to the absolute limits of expression. 

But here’s what I think is safe to say with substantial certainty. It was about music — at least to the extent that it expanded our collective conception of what music is and can be. But it wasn’t all about music and, possibly, wasn’t even primarily about music. 

John Coltrane knew how to make complex, thrilling, emotionally moving music for music’s sake. There was always a part of him that remained committed to this. Even on the Live at the Vanguard recordings. See the “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Adventurous and accessible. A bouncy, exuberant Tyner solo into a Coltrane soprano solo that calls to mind “My Favorite Things” but more caustic, more astringent, and largely free of the exotic Middle Eastern/Indian influences. Searching, yes. But lines that are long, legato, lyrical. Very little off-piste. All ultimately in service of getting this standard songbook tune home safe and sound, with some tousled hair and mild disorientation, but otherwise in one piece.

But the Coltrane that can be filed under the “new thing” — of which “Chasin’” is just an early entry — seems to use music as a means rather than an end in itself. That is, another means of communicating and acknowledging shared truths and insights into life, the universe and/or the human condition that aren’t easily articulated through more conventional modes of communication, like spoken or written speech.

“It’s more than beauty that I feel in music—that I think musicians feel in music,” Coltrane told DownBeat’s Don DeMichael in April 1962. “What we know we feel we’d like to convey to the listener. We hope that this can be shared by all. I think, basically, that’s about what it is we’re trying to do. 

“... Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.”

Often, Coltrane’s more “challenging” music feels like a special key forged by a learned keymaster. Maybe that’s not a bad way to think of this strain of Trane. Some keys—the more straight-ahead stuff — he made simply because he found intrinsic beauty in making beautiful keys. But other keys were made because he thought, soberly and in good faith, that these keys could open doors that would lead him somewhere — somewhere on the tip of his tongue that maybe he felt viscerally but couldn’t quite articulate outside of a performance context. To the extent any intrinsic beauty is communicated to an audience in the process of forging these keys, it feels incidental, though not wholly accidental. 

Let’s try another metaphor. In honor of Coltrane’s tendencies, it just feels appropriate to keep trying and trying to communicate effectively the same thing in several different ways until it feels “just right.”

Back to the Future III finds Doc Brown (Christopher Llloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) stuck in 1885 and their only means of returning home is an old coal-fired steam locomotive they retrofit for time travel. The train needs to reach 88 miles per hour for the time circuits to engage and send the vehicle instantaneously 100 years into the future (i.e. back to the future). Problem is, Marty’s having trouble thinking “fourth dimensionally,” as Doc calls it. You see, Marty’s looking at a stretch of unfinished train track that ends at the edge of a ravine; both Marty and Doc know that in another year-and-a-half, a bridge will be built and the remainder of the track will be laid on that bridge, allowing trains to safely span the ravine. But it hasn’t been built yet. And Marty’s worried about sending their time machine — understand, the stakes are high here — careening off a cliff and into the abyss. 

“Marty, it’s perfect. You’re just not thinking fourth-dimensionally!” Doc exclaims. “Don’t you see?! The bridge will exist in 1985. We’ll reach 88 miles-per-hour just before we hit the edge of the ravine, at which point we’ll be instantaneously transported back to 1985 and coast safely across the completed bridge.” 

This, I think, would be a good parable from which to try and understand at least some of what Coltrane was going for with his more out there stuff.

It’s not hostility to the audience, or antagonistic. It’s faith-based. Faith in the presence — the reality — of a fourth dimension. The perfectionist quality in Trane’s playing from Giant Steps hasn’t been exorcised; it’s just different now. 

The story goes that the title “Chasin’ the Trane” came from Rudy Van Gelder chasing Coltrane around the bandstand with his recording equipment; Trane didn’t take to keeping still while playing this one. But Trane, too, sounds like he’s chasing something here. He may not have written it all down explicitly, but he’s got faith that his calculations are ultimately correct. It might take several permutations of stating and restating essentially the same idea or set of ideas in different ways, but eventually he’ll find the right combination — the right phrase, the right line — and the train will hit 88 miles-per-hour. And the track, just a moment ago leading only to a certain, fiery death is no longer a road to nowhere. Now it’s laid perfectly across the bridge, spanning the chasm, ready for a train to cross safely. 

You’ve just got to think four-dimensionally.

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