John Coltrane

Born 23 September 1926. Died 17 July 1967.
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The history of the saxophone part 3: John Coltrane - The Jazz House

The Jazz House charts the history of the saxophone with Richard Michael. Part three returns to the tenor sax and John Coltrane.

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Coltrane was the single most influential saxophonist of the 1960s, and his legacy has continued to dominate approaches to his instrument ever since. His most important work was crammed into little more than a decade, beginning when he joined Miles Davis in 1955, and lasting until his premature death from cancer.

In this period he seldom stood still stylistically, although his commanding technique, distinctive tone and prolific ideas always made him immediately recognisable. He was born in North Carolina, but came to Philadelphia in his late teens where he forged several important musical associations, notably with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, in whose band he played.

They joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band together in 1949. Coltrane stayed on when Gillespie scaled down to a small group, and he then worked with Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges, before joining Davis. Coltrane had got involved in drugs during his time in Gillespie's band, but in 1957 he left Davis, quit using heroin, and returned to the New York scene as a member of Thelonious Monk's quartet.

Immediately the technical advances in his playing became obvious, and in his recordings with Monk he began to demonstrate his ability to play rapid scalar figures which the critic Ira Gitler called 'sheets of sound'. When he rejoined Miles Davis, Coltrane used a similar technique, but the two men also explored the possibility of improvising over a modal background - exemplified by Milestones, and by the album Kind of Blue.

When he left to lead his own quartet, Coltrane continued this approach, initially playing over harmonically dense compositions such as his famous Giant Steps, but eventually simplifying the harmonic basis of his pieces, His version of My Favourite Things (which became a big hit for him) uses a simple modal scale as its backdrop.

His quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones became the leading modern jazz group of the early 1960s, and Coltrane's own improvisations grew ever longer and more complex. While Tyner pared away the harmonies, Jones added a rhythmically dense accompaniment. The high point of the quartet's work was the four-part Love Supreme from 1964.

After this, Coltrane expanded his group, making the free jazz album Ascension, and generally working with another saxophonist, such as Pharoah Sanders, and replacing Jones with the colouristic drumming of Rashied Ali and Tyner with the impressionistic piano of his second wife Alice Coltrane.

His final albums explore his deep spiritual convictions, but without compromising the technical perfection and passionate eloquence of his own playing. His son, Ravi Coltrane (born 1965) has become a world-class saxophonist in his own right.

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BBC Reviews

  1. Review of The Rough Guide to John Coltrane: Birth of a Legend

    The Rough Guide to John Coltrane: Birth of a Legend 2012

    Reviewed by Martin Longley
    A fine introduction to Coltrane’s best solo material and sideman work.
  2. Review of The Very Best Of The Atlantic Years

    The Very Best Of The Atlantic Years 2007

    Reviewed by Martin Longley
    'Trane's classic Atlantic sides collected together in one easy to consume package!
  3. Review of Traneing In

    Traneing In 2006

    Reviewed by Peter Marsh
    Coltrane's playing still has the blues at its heart.
  4. Review of The Olatunji Concert

    The Olatunji Concert

    Reviewed by Peter Marsh
    there's an intention to Coltrane's playing which transcends much of the macho free...
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