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Coltrane’s Three Stages of Musical Evolution

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesCurrent IssueEditor's LetterOctober 2021 • October 26, 2021

by David Liebman


As I write on Coltrane’s 95th anniversary (Sept 23), I’m wondering how an artist evaluates his work in a way that clarifies and expands the material. Artists, in general, are well equipped to make judgements concerning what is next or in the past for them. Usually, it is critics and writers who discuss Picasso’s blue period or the matador stage, Beethoven’s late string quartets ,and so on. John Coltrane’s output offers a model of clarity concerning the three stages of his work. The underlying point is to bring an educated audience to the table. Trane’s work is a true treasure trove documenting his 12 years of constant change and output.

Mention must be made of Trane’s practice regimen, which is so important and played a large part of how he went so far by choosing what to develop and what to emphasize. Reggie Workman told me that if Trane didn’t have the horn around his neck, he was sleeping! Stories of John’s practicing between sets are legendary. The bottom line is Trane’s body of work was facilitated by constant practice – for sure in Trane’s early years when he seemed to change stylistically every week. On a more personal note, Trane was not a playboy. He was deadly serious when it came to music… something that he revealed at various times of his career… no more drugs!!

1st stage-with Miles: standards and originals from the American song book; sheets of sound; a brief but deep mentorship with Thelonious Monk; ending this stage with Giant Steps and Kind of Blue recorded one month apart. The ultimate chord change composition converges with the beginning of modalism with Coltrane on both recordings at the center of the impending storm; 1955-1961

2nd stage: the classic quartet becomes the main arena of performance and repertoire; 1962-1965

3rd stage: free jazz makes waves; group cacophony rules; repertoire changes from previous quartet stage; Love Supreme recorded; 1966-1967

Trane’s first stage was dependent on what Miles Davis (the leader) wanted to play, featuring standards artfully executed by him and his band. (Some people still admire this more lyrical stage… the first quintet). By the way, when Miles recorded something that was tightly organized and “hip,” sure enough that tune and arrangement quickly became part of a lot of musicians’ repertoire. This speaks to Miles’ influence across the board.

The second stage belongs to John, himself, in repertoire choices and how the band evolved into long-form soloing. This means an abundance of live recordings featuring the classic quartet with drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and pianist McCoy Tyner. To say this group was exciting would be a gigantic understatement, as this quartet defined my teenage years. I was ready to be blown away and, believe me, it manifested itself in several ways stemming from Trane’s musical growth.

Third stage: Finally and especially important were the last two years leading to Trane’s passing. (Space limitations prevent further analysis, so excuse the brevity.) Mention must be made of how after a Love Supreme was a “hit,” Trane’s emphasis shifted more and more to spiritual aspects. Musically, his quasi-operatic versions of the incredibly lyrical melodies, co-existing alongside purposeful cacophony, represented another way to look at free jazz in Trane’s hands.

To my mind the pace of musical evolution manifested in Coltrane’s relatively short time of 12 years is artistically unmatched, standing as a testament to John Coltrane’s constant commitment to his art.

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