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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Monday, August 22, 2011

Coltrane's Brain: Live at the Half Note


John Coltrane was a living shrine to the Practice Monster.  Sometimes I wonder if he broke the wild stallion and rode into the horizon, or if it was the beast that conquered the man, completely consuming him.  Perhaps they were twins, somehow equal partners in a furious dance.  Regardless, we can learn a great deal from listening to the recorded documentation of the musical career of one of the greatest musicians of all time.

Listen to the famous recording of the young Trane, stumbling through Hot House with the US Navy Band in 1946.  At 20 years old, he is certainly not anything special, and very comparable to many of the mediocre young saxophonists I hear today.  Fast forward to 1957's Blue Train, and we find a fully formed master.  He certainly would have been able to accomplish the requisite 10,000 hours of practice to get to this point, and from what we know about his practice habits, he probably far surpassed that mark.

To my ears, Coltrane spends the next, and ultimately the final ten years of his life developing at a rate that eclipses all but the greatest masters in the history of humankind, regardless of discipline.  He becomes a walking deep practice machine, honing his ideas and technique whenever he had the horn within reach.  Improvisation and practice become one act.  His solos have a halting sense of phrasing because he is right at the edge of his capabilities, constantly correcting his course, struggling to get it right.  He is a musical Einstein, redefining possibility.

Thanks to a bit of good luck, we have access to one of the most profound documents of myelin in action that I know of.  One Down, One Up, from the posthumously released "Live at the Half Note" allows us to peek into the mind of Coltrane.  We can hear him building circuits, correcting mistakes, repeating complex ideas - all in real time.  Reportedly, this was the only live recording in JC's personal collection that he backed up with a second copy.  Even he was aware that this was an extraordinary performance, and generations of post-Trane tenor players view this tape as a kind of holy grail.

You should listen to the entire track, an astonishing 27 minute excerpt of an even longer performance, but the heavy myelination occurs between 22:00 and 24:40.  It should be obvious to anyone with a reasonably developed ear that he is working through some extremely complex melodic material here, stopping and starting, increasing the speed, and eventually shifting into a gear that most of us will never know.  I believe that we are actually hearing him put the finishing touches on a few pieces of neural circuitry.  At 24:40, he moves on to play some familiar sounding Coltrane clich√©s, perhaps because he had exhausted himself.  The level of physical intensity here is amazing, but what is happening inside his mind is the improvisation olympics.

In John Coltrane, Practice Monster seemed to have found his master, or at least his equal.  Even if this type of jazz isn't your favorite style, there is a great deal to be learned from this recording.  I strongly encourage everyone to study this performance, at least on a conceptual level.  This is the sound of talent pushing itself beyond all accepted boundaries.  It is the sound of the final moments of a red giant, fusing iron at its core to create the rarest stuff in the universe.

1 comment:

  1. robkstone@comcast.netOctober 29, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    David: Enjoyed reading your article and description of Coltrane's creative process. Good choice of imagery. I've been listening to Joe Henderson as well these days and he also seems to "connect" to that subliminal place where all spontaneity, spirituality, and magic are created!

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