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Music Review: John Coltrane Interplay

Can anyone tell me why we celebrate people's deaths? How many times do we see special re-issues and recordings of material in honour of some musician's death day, or because it's been X number of years since they've croaked? Wouldn't it make more sense to celebrate their birthday?

When we remember someone, or honour them in some way, it's usually to commemorate what they accomplished while they were alive. The majority of us don't get much accomplished once we've shoved underground. I know there are those occasions when we want to honour how the person died; a fire fighter who refused to give up on people trapped inside a burning building ends up sharing their fate for example.

But even that is still about how that person lived their life, examples of their strength of character, their heroism, or their compassion. Nothing they are going to be making use of after they are dead in other words. It's one thing at a person's funeral to itemize his or her good points to help us remember them, but after that, maybe we should celebrate what their being born meant to the world and the impact they had on their field of endeavour.

Maybe it doesn't sound like much of a difference, whether we do that sort of thing on the anniversary of a person's birth or death, either way it's still a summation of their accomplishments. But, to me honouring someone's life through their death instead of their birth just seems a little backward.
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The reason I bring the subject up is that the last few months have seen quite a few re-releases, special packages, and DVDs of the late, great, Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane being released. It doesn't take much to realize that since he died in 1967, 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of his death and that it appears anybody who ever had a piece of him is lining up to cash in. Ironically since he was forty years old when he died, this year also marks the 80th anniversary of his birth – something far more worthy to celebrate and commemorate in my opinion. After all if he hadn't have been born, we wouldn't have very much to celebrate at all, now would we?

The art of John Coltrane was his ability to find the core of a piece of music and extrapolate improvisations around that theme that were beautiful flights of fancy that managed to stay rooted in the original song. "I keep looking into certain sounds, certain scales, not that I'm sure of what I'm looking for, except it will be something that hasn't been played before. I don't know what it is. I know I'll have that feeling when I get it." So what sounded like finished work to us was always him continuing to explore and find new depths to delve into or heights to scale.

The ability to work with the sort of passion and skill required to sustain that type of free form, inquisitive playing, only comes about after years of disciplined playing with other musicians of like mind. The Jazz scene of the 1950's was ideal for a player of Coltrane's skill and desire as many of the best players moved away from the big bands of the forties into smaller combos so they could work out what that insane man Charlie Parker had come up with when he started be-bop.

It's from recordings that Coltrane made during this period on the Prestige Label in sessions from 1956 –58 that material has been gleaned for a new five disc box set called Interplay by Concord Music. Looking at the other musicians represented on the discs it represents a "Who's Who" of American Jazz at the time. Zoot Zims, Kenny Burrell, Paul Chambers, and Mal Waldron, are only a few of the greats who Coltrane recorded with for the Prestige label in the famous studios in Hackensack New Jersey of Rudy Van Gelder. (Although all this material was recorded during the 56-58 time period, some of it wasn't released on album for the first time until Coltrane's 1965 record Dakar )

I have to admit that listening to five discs of Jazz music is a rather overwhelming experience and I seriously doubt my abilities to have absorbed even a fraction of what was being performed. However, even in these early recordings Coltrane is so distinct sounding that you can pick him out of the crowd as if his name were announced before each of his solos.

Even when the tracks are taken from an original recording called Tenor Conclave featuring three other tenor players the fullness of the Coltrane sound can't be missed. His style of play has been referred to as "sheets of sound" as in the way sheets of rain will wash over a field or a road during a particularly heavy shower. I think, only listening to him play solos of extended runs with more notes then one could think humanly possible for one man to produce, as he searches for that sound he'll know is the right one when he plays it, will allow you to understand how "sheets of sound" can be produced.
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It may sound like a cop out to say that describing the music that Coltrane creates is an exercise in futility. It comes down to stringing together a series of words that may or may not have meaning for the person reading. There are those who know enough about music to talk about chromatics and other technical terms concerning the way in which Coltrane's solos and sound are built, but in the end they are still just words that can not replicate the experience of sitting down and listening to the music.

With five CDs of music drawn from seven recording sessions Interplay is a wonderful overview of a key development period in the career of John Coltrane. Even within the limited time-period covered by these recordings, it is possible to hear Coletrane's range of expression develop and expand. Listening to these discs, I caught myself wondering if he knew his time was limited among us, as it seemed like there was something driving him beyond what the simple desire to perform well could explain.

Accompanying the music in this collection is a one of the best booklets I've ever read of its kind. Not only does it contain details and impressions about the music being played, but they do the listener the courtesy of breaking down the solos on each song by performer, so you can identify who is playing when. All in all Interplay is an amazing compilation of music from the years just prior to John Coltrane putting together his own band and taking flight.

I'm going to leave the last words to Jimmy Giuffre: "...it was as if he was standing naked on stage, the music coming directly from the man, not the horn."

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