Saturday, July 30, 2011

Do the voices you left behind still hear YOU?

Guitarist John McLaughlin once wrote a piece of music in memory of John Coltrane called "Do You Hear the Voices You've Left Behind?". When it was released in 1977 on McLaughlin's "Electric Guitarist" solo album - John Coltrane had been departed for ten years. Yet his influence on music was arguably at an all-time high - perhaps moreso than in his own lifetime. My question, of course, intends to bring the issue up to date.......

My own appreciation of John Coltrane and jazz in general started as more of a calculated pursuit. Essentially,  I came to jazz as an outsider. There was a little appreciation of “swing” music from my folks – Benny Goodman and the like. Actually, my Grandmother gave me my first Dave Brubeck record (her brother John was a pretty decent clarinet player so I’ve been told), but that’s for another entry. Serious jazz is something that I read about first and then went out of my way to explore on my own. A huge influence on me in my formative years was a little monthly magazine my folks gave me a subscription to called Musician Magazine. From about 1984 ‘til it folded in the early 1990’s I read this religiously. Popular artists could be on the cover (Michael Jackson), but just as easily the cover might be graced by the likes of Miles Davis or even …………………………………………..………………………JOHN COLTRANE.

    For the July 1987 issue, Musician Magazine put Coltrane on the cover with a long feature story in memorial to the anniversary of his passing 20 years earlier in July 1967.  That article, complete with remembrances from Coltrane’s peers and contemporaries, made a deep impression – enough for me to rush out and grab the first available piece of Coltrane I could find. It just so happened that, at the time of publication, Coltrane CDs had not yet been issued (they were about to be…) so I checked out the vinyl bins at the local mall chain store (still stocking vinyl in those days) and came up with

……..EXPRESSION – the very last of Coltrane’s recordings on the planet. I had no idea what I was going to hear when I brought that thing home. In retrospect, I’m glad it wasn’t something even more OUT like “OM” or “Interstellar Space” – Expression was OUT, but actually kinda gentle if that makes any sense. Even still – I think I must have sat in front of the stereo with my mouth wide open. It was like getting a great novel and reading the last chapter first – I had to claw my way back to the beginning to figure out what the heck was going on in this music – FAST!

    Inside the record jacket was a little insert from MCA records (MCA owned the Impulse catalog in the 80s) with a listing of other jazz records available. The Coltrane list was ENORMOUS. This guy put out all these exotic sounding records………Africa Brass, Kulu Se Mama, OM, Meditations, Interstellar Space, Sun Ship……on and ON! And that was just his Impulse output (he cut records for other labels too – WHEW!!!). This was going to be a lifelong journey (and it still is).

    Once the CDs were released – it was like sonic potato chips for me. Thank goodness I was working part time and the discs were given budget prices (since they were reissues, basically).  Coltrane became my first jazz obsession. I immediately dug his tone – clear, strong – a little biting, but oddly warm. Got to hear some of the classics – A Love Supreme, My Favorite Things, Giant Steps – all the while I had this sense of urgency about the music. Coltrane was a “no BS” artist – every record was an important musical message – not in a preachy or even philosophical way, but in an intuitive, abstract way. Listening to Coltrane opened me up to lots of other music – jazz and otherwise.

    Here’s a link to the first track off the Expression album I mentioned above.

Although there’s a lot of free blowing going on, there is a really beautiful melody that the piece is based on which is stated at the opening of the track and later at about 1:26. Coltrane left a lot of music behind for all to hear, but there’s something bittersweet about the music on Expression. I don’t know if I’m projecting my own ideas on the music, or if its something Coltrane himself felt – there’s a sadness amidst the searching. I guess the music makes me wonder if Coltrane knew he wasn’t going to live much longer beyond these sessions.

    From what I can gather, it seems that there was quite an appreciation for all things Coltrane in the years after his death well into the 1970s. Even today, I would imagine that many tenor players still feel his influence even if indirectly. It’s kind of like Hendrix and guitar players – impossible to escape the influence even if you have a totally different and unique style. But I wonder how many young folks are digging into the Coltrane catalog anymore. There was a lot of media attention in the 80s and 90s with the CD reissues. Will Coltrane still be heard in the Age of the Download?


  1. In answer to your question, all great musicians always will be heard through their influence. Unfortunately many names are forgotten. Coltrane was a huge influence on many musicians, who in turn influenced more musicians, who in turn... ad infinitum. Ask any person that plays hard rock/heavy metal who Link Wray is, and you are almost sure to be met with a blank stare. I will quote from Wikipedia: "Wray was noted for pioneering a new sound for electric guitars, as exemplified in his hit 1958 instrumental "Rumble", by Link Wray and his Ray Men, which pioneered an overdriven, distorted electric guitar sound, and also for having "invented the power chord, the major modus operandi of modern rock guitarist,"[1] "and in doing so fathering," or making possible, "punk and heavy rock".[2] Rolling Stone included Link at number 67 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time."
    Few people today seem to care about the origins of the music they like. I'm a firm believer in the idea that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Do we really want to see a revival of the late 70's disco craze? *shudders*

  2. Agreed on all points! Its funny - a friend of mine gave me a Link Wray T-shirt (he runs a T-shirt business and he made the shirt himself) and most people look at it with a puzzled expression on their faces - heh heh! But, to be truthful, it was a long time before I ever heard some of those classic Link Wray sides.
    I also have to admit I don't know enough about contemporary groups to be able to spot their influences in their own work - my head is still a bit stuck in the past!