Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Avant-Garde / My Favorite Things / Coltrane Plays the Blues: Atlantic Ocean

In the John Coltrane mythology, the great saxophonist learned his trade in some wartime big bands playing blues numbers before establishing his popularity as a soloist with some pop standards and, finally, moving on to completely altering the boundaries of jazz forever. This nice, tidy little story makes Coltrane hero #1 to all the Wellsians out there.

Recorded all in 1960, The Avant-Garde, My Favorite Things and Coltrane Plays the Blues represent a time-compressed piece of Coltrane's progress. But note that they were in fact recorded in opposition to history: he began by working on an attempt at radicalism and culminated with some blues: the anti-Wells, where ECM's back catalogue progresses for the next seventy years into the Hot Fives.

Similar to contemporaneous works like Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Jazz, there's an implication in the title that Coltrane Plays the Blues is a minor effort (unlike Miles Davis, whose punular, rather jokey albums - Miles Ahead, Milestones, Miles Smiles, Miles in the Sky - betrayed a certain monumentalism; perhaps Davis was better suited to vanity projects; even Blue Train and Soultrane seem like he was stretching it). There's something novel about it too; as if standard blues fare wasn't something his work wasn't rooted in. Still, even if you aren't convinced by the virtues of the twelve bar, just listen to the soloing: "Blues to Elvin" and "Mr. Day" are as powerful as anything on the awesome Giant Steps; "Mr. Syms" and the then-unreleased "Untitled Original (Exotica)" represent some of the loveliest playing of his career. Easily one of his most underrated albums,Coltrane Plays the Blues could well be exhibit "A" for anyone trying to make a case for the theory of less is more.

If any work can be considered minor it is The Avant-Garde, a well-intentioned but hugely flawed attempt at responding to Ornette Coleman's advances in free playing. Sharing the billing with Don Cherry is a nice gesture and an acknowledgement that the cornetist's star had risen to the extent that by 1966 he merited a co-headline but seems like nothing more than a gesture. Then you realise that it is Cherry himself who steals every solo break. Coltrane is simply in over his head, doing his utmost to prove that he was Coleman's equal but, ultimately, only pushing him further into his rival's shadow. No wonder it was buried for half-a-dozen years before it was finally released.

As for My Favorite Things, what can be said? Critics point to the title cut's brazen influence on the remainder of Coltrane's life and his desire to frequently return to it even as he moved deeper into his chaotic Impulse! era. Few, however, seem to acknowledge that this is as much due to the magnificence of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein's composition (and, by extension, Coltrane's own faltering songwriting skills) as anything else. The same goes for Cole Porter's "Everytime We Say Goodbye" and the Gershwins' "Summertime" and "But Not for Me", which, alas, he did not return to. This is now interpreted as gimmicky, that the serious artiste in Coltrane would never have taken on such a project in earnest. Indeed not. But the Coltrane who placed value on performance and swing and melody probably didn't mind. A pity he wasn't around much longer.

It seems, then, that Coltane was better off being somewhat kooky and lighthearted and focused rather than being caught up in getting too serious, a side he either failed to recognize or ignored altogether as he entered his crucial Impulse! period a couple years' after these recordings. As for the Wellsian myth, as a true artist, Coltrane used his time on Atlantic to shift, to change pace, to delve into every nook and cranny and his music was all the better for it. Isn't that progress?

No comments: