The Evolution of Coltrane

John Coltrane

John Coltrane was one of the most versatile artists of his time. A dynamic saxophonist and composer, Coltrane revolutionized jazz at many points in his career. He was a pioneer in Hard Bop, Free Jazz, and Modal Jazz. His four part modal jazz album, “A Love Supreme,” was regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, and considered to be Coltrane’s masterpiece. He is a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which is only a small show of how prolific Coltrane was as a musician.

A Love Supreme

Acknowledgement starts with a grandiose opening with a rolling percussion and saxophone solo. There is a 4 note motif in the bass, very repetitious, consistent with the style of modal jazz. As it continues, the bass adds notes to the motive, but still maintains the basic outline.

When the saxophone enters, it also maintains a fairly repetitious line at first, and then transitions to a freer line, with a greater element of improvisation. It takes the solo line, but the complexity of the other parts increases as well.The repetitious piano is providing harmony by playing chords consistent with the mode.

Later in the movement, it transitions to a repetitious iteration of the main motif at different transpositions. The motif is then maintained by the vocal line (much later in the movement). This signals a slight diminuendo in both volume, and content, ending with solely a bass line. 

Resolution starts with only bass improvisation. All other instruments come in at once for a surprising introduction. The saxophone has the majority of solo content in this movement, with a brief interlude by the piano.

In the next section, the piano acts as both melody harmony: solo and accompaniment. The left hand of the piano maintains the same basic rhythm and plays chords while the right hand improvises. At one point, solely uses chords, and dissonant ones at that, to provide solo. This section is only layered with drums, which allows the piano to take a true solo.

After this section, Coltrane reclaims his saxophone solo. It is a distinct solo, but uses the piano as a grounding force. A large part of this solo is not repetitive; instead, each line of the solo brings an element of surprise, as the melodic content changes. Towards the end of the movement, the saxophone solo becomes more synchronous with the other parts, establishing a more harmonic counterpoint.

Pursuance opens with a dynamic drum solo that is largely free from any one pattern, but then abruptly shifts to a pattern in common time when all of the other instruments come in. At this point, the saxophone comes in and immediately introduces a 6 note motive and its transformations, which are the basis for the entire song. 

The piano then has a solo, underscored by the drums and the bass. The two hands carry completely different rhythms with the right hand containing most of the solo content. The pianist uses a wide range, with occasional octaves in the bass. 

The saxophone soon re-enters, no longer performing a simple reiteration of the main motif. In fact, the motif is so transformed that it is barely recognizable. The saxophone follows no particular pattern during this section. However, the mode and the motif is still contained in the piano line. Near the end of the solo, the saxophone returns to the main motive. 

As the saxophone, piano and bass fade out, the drums take another brief solo, eventually letting the bass take the lead. The bass solo is extremely interesting, because it incorporates material from the first movement of the piece. It is truly a solo, with no underlying drums or piano. The bass, at this point, holds the sole responsibility for all harmonic and melodic content. At one point, the bass organized the solo by playing a chord following by a simple melody, and then transposes it multiple times. The bass solos until the abrupt end of the movement.

The introduction of this final movement is very interesting, as it incorporates the trilling of a timpani in addition to the regular percussion set. It begins with a simple chord on the piano, followed by a saxophone solo. Although the saxophone is the clear solo voice, the other parts seem to be largely improvisational as well, with the piano rooted more in chords. The piece seems to come to a lull after a brief instrumental build, with a forte in the piano and a swell in the percussion lines. However, the moment is brief when the saxophone refuses to diminish, instead maintaining its soulful timbre. This phenomenon happens many times throughout the piece. The other instruments seem to come to a point of finality, but the saxophone remains at the same dynamic level. The entire movement seems to be based in the most simple V-i progression. The complexity of the chords in the piano makes it sound more complicated than this, but the tuning of the timpani reveals the true nature of the song.

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