When people write about Coltrane they often use a small set of words to describe both the man and the music. They do this to show how great and far reaching his art and influence is, but somehow I feel as if they actually diminish both. They don’t seem to want to write about him as a human being, or if they do, only as a way to forgive his mistakes. And who wants that? Coltrane was a man expressing himself, and that really is it; but in using the cliches we turn him from something simple into something too terrifying to approach without caution. The same is true of his music. It is not always easy to listen to, but it is, at bottom, something simple.
I once played Ole to a friend. He said it was too much, too screechy. He was right, I suppose. It is not always melodious in the way that most people understand melody. It is almost twenty minutes long, has five solos and a lot of notes (high pitched notes at that) played quickly. To the non-jazz lover it is indulgent, loud, complicated, unnecessary. It encompasses everything they don’t like about the music. So how can we get around that and show the beauty of it? Under normal circumstances, when we are trying to convert someone to something, there seems to be an effort to assuage their fears by rushing off to play them comforting and likeable. Show them an understandable melody. Early ‘Trane. Coltrane in the Elmo Hope Sextet. In the same way, people who hate rap because “it’s all bitches and hos” then get bombarded with some half baked conscious record from ’91 just to prove that rap can be pleasant. In the case of rap we should be playing Five Minutes Of Death. Excellence at it’s pinnacle, hip-hop raw as fuck. In the case of jazz we should be playing Ole.
Ole is not simply to be listened to we should feel it. In feeling it we knock away the too many notes complexity and simply react to it. We do not search for the spiritual essence of the God JC as we have been told by years of journalism, instead we feel the danger in the music right from the opening bass line. We know immediately the something is afoot, and the scene is set. A flute brings us to Moorish Spain, full of intrigue and exoticism. The sound of the markets is in our ears reverberating down narrow streets. The late summer sunset dips behind the villas and the shadows lengthen. We do not see the flautist, but, hey, there are liner notes for that. George Lane…not a name we know; we shout out, but by the time we look up it is too late. We are in a strange land and George is gone. We follow the tracks in the dust, but are arrested in our steps by the scent of blood. Freddie Hubbard blocks our path to tell us a something: This is a violent place where nothing is what it seems, but he knows who we are looking for and where we might find him, but before we find out, he too is gone. Nothing remains in place for too long. The streets seems to shift under our feet and each road looks both the same and different to the last. We feel the drums slipping around us as if on the edge of escape down the sandstone alleyways. And we feel McCoy Tyner, a rope tied around Elvin Jones’s waist, pulling the drummer back with the repeated tug of his piano. It seems that they want to anchor us, and to help us. A friendly, reliable, stable face or two at last. There is excitement on the breeze. If you are listening closely you can hear someone singing the chords, unable, perhaps, to control themselves. Is it George taunting us? Or is it Coltrane, slowly making his way to the front to save us from this madness? There is an unmistakable energy as if the players know a secret, which of course they do. The flute and the trumpet have set the scene, Lane is trying to escape. And now Workman and Davis appear, to ratchet up the tension, plucking and pulling strings tight across their double double bass; bows peeled across like they’re peering round doors before everyone falls into the room in the nerves before the denouement. And then? Then Coltrane.
Coltrane turns and faces us. And then it really is physical. I can actually feel myself tighten. Charmed snakes are let loose. A gun goes off. There is a bloodbath. Coltrane has let go of control whilst he has control over me. I am captivated, unable to move away. It is clear that he has not come to clear things up at all but to muddy the waters of my emotions further. He has George pinned against the wall with a blast of energy from his horn and is daring me to look. I am rooted to the spot. Coltrane has me as one might a lover, saying “look, look what I can make you feel.” He is boasting, holding me in a stare of indescribably intensity until finally he turns and leaves and for a brief second I see the mask of George Lane slip as Eric Dolphy drops from Coltrane’s hands before he too looks back and makes his escape tumbling, finally, down those labyrinthine streets whilst I am either dead, or barely alive. As the piano slips away silently through the open door and into the panic riven streets below I realise that I did not search for notes I recognise, I couldn’t. Ole is nothing to do with notes, and Coltrane is no saint. He is as flawed and intense as us all. There is no need for theological pontificating, for academic arguments, or for placating uncertainty through melody. In order to be in the world we must face the world, and in art, in order to appreciate it we must face it. That seems pretty simple, and despite it’s apparent complexity this is very simple music. It is sex and death, and there is nothing more human than that.