[Marxism] Coltrane's Offering

Greg McDonald gregmc59 at gmail.com
Wed Nov 12 03:12:51 MST 2014


 "The discovery and release of a previously unknown recording by the
saxophonist John Coltrane, who died at the age of forty in 1967, is cause
for rejoicing—and I’m rejoicing in “Offering: Live at Temple University
<http://www.resonancerecords.org/release.php?cat=B0019632-02>,” the release
of a tape, made for the school’s radio station, of a concert that Coltrane
and his band gave on November 11, 1966, a mere nine months before his death.

I knew and already loved this concert, on the basis of a bootleg of three
of its five numbers. But the legitimate release offers much better sound
and contains the pièce de résistance: a climactic performance of “My
Favorite Things,” the Richard Rodgers tune that Coltrane turned into a jazz
classic in 1960. Yet this 1966 performance of it is very different from that
of 1960
and, indeed, even from Coltrane recordings from a year or two before the
Temple concert. In the intervening years, Coltrane’s musical conception had
shifted toward what can conveniently be called “free jazz.”

The term started as the name of an album
<http://open.spotify.com/album/7zE4RadAWa8lYSvAZkGtFw> by one of the form’s
key artists, Ornette Coleman, from 1960, even though that recording only
hinted at the further extremes of free jazz, some of which were in evidence
in Coltrane’s final two years. The idea, roughly, involves playing without
a set harmonic structure (the framework of chords that lasts a pre-set
number of bars and gives jazz performances a sense of sentences and
paragraphs), without a foot-tapping beat, and sometimes even without the
notion of solos, allowing musicians to join in or lay out as the spirit
moves them. Lacking beat, harmony, and tonality, free jazz cuts the main
connection to show tunes, dance-hall performances, or even background music
to which jazz owed much of whatever popularity it enjoyed.

There’s a temptation to consider free jazz as a freedom *from*: freedom
from structures and formats and preëxisting patterns of any sort. But it’s
also a freedom *to*: a freedom to musical disinhibition of tone, a
vehemence and fervor, as well as a freedom to invent. The very word
“freedom” meant something particular to black Americans in the
nineteen-sixties. They didn’t have it, and there’s an implicit, and
sometimes explicit, political idea in free jazz: a freedom from European
styles, a freedom to seek African and other musical heritages, and, also, a
freedom to cross-pollinate jazz with other arts. In the process, jazz
musicians developed new forms and new moods that reflected a new
generation’s experiences and ideals. The politics of free jazz were
inseparable from its aesthetic transformation of jazz into overt and
self-conscious modernism."

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