The reaction to John Coltrane’s first London tour in 1961 was one of sharp contrasts, with the critics generally lost to understand his music (his show was an extended version of his hit song “My Favorite Things” - one song only for the entire performance). One critic dismissed his work, saying that his music “belonged more to the realm of higher mathematics,” while listeners at the show were in raptures, the audience was “shouting with enthusiasm … with ecstasy.” (I don’t have release/authorial information for the documentary above that provided this information, here’s part two).
This split reaction is typical for the mystique that surrounds Coltrane, something that has become even more pronounced as he takes on a secular saint role. This notion that he, his work are deeply analytical, dry, lacking in feeling. Yet, this music is all about the emotion. Central to this is his reinvention of popular songs, most notably the Rodgers/Hammerstein song from 1965 The Sound of Music musical and “Happy Birthday To You” here. Reworking pop music is a central part of jazz practice. See the way Jeanne Lee/Ran Blake transformed an excessively sentimental ballad from West Side Story into a work of mystery and wonder that I wrote about in an earlier essay on Lee, published on this site.
I imagine that doing these versions almost operated as a kind of in-joke among the musicians, while possibly having a broader import as the work of Black Americans existing within a hostile socio-cultural space. There is nothing more racialised than Julie Andrews singing of “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/silver-white winters that melt into springs …” (in a 1930s Austria re-imagined by mid-1960s Hollywood).
Coltrane’s choice of such popular foundations for his experimentation serves to make his work even more elemental; it reinforces a sense of our commonality, while stamping it with his individual voice.
Three things particularly touch me about this piece of music. First, the way it exists in a state of becoming; the capacity of jazz to evoke this state is one of the qualities I like most about the genre. The music’s power lies in the way it suggests, it invokes. There is no need for resolution.
The second aspect is the “false ending” at 3’30.” The piano and drums appear to be building towards a conclusion. Coltrane is gone, then returns (unexpectedly). This re-appearance reinforces my earlier impression of the music having an almost mystical aspect: it is as if he (Coltrane) is gone, but still present, still there. Coltrane’s absence/presence – especially when his part is the dominant and unifying element in the music – is intriguing (and possibly reflects something of Coltrane’s character: his humility is noted in the documentary above).
Here is Alice Coltrane speaking of the Interstellar Space album released in 1967, as quoted in the Brian L Knight essay where she also refers to Coltrane’s music as a kind of mathematics :
"A higher principle is involved here. Some of his latest works aren't musical compositions. I mean they weren't based entirely on music. A lot has to do with mathematics, some on rhythmic structure and the power of repetition, some on elementals. He always felt that sound was the first manifestation in creation before music."
Such a comment might also apply to this work.
While searching for interviews with Coltrane from this period, this came up as a recommendation on Youtube. It’s from 1958 and recorded in Baltimore at “August Blume’s house.” One YouTube listener says it was published in the Jazz Review (another says it’s transcribed in the book Coltrane on Coltrane by Chris DeVito pg. 10.) It’s quite wonderful, I haven’t heard an interview like this before. Someone seems to be doing the dishes, you can hear the sound of cups and cutlery and general background noise, which makes the mood incredibly intimate. Coltrane seems relaxed too, speaking openly about his religious background, his views on religion in general and other subjects. Notice the way he speaks – the emphasis on certain words – is not so different to the way he plays the saxophone, his voice seems to have the same phrasing.