"You know, I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces, forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good."
Quoted in Brian L Knight, “Better Living Through Coltrane” published in The Vermont Review (2018)
Right from the very first piano note that marks the start of the piece: that note where it all begins, before the music expands poetically via Tyner’s piano, all those trills and flourishes – the piano, as one writer said, sounds like a stringed instrument:
"Welcome" is one of the most serene things recorded in the period. McCoy's piano sounds like a harp here. For the first time in a long time, Coltrane sounds like he's at peace.”
(“1965 was the year where everything changed. Of course, things were changing in all the years before that as well, but John Coltrane's 1965 was a watershed year …”)
Review of the “transition period” in Coltrane’s career by Mitch NZ
and Jones’s percussive drumming that stays so still in parts, repeating the same beat like a broken-down instrument: tapping out the rhythm as if it were being kept by an open hand.
Before Coltrane’s saxophone comes in, at just before 30 seconds the three-note melody referencing “Happy Birthday To You.” And especially when Coltrane’s part descends, repeating the same note over and over there is something innocent and all-embracing about this music, as if you can hear something of John Coltrane’s heart.
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.
Lastly, Elvin Jones’s drumming is something to witness. Remember that this was recorded in 1965, long before this kind of approach became so familiar. It’s so submerged. If you listen to it alone it seems to have no direction, at certain points it repeats, other times there’s an increase in speed, or it slows, it becomes internal. With this in mind, the goal of the music seems to be to privilege Coltrane’s part, and for the drums to play out in the deep background and yet as I have already mentioned above Coltrane’s part is tentative, impressionistic, often absent. It disappears, to re-appear. This undermines this idea that it provides the music’s spine. Such apparent contradiction is the music’s achievement, and indeed genius, the way the performance appears to undermine musical logic in general.
All this is a universe away from Coltrane’s earlier recordings, say “My Favorite Things” (1961), “Spiritual” (1963) “Equinox”. Obviously there are points of commonality, the essence of the artist can be heard in all, but the emphasis is different. (Note that I’m purposefully avoiding categories when speaking about this work and how Coltrane’s music changed and/or developed. My preference is to keep my writing on music as spontaneous as possible. And as we know many jazz musicians resisted such categories being applied to their work, with some refusing to call their music anything at all, or preferring looser notions such as “midnight music,” as was the case for Gil Scott-Heron).
Now listen to Lee Morgan’s “Search For the New Land” released in 1966. Another favourite piece of music, one that conveys a similar mood:
Album: Search For The New Land Year: 1964 Label: Blue Note
Personnel: Grant Green - guitar Herbie Hancock - piano Billy Higgins - drums Lee Morgan - trumpet Wayne Shorter - tenor sax Reggie Workman - bass
Yet, Morgan’s composition follows the solo formula, the rising and falling, the disintegration and resolution (albeit with unkempt edges and dimensions). Coltrane and the musicians playing alongside him enact none of this. “Welcome” is granular, focussing on conveying the jazz idiom in shorter phrases, thus encouraging a listening experience of the moment.
Here’s a review of the Kulu Sé Mama album which notes the subtle reference to “Happy Birthday To You:”
“Kulu Se Mama, recorded in June and October 1965 and released in January 1967, sees Coltrane return, for the near nineteen minute title track, to the larger band format introduced on Ascension. This time the band is an eight-piece, again with Sanders on second tenor saxophone, and it is percussion rather than horn heavy. If it had been recorded in the 2000s, "Kulu Se Mama" might be labelled jam band or groove jazz. It's a vamp-driven, tuneful, African-informed piece which contains wonderfully soulful solos from Coltrane (on tenor), Tyner and bass clarinetist Donald Garrett. Anyone who enjoys the astral jazz of albums like Sanders' Tauhid (Impulse!, 1967), or pianist/harpist Alice Coltrane's Ptah, The El Daoud (Impulse!, 1970), will love "Kulu Se Mama." The two remaining tracks, "Vigil" and "Welcome," from the June sessions, are by the quartet. "Vigil" is a motor rhythm free, tenor and drums feature. "Welcome" is a lyrical and amiable affair in which at one point Coltrane references the tune to "Happy Birthday To You."
John Coltrane: John Coltrane: The Impulse! Albums - Volume Three Chris May, All About Jazz 2009