John Coltrane and the impression he made on our guest blogger Geert Hurenkamp
Much can be said and written about John Coltrane. Not so coincidentally (more about that later), I stumbled upon a Dutch TV item (Podium Witteman, from 37:16, in Dutch) about the phenomenon of ‘standards’ (both in classical and contemporary music) and My Favorite Things was discussed by show host Paul Witteman and regular guest contributor and composer Mike Boddé.
The latter, without a doubt a jazz aficionado and skilled jazz pianist, confessed he didn’t particularly like Coltrane’s rendition of the famous Sound Of Music waltz. I can imagine one’s hesitations about Coltrane’s approach and soprano sax playing. However, as a 14 year old pianist discovering jazz and improvised music, I was blown away by the power and emotion transferred by Coltrane and his band mates, amongst whom McCoy Tyner.
About two years later, my piano teacher threw me into Giant Steps, that famous Coltrane piece which was more than an elaborate ii-V-I voicing exercise: it was an improviser’s nightmare, at least at age 16 and especially given the applied tempo. A video by an Israelian artist displays an artful excerpt of this Coltrane masterpiece.
During the years, I primarily listened to Coltrane as a (most valuable) sideman, perhaps best known for his tenure with Miles Davis. Only a few years ago, I was grabbed again by Coltrane’s 1965 A Love Supreme Album, which can stand the claim of being a spiritual work of art, in addition to its value as an inspiring jazz album. I obtained some other albums by Coltrane as a leader, which were definitely pleasing, although not always with that same thunderous impact of My Favorite Things or A Love Supreme.
Well, let’s get to the point: Coltrane struck again, and this time again mediated by my current piano teacher. My assignment for the next couple of weeks: Moment’s Notice. A couple of years prior to Giant Steps, Coltrane came up with a composition which may sound deceptively simple, but hints ahead to Giant Steps’ fame: rapidly changing key centers, both major and minor ii-V-I progressions, and thus enough challenges for both the aspiring and the experienced jazz soloist.
In his book ‘The Jazz Standards’, writer Ted Gioia states on Moment’s Notice that “all 12 notes of our well-tempered scale show up as roots during the first 16 bars.” Thus, Gioia rightfully points out that this is a rapid sequence of different chords, while on the other hand, it appears to be a simple and nice flowing tune. My (perhaps not so revolutionary) explanation for this phenomenon lies in the melody, which is almost completely drawn from the Eb major scale: only at the end of the B part, a slight extension to Gb major scale is made. The result is a melody which can easily be remembered and sung along with, and this contributes to a very harmonic and very naturally resolving piece of music.
Coltrane apparently only recorded his Moment’s Notice once, on the famous Blue Train album.
Others, for instance McCoy Tyner, kept playing the tune and gradually, another standard was born (or established, or “rediscovered”). (At least) two performances are worth mentioning here. At first, the aforementioned Dutch TV show episode honored Coltrane and this standard by means of a version played by Dutch string quartet Fuse and Dutch first rate alto saxophonist Tineke Postma (Tineke Postma & Fuse in Podium Witteman).
I also discovered a mind boggling recording by a 14 year old (!) Chris Potter of later jazz and pop fame. If that’s how a 14 year old can tackle Coltrane… Well, at 38, I’ll keep trying…
- Geert Hurenkamp