Evan Parker sobre Coltrane

Conversa de Evan Parker a 5 de Agosto 2006 integrada no Jazz Em Agosto 2006 (Lisboa)

"I follow the school of thought that says there are basically three phases in Coltrane’s musical life. I would identify his activities from the beginning up to 1961 as one phase. From ‘61 onward to ‘65 or ‘66 there is the period where he was leading his own group, especially what’s now often referred to as the classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. At the end of this phase, there is the transition period where Coltrane’s determination to keep moving forward, finding new possibilities, strained the quartet to the point where Elvin was unhappy with the addition of other drummers and McCoy Tyner probably couldn’t hear himself anymore. These are all matters of public record and I don’t think it’s wrong to talk about them. This transition led to the late period of Coltane’s life which, although you would think that the area that I might be most expert on, it is actually the area that I know least about. That’s partly because it overlaps with my own entry into a full-time relationship with music, attempting to be a professional musician, which, for me, started probably around ‘65, and ’66. There was no clear beginning for me between playing with student bands and then gradually earning some money by doing that and then gradually meeting the players that I thought I wanted to play with. All of this was happening during the last period of Coltrane’s life. At that time, his music from that period was available to us only through recordings. The last tour that Coltrane was supposed to have made of Europe was scheduled for 1966 but it was cancelled. His health was already suffering at that point and that’s probably the reason that last tour was cancelled. So we in Europe never got to hear those late Coltrane performances, the type that were documented during the tour of Japan. It’s hard to imagine what the response would have been in England; but I’m fairly sure that itwould have been pretty hostile. By then, Coltrane’s music was a step too far for many people.

I remember in ‘61, the time that he did come with his own group to England, I think the only time that he did play in England, there was already a division of ‘this is going too far...we liked Milestones, we liked Kind of Blue, we liked those things but this is too much’. And of course Dolphy was in the group. I heard that group play and it was, to me, a revelation. An amazing experience because it was Coltrane in the moment, not Coltrane six months later when the record arrived or a year later when the record arrived. But Coltrane at that point, in 1961. As I say, that to me is a key moment and it was literally one week after the recordings at the Village Vanguard. Originally, there was just one LP of material released from these performances. Over the years, especially since Coltrane’s death, interest in his work has become more and more intense, resulting in bigger and bigger editions. The final version of the Village Vanguards is four whole CDs , including multiple versions of some pieces.

At the time, many people thought Coltrane’s “Chasin’ The Trane,” which was included on the original Village Vanguard LP, was his most radical performance to date because of what was considered its extraordinary length and intensity, and the fact that Coltrane was accompanied by only bass and drums. But, there are other versions of this same idea, a blues played with just bass and drums that goes all the way back to a piece he recorded in 1957 for Traneing In with Paul Chambers called “Bass Blues,” although that’s a more straight ahead tune. Something that took me a while to realize is that “Blues To You” on Coltrane Plays The Blues, which he recorded in 1960, is also a trio blues that basically has the same approach to the structure. The blues was a very natural form for Coltrane, which must have grown out of his work with rhythm and blues bands in the early period of his professional life. Like most musicians looking for a chance to play and earn some money, Coltrane played with various rhythm and blues bands almost as soon as he was discharged from the Navy, where he went to study. That was an approach that my generation of musicians and that a generation before me, took in England, too. There was John Stevens, the drummer, Paul Rutherford, trombone player, Trevor Watts, saxophone player, Chris Pyne, very good trombone player. Some of these people are no longer alive, some are still active, but they all got their musical training by joining the military. In the case of the English guys it was usually the Royal Air Force. Coltrane went to Honolulu with the Navy and was based there. Some of the very earliest recordings of Coltrane playing were made there in 1946, when he was still playing alto. These recordings include performances of “Ko-Ko” and “Now’s The Time,” so it natural that you hear very much the influence of Charlie Parker in his playing. Obviously, Charlie Parker was still alive at that point -- more than still alive, I mean, he’s right in the middle of his musical life. When he got back from Honolulu, Coltrane started to do these rhythm and blues bands and that must be where he developed that profound relationship with the structure called the blues, the 12 bar form, which is stretched very far in “Chasin’ the Trane.” It’s a collision between a very simple form, or the integration of a very simple form, with a very sophisticated saxophone technique.

I will now risk digressing, first by talking about the slave trade. There’s a book – The slave trade : the story of the Atlantic slave trade, 1440-1870 by Hugh Thomas – where I found this: “By 1730 we find 6,000 slaves in North Carolina.” That’s where Coltrane was born.”Though most of them were probably not shipped, but carried in as a result of purchase in Virginia. The colonists mostly paid by barter.” The colony complained since it had no direct deliveries from Africa. Here’s a quote from a local politician of the time “they received the refuse, the refractory and distempered Negroes, bought from other governments, other states.’’ This is one of many 18th and 19th Century documents collected by an American academic, Elizabeth Donnan, which are now housed at Yale University. I’m not even sure what the words “refuse,” “refractory” and “distempered” exactly mean in this context, but I guess it means they were hard to handle, they weren’t wanted in Virginia, and so they were sold in North Carolina. It’s very interesting to think of Coltrane as being a descendent of these slaves.

Some more quotes: “After changes in the tax laws concerning shipping slaves, Bristol entered the trade as a port in 1712. Between then and 1807, more than 2,000 separate slave trade voyages were made out of Bristol.” That’s particularly interesting to me since I was born in Bristol, England. Here’s another: “Lisbon is a center for Portuguese dealings with Africa in general and the slave trade in particular.” This will be better known to you than to me. But in that same book I was astonished to discover that at least 100,000 slaves were removed from Africa already in the 15th and 16th centuries. We’re talking about history that ties us all together in ways that we sometimes try to forget, but I think it doesn’t do any good to forget. The great work that Mandela is doing at the moment is based on ideas of truth and reconciliation; we’ll come back to that a little later on. There’s another quote: “African Muslim slaves were more difficult to control, for, as the Brazilians found in the 1830’s, in particular, some of them were at least as cultivated as their masters and capable of mounting formidable rebellions.”

This reminded me of the question that Frank Kofsky, a Marxist critic who did one of the best interviews with Coltrane, in my opinion, asked Coltrane about Malcolm X. “Were you impressed by him?”, Kofsky asked him. Coltrane said “Quite impressed.” Now talking from my own position, I heard Malcolm X speak in Birmingham University in England I think it was in the summer of 1964. By that time he was no longer connected with Elijah Mohammed and was an independent force in Black politics in America. He was actively concerned with the development of a Pan-African social and political sensibility. Everything he said made perfect sense to me. He was not a man of violence, as he was often portrayed, but a speaker of awkward and unwelcome truth. I found out also that when Kofsky was a student at Berkley University, he asked Coltrane to play a concert to raise money for an organization for improving the situation for Black students in the University system there. Coltrane was agreeable to that idea but the University then forbade the organization to exist. This is as recently as 1961, so it’s important to remember and to keep our eye on what people are telling us we can’t have today. Two million people on the streets of London saying they didn’t want a war, but one man and his friend in America decided it was a good idea, and now we have to live with the consequences of that for the rest of our lives. Coltrane spoke to the Vietnam War in the same interview: “This music is an expression of higher ideals to me, so therefore, brotherhood is there. I believe with brotherhood there would be no poverty, and with brotherhood there would be no war.” So Coltrane is no longer a jobbing musician at this point, he’s feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with his position, his new position as being considered one of the leading voices in the music and he’s using that situation to speak up.

The weight of responsibility Coltrane felt in large part stemmed from his sprituality, which was awakened after Miles Davis sacked him because he was drunk and drug addicted and unreliable. For Coltrane, being fired by Davis must have come as a very profound shock, as well as he was playing, because he always played very well. But clearly he felt something had to be done about this and so the famous story of him going to a room in his auntie’s house and shutting the door and staying there until he had broken his addiction to heroin. I suppose that’s what he’s referring to when he said: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” At this point Coltrane was clearly moving towards a sense of his own destiny and perhaps even a sub-conscience intimation that his life would not be a long one. An urgent sense of purpose begins to motivate all of his playing. And I think at this point we also hear that he’s moving away from the conventions of the day.

During that first period, up to ‘61, Coltrane’s approach to improvisation was mostly playing over predetermined chord sequences. So you could characterize that music as problem-solving. The improvisation was constrained by a particular series of note choices which would fit; some things would fit, some things wouldn’t fit. Coltrane was always looking for new elements in that language – how to play over harmonic sequences and how to add to what’s already there, a whole system of superimposing chord on chord. But again, it’s all basically problem solving, which reaches its highest point of development with the “Giant Steps” type of approach, where the complexity of the chord sequence is such that, if the chords are going to be marked clearly in the course of the improvisation then there’s very little freedom to move. If you compare the various takes of “Giant Steps” you’ll hear the same patterns recurring at the same points in each chorus and even recordings of the tune which are done more or less a year apart you’ll hear those same patterns. So although the precise nature of the solo is improvised, it’s based on a very well studied set of materials, and memorized. As far as I know there are no live versions of Coltrane playing “Giant Steps.” “Giant Steps” epitomizes the idea of etude and the idea of studio. These were etudes for the studio.

I think that there’s a very clear sense that he’s gone as far as he can possibly go in that direction towards the end of the period of his recording for Atlantic. This was a period where Coltrane was effectively a leader, but before he could go out on the road with his own band. Recording for Atlantic, he could function as a bandleader, hire musicians of his choice, play his tunes, choose material when they played standards, and used his altered versions of the chord sequences, especially using that formula, the “Giant Steps” formula in the place of other standard harmonic formulas. I think that there’s a very clear sense that he had gone as far as he could possibly go in that direction because the sense of improvisation is canceled by the complex nature of the problems within which the improvisation has to take place, namely the chord sequences, those chord sequences.

For me maybe the final statement on the Atlantic period is the B side of My Favorite Things, the LP, where he plays “But Not For Me” and “Summertime” and there’s a looseness; he’s still using that “Giant Steps” formula for substitute chord elements, but with a looseness, a degree of working informality almost, and it’s working toward the next phase. So there’s never any clear, sharp lines in Coltrane’s development. If I seem to give you the feeling that I think there are hard markers in this story, I don’t. It’s one continuous story and we’re backtracking; the way time works, the way memory works, the way we think of the future, the way we remember the past. All of that is there and it is decipherable in the music if you listen and if it means enough to you and if you get taken by the story that Coltrane’s whole life has to tell, then you will gradually learn to interpret anticipations, repetition, moments where he’s seeing ahead, moments where he’s thinking backwards – all of that is moving along a timeline dynamically and that timeline itself is very short. From the point of view of a 62-year-old man – I’m already 20 years older than Coltrane was when he died – I can’t imagine how somebody could fit so much into such a short space of time.

But there does seem to be a sense of, which I referred to before, a sense of how long you’ve got. If you think about musicians like Clifford Brown or Booker Little or Scott La Faro, all of these people died absolutely tragically young - but somehow they did enough in the time that they had, so that we still talk about them and still revere what they did. I believe the same thing is true of Dolphy and Coltrane – that they were aware of, at some level, of the time that they had available to them. So, the last record for Atlantic was Olé with the quartet plus Eric Dolphy – who is called George Lane for presumably contractual reasons. There’s a great record shop in London called Ray’s and for many years there was a postcard on the wall and it said “Why George Lane?” Previously, Charlie Parker had called himself Charlie Chan and Art Pepper called himself Art Salt and so on. So, usually there was a way of figuring out who it really was. Everyone who listened to Olé knew it was really Eric Dolphy but nobody could work out why George Lane? That record is, in a way - could equally well have been the first Impulse record. It’s quite different from all the other Atlantic recordings for me.

Olé is already moving towards the feeling of some of the tracks from the Village Vanguard, with Dolphy there, two bass players. But, something more important is happening. The emphasis on improvisation as problem solving is being left behind, and Coltrane is moving toward the use of improvisation as a test – the testing of the predetermined structures to their limit, to their destruction. It is a dialogue between the activity of improvisation and the structure upon which the improvisation was nominally based. That really characterizes the shift in Coltrane’s music for me at that point, more than anything to do with sheets of sound. Somebody asked me about sheets of sound yesterday and as far as I understand, that was a very specific period, probably best documented on the early recordings with Miles and his own recordings for Prestige. It was a particular phase that he was working on, especially with this stacking of chords on chords, so you ended up with very long arpeggio forms, and very hard to fit into regular 8th note groupings. When you see Andrew White’s transcriptions of these things – long brackets over groups of 7, 11 notes, 15 notes – it’s very hard to notate because he’s not really thinking in terms of 8th notes in that way but just “How can I fit all these notes into this bar before the next downbeat?” And that really only occupied him for a certain period. By the time you get post 1961, you’re really not dealing with “sheets of sound”, in that sense, anymore.
I said already that Coltrane came to Europe for the first time in 1961, a week after the Village Vanguard recordings. The tour began in England and continued in continental Europe until December the 2nd. Music from this tour gradually became available because the concerts were not officially recorded. Coltrane had recently signed with Impulse and they made no provision to record the European tour. The playing is of an amazingly consistent high standard, which I think is connected with a mouthpiece issue. I’ll come back to that. At first there were only unauthorized recordings with plain white sleeves, unmarked labels and various titles from a P. O. Box in Sweden There may be a couple of you who remember Live At Mt. Meru, Volumes 1-5. I was such a stickler for correct behavior that I refused to buy them because they were, in effect, stolen material at that point. But gradually people would say “you’ve got to hear this, you’ve got to hear that,” especially a version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on the one that had a yellow label, which is just amazing. But fortunately now, most of that stuff is available officially on a Pablo box set of the European tour. The playing from the ‘61 tour is of a consistently high level even by Coltrane’s standard of creativity. Frank Kofsky asked him about what happened after the Village Vanguard, because Coltrane made a record of ballads, a record with Johnny Hartman, the singer, a record with Duke Ellington, all of which were considered to be less adventurous than this marker that was set by Africa/Brass and then especially with the Village Vanguard recordings, the first two records for Impulse. Kofsky was always looking to blame capitalism, so he basically asked if the record company was making him do this. But Coltrane said in effect, “No, no, it’s more complicated than that. I had a very nice mouthpiece and I ruined it.”

This going to get a little nerdy now for non-saxophone players but we’re famous for talking about reeds and mouthpieces. Coltrane used a metal Otto Link mouthpiece. That’s a brand of mouthpiece, most of the time from 1961 onwards but there’s an ebonite (hard rubber) mouthpiece on the cover of the Impulse studio recording The John Coltrane Quartet Plays with “Brasilia.” A mouthpiece has many potential variables: the facing, the surface, on which the reed is fixed with a holding device called a ligature. It’s made to a fairly standard set of dimensions in order that the reeds may also be made to standard measurements. All other dimensions are potentially variable. The tip opening, how much material in the body of the mouthpiece, the width of the rails – the sides of the mouthpiece on the inside we call the rails. The length of the curvature from the tip opening to the facing, so that can be over a long curve or or short curve, also called the spring, affects the reed behavior. The internal shape and dimensions of the so-called tone chamber, which may be with or without a baffle. A baffle is something about the shape of the roof of the tone chamber. All manner of adjustments may be made to standard mouthpieces in order to change their playing characteristics. I’ve been told that Coltrane relied on Frank Wells, a craftsman man working in the Saxophone Shop in Evanston, north of Chicago. Coltrane may have also worked on his mouthpieces himself. Dolphy was known to work on his. So, it’s possible that Coltrane worked on his, but he speaks in the interview of having work done. By filing and sanding the different parts according to personal formula, it’s possible to adjust the way they sound and feel to play. This tradition is full of trade secrets and practices that may, in part, be mutually canceling. It’s possible, for example, to increase the tip opening so that the reed has to vibrate across a wider arc making it physically harder to blow. But then to make the tone chamber smaller by adding a baffle inside, making it easier to blow. This approach is often taken in the adjustment of any mouthpiece, which would otherwise have little in the way of baffle. I can’t be sure that that’s the way Coltrane’s adjustments were designed but it’s possible. It’s certainly true of a lot of people I know that played metal Link mouthpieces. They adjusted them in this way to make them a bit more open, then they changed the tone chamber inside to make it more edgy and bright, so it also makes it easier to blow. So it’s like you’re looking to get the maximum variability for what the reed can do and especially to get good, solid, centered bright sound. Certain musicians are known for their obsessive relationship with this work. Time and again a mouthpiece is gradually improved by a sequence of small adjustments until finally so much material has been removed that the tip of the mouthpiece breaks off. And I think the way my talk is advertised in the poster gives the impression that I’m talking about Coltrane playing on a broken mouthpiece. That is not what I’m saying. I’m saying he made adjustments. It was very interesting. Later, he made too many adjustments and the mouthpiece broke but that’s not interesting. The broken mouthpiece is not interesting. The adjusted mouthpiece is interesting. The late Dick Heckstall-Smith, maybe some of you know him from Colosseum or as a kind of rhythm and blues player, was in search of the perfect mouthpiece all his life, and destroyed many Berg Larsen stainless steel, so-called “duckbill mouthpieces” – the model used by his hero, Wardell Gray, and this process is a kind of Holy Grail, that you never arrive, you never quite get there. Usually something happens and the mouthpiece breaks because you’ve made it so thin. But last weekend, talking to bass clarinet specialist Rudi Mahall, I discovered that he too is involved with such a quest. Not only does he play a very open mouthpiece but he also uses a very hard reed. This is the mythic combination – very rare. It is what they always say people do but most people don’t; they usually do one thing or the other. If it’s a hard reed, its a close mouthpiece; it it’s an open mouthpiece, it’s a soft reed. But there are a few characters who can play hard reeds on big, open mouthpieces and Rudi Mahall is one of them. So, the laws of physics mean that if the reed is stiffer, harder in the jargon, then it will take more air to make it vibrate. Beyond a certain stiffness, it will simply not be possible to blow hard enough, then, with pressure from the jaw, it would be necessary to close the tip opening, the effective tip opening, to a smaller gap where the air column can sustain the vibration. I don’t know if this is like hieroglyphics to you or if it’s put in a way that means something, but it’s not going to go on for much longer. Some players like that feeling – they like the feeling of pressure, so that, effectively, they’re closing the mouthpiece down. They have to do that before the reed can vibrate across the gap. Again, I’ve got no way of knowing for sure about Coltrane, but at least I have outlined the variables. Some players like this feeling; in Rudi’s case it produces the loudest volume from the bass clarinet that I’ve ever heard. But there are some tradeoffs – he’s loosing subtlety at the bottom end and certain kinds of dynamic control. I myself use as little jaw pressure as possible now, so that the reed has to vibrate across the full width of the tip opening and I use softer reeds as a consequence. Steve Lacy took this approach to an extreme, using the biggest possible opening, and the softest reed, a custom-finished ebonite Link with a tip opening of around 11 or 12 , so he had it opened up really big but then played an extremely soft reed. A Number 1 Marca cane reed softened down to almost less than a 1. I’ve seen Steve sand on a a Number 1 reed. Very unusual. I’m not sure but I presume he used a fairly relaxed embrochure.

It was Steve Lacy who famously introduced Coltrane to the soprano saxophone and by doing so led to a revival of its fortunes. I’m sure that neither Kenny G nor Evan Parker would be playing soprano were it not for that fact. However, an interesting, additional fact is that I heard Sidney Bechet play soprano in Brussels, at the Expo in 1958. That was the first time I’d ever been outside of England. And I also heard Xenakis’ electronic music for the Philips Pavilion I leave it to you to work out quite what effect that combination of inflences may have had!

Some philosophy: This is from Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine. “Man has formed a curiously distorted picture of himself by interpreting his early history in terms of his present interests in making machines and conquering nature. Ritual and language and social organizations were probably man’s most important artifacts. To give form to the human self using only tools that could be constructed out of the resources provided by his own body” Ah, Dreams! Images! And sounds!

This is from a poet, a Scottish poet called Kenneth White, from the Atlantic edge, the other side of the Atlantic edge: “What we’re after is a world of expanded intelligence expressed with poetic force and clarity.” Coltrane said to Valerie Wilmer in 1961. “All a musician can do is get closer to the sources of nature and so feel that he is in communion with the natural world.” Coltrane’s language is very elegant. I find that sentiment most touching. “Life is whatever you make it, the traveler is the journey, what we see is not what we see but who we are.” You know who wrote that? It’s translated from Portuguese into English. That’s Fernando Pessoa from The Book of Disquiet. Don Cherry used to say to his kids “We’re there already,” when they would ask him “When are we going to get there?” We’re there already. And thanks, Don. I played with Don at the Baden Baden New Jazz Meeting in 1968 and never again after that, what a shame. We got on very well. He soon realized that I was very interested in Coltrane and said, “I have some stuff for you; I’ll give it to you before I go.” So I assumed that these were practice notes, materials, patterns to practice on. The day I said good-bye to Don I said “You got the stuff?” And he said, “What stuff?” I said, “The Coltrane stuff.” He said “Oh, no, sorry, I forgot.” And he fished in his bag and gave me an unpublished Ornette Coleman piece. Which was very nice, you know, but I wanted the Coltrane stuff. .

Well, for your homework students, please go home and listen to “Chasin’ The Trane” from beginning to end. I think you can hear the tension between the structure and the tempo, elements are required to hold each chorus together, and the elements which are really being stretched, for this, I think at the time was an amazing revelation that Coltrane would use this approach, and I think it was even a surprise to him because Kofsky asked him, “Did you ever listen to that record again?” And he said, “Well, I did, only at the time it came out, I used to listen to it and wonder what happened to me.” “What do you mean?” “Well, it’s a sort of surprising thing to hear this back because, I don’t know, it came back another way. It was a little longer than I thought it was and it had a fairly good amount of intensity in it, which I hadn’t quite gotten into a recording before.” Fairly good intensity … I think that’s quite an understatement, especially if, you know, you can put that into context back then, when it was issued.

I’d like to go to the third period which I would say started ’65-‘66 - the important marker would be when Coltrane’s contract with Impulse came up for renewal. There was a period where it seemed like he wasn’t going to renew with Impulse - that he was going to make his own label. And in fact he issued one record himself, the first version of the record called Cosmic Music. There are aspects to that that I would like to talk about. First of all, the cover was Coltrane’s design so, of course, it was not a very slick looking record. We didn’t have Photoshop and all of that in those days so it was pretty funky kind of graphics – a handmade look and design. But the important thing to me was what the design was trying to convey. You had a photograph of Coltrane paying homage to the victims of Hiroshima on the back, a memorial to Hiroshima. So, that speaks enormous volumes about Coltrane’s distance from American official behavior in the world. We want to try and make an analysis of the postwar period, all of that, how that war was brought to an end, but I think there are certainly good reasons to think that it was absolutely unnecessary for those bombs to be dropped. The war was won at that point and the bombs were dropped because it was a good time to test such a thing. It’s an awful thing to think, but that seems to be not an exaggerated interpretation of the history. Coltrane clearly felt the need to make this public prayer for peace. It is clearly important to him because he ties that photograph to his first record for his own label. The other elements, which are very important, very significant, are the elements associated with the major religions – from the Crescent of Islam to the Star of David, the Cross and so on. He is speaking about the need for religious leaders to deal with the realities of where we are at this point. If there’s one God, and they’re all saying there’s one God, but they all think, as Bob Dylan put it “God’s on their side.” I don’t think Coltrane had that naive view of religion. He was interested in what can we do next? Which he believed in some general way, that life on this Earth, has meaning, has purpose. How can we encourage our so-called leaders to behave more responsibly? It seems the very worse people are the ones that decide to be politicians or decide to be religious leaders. Until the people distance themselves from this stupidity – as I said before – 2 million people on the streets of London saying “This war is absurd,” but one man could take the country to war. It’s wrong. And that one man can still be in power. It’s wrong but there’s no mechanism to get rid of him. OK. That’s rather heavy.

Let’s talk more at the level of the practical affairs of a musician – Coltrane saying, “I want certain things.” He was also saying, I want to be able to help younger musicians. He had already established relationships with the players on Ascension like Pharoah Sanders, but he wanted to do more. And he wanted to have the record company support them. And in the end Impulse did agree to a series of Coltrane Presents kind of thing, and they did, I think, just the one record, Archie Shepp’s Four for Trane. As far as I know that was the end; of course by that time you’re coming close to the end of Coltrane’s life. I think if he’d lived longer he would have carried on further in that direction. He also talked about the limitations of playing in nightclubs. That made me think about the Village Vanguard, which is a nightclub, and some of the other, most fantastic music that they made, the Classic Quartet, was in the Half Note. I don’t know if you know those recordings? but some of them have been officially issued now as One Up, One Down. They’ve been floating around as pirate, bootleg recordings for a long time. But the Half Note must have been an even smaller club than the Village Vanguard. And then you think about, for example, the Bill Evans trio with Scott La Faro and Paul Motian at the Village Vanguard, again. All of this music made against the sound of people rattling their ice in their glasses, to cite Mingus, or chatting among themselves, you know. Cash register: ping, ping, ping. But somehow these places are OK for the music, the music survives and even thrives. I don’t know what you made of that film, ‘Round Midnight, where Dexter Gordon plays an amalgam of Bud Powell and Lester Young – I would rather have seen a film about Dexter Gordon, personally – but, that strange idea that the club is a struggle and what the musicians really want is to play for a football stadium full of people and bright lights - I think that’s wrong. That film seems to suggest that all these guys really needed was bigger venues and audiences. I think the very best music Coltrane made was in small clubs. And Coltrane I think would have come up against some interesting struggles with Impulse if he’d lived longer. I’m sure that they would have been pressing him to make some changes. The way he was taking the music was definitely away from commercial attitudes.

There’s just a thing about Ascension I would like to mention. I wonder if the title has as much to do with athe small island in the Atlantic between Africa and South America as was with the Biblical connotation? There was a slave ship called Ascension, one of 32 slave ships that left Newport, Rhode Island for Africa in 1794. That puts the Newport Jazz Festival in a bigger context than its founders envisioned. Charles Mingus, a man in touch with his emotions if ever there was one, may have had this in mind when he organized the Newport Rebels. Coltrane, in the last period of his life, expressed the simple desire to be a force for good. His profound interest in astrology and the roots of religion connect in my mind with the scientist-philosopher Charles Arthur Muses I made some photocopies of diagrams you might find interesting. As a young man Muses set out to debunk astrology as being nothing more than superstition. However, his research led him to the opposite conclusion. That’s quite interesting, you know, the French scientist Michel Gauquelin made a big analysis of the birth records of French citizens – thousands and thousands of cases analyzed and found that there were patterns there which justified some of the basic assumptions of astrology – that there are forces at work, holding this universe together; things are much more complicated than we know. It seems that, in previous ages, there was much more understanding of those things. More respect for astrology. I don’t know quite where I stand on it – it’s not as though I’m an astrologer and I don’t go to an astrologer and I don’t know much about astrology. What I do have is respect for the complexity of things, and for me the universe is held together by a sequence of miracles, and if you know the idea of fractals, fractal relationships, then there are miracles at every level of fractality from what keeps this table here to what keeps this planet in relation. To the Sun. All of these things and the forces at work to create and maintain them are miraculous – everything is alive. And I think Coltrane’s music was tapping into that kind of sensibility, a universal sensibility with emphasis on brotherhood and religion, on spiritual development. And on doing your best – “I want to be a force for good.”, he said. This is very simple language but it says everything.

Muses also made a big study of shamanism. The same scientist, very interesting man. In one paper he talks about shamanism as the “root religion” and traces back all of the established religions we now think of as being the prominent religions in the world, all have their origins in a past where the understanding of cosmic relationships was much higher in their development. Especially in Egypt, but going back before that- the whole relationship between Egyptian culture and African culture. The things that the Dogon people in Africa knew – planetary relationships, especially with the idea that Sirius was a binary star and all of that, these things are impossible to explain except by some previous period in human history on this planet- as having had knowledge – access to knowledge which we have lost. And where it seems to be best preserved is in the cultures that we treat with the most awful disrespect: the Aborigine cultures of Australia, the Native American cultures, the South American Indian cultures, African traditional cultures, the Siberian, the Inuit, all these people know stuff that we don’t know. And they’ve been telling us about it for hundreds of years but we’ve been ignoring that. I think maybe I’m now starting to rant with messianic zeal.

The major documented material on this so far is the chart of 12 tones related to the Zodiac, a copy of which he gave to Yusef Lateef and which is reproduced in his book of scales and patterns. But there are many other fragments of Coltrane’s notes and titles where Coltrane attempts to relate musical and astrological concepts. I think we deserve better in terms of documentation than we’ve got somehow. I’m not an academic and I don’t have the time to work on this . The existing fragments used to decorate CD covers simply do not do justice to the profundity of the man and his work.

I’d just like to finish by saying Coltrane’s music and life remain an inspiration for good. "

Evan Parker©2006

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