John Coltrane’s 1960 album GIANT STEPS changed the path of modern jazz. Using inverted chord structures,accelerated tempi, changing his reed and ambature (contributing to slightly nasal tone), and, most of all, searching out increasingly complex harmonies, he found his way to his famous “sheets of sound.”
I’ve loved this album for –gasp-almost fifty years. Generally when anyone else covers a John Coltrane tune, he or she generally can’t -- to paraphrase Nicanor Parra,-- improve on the blank page. Horn players understand the challenge just as poets must surely be wary of writing about sitting under a tree and translating a fleeting bird song: it’s been done, said better
with more originality than most can muster.
One exception, I think, is David Murray’s 1988 version of “Mr. P.C.” (a tune Coltrane wrote for the great bassplayer Paul Chambers) from Murray’s album DEEP RIVER. Picking up where pianist Dave Burrell’s virtual two-finger solo leaves off, Murray’s solo is a model of endless driveand invention. From the opening statement of the theme, endless melodies build associatively, with great fluidity, from Murray’s horn. Though this comparison may seem absurd, the continuous flow of melodic ideas reminds me of Mozart’s late symphonies and quartets. So many tunes in the service of one piece. Withpropulsive drive, rhythm and speed (using the technique of circular – non-stop– breathing), honks and squawks, moving with great facility from the deepest low notes to high pitched whistles in seconds, Murray never loses the spirit of the tune. In this five-minute solo he gets more and more adventurous, travels so far from where he began without repeating a single run, until he triples an inversion of the melody: the solo doesn’t resolve itself going back to the head, but there the bass player recognizes a place where he can jump into the conversation. The solo accomplishes what Lorca implies in his essay "on the Duende," and what any artist who wishes to unsettle an audience hopes with all his heart to do: he de-familiarizes the familiar so we hear/see the world anew.
Murray began as an outside player, influenced by Albert Ayler as well as Coltrane. Here’s his solo paying tribute to Ayler:
In his great work, from 1986 to the late 1990s, he combines outside and inside playing: he’s grounded in the blues, “the tradition” (listen to his wide vibrato in playing the beautiful Ellington ballad “Cheslea Bridge”) as well the rough-hewn highly structured improvisations of the World Saxophone Quartet (he was one of the founding members). As an example both of his drive and his connection to the blues listen to this 1986 appearance at the Village Vanguard with the great John Hicks on the piano:
Murray has great technical skills and an amazing pair of lungs and can play the bass clarinet with authority, an instrument really only mastered by Eric Dolphy and, more recently, James Carter. But as poets and musicians know, chops alone make for artisanship but not necessarily great artistry. I raise this Murray solo in particular because it influenced my aspirations as a poet. For many of the poems in my collections GRAZING and BARTER I began to think of my poems as journeys, full of digressions, turns, inner conversations, tone shifts, almost tracing the path of some adventurous solo, never forgetting the spine of the poem or its emotional investigation, but traveling as far from it as I could until the diction was wide-ranging, the imagery had greater density and the poems were more digressive and made more surprising connections than in my earlier work. What Murray offers in this solo and all his best work is a wide-raging musical vocabulary that uses craft and technique to capture a fleeting and complex imaginationin motion. For imagination – the ineffable quality that’s characterized by a deep knowledge of what’s come before and advancing that knowledge even further. For great art can accomplish this: no one asks for a revelation, a closure that breaks faith with engagement and the ongoing, only the intensity of lyrical moments that inhabit or advance any musical or poetic experience.
(to be continued)
(Ed note: read Part I of Ira Sadoff's posts about jazz and poetry here. sdh)