Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reaction to Geoff Dyer's "Catastophic Coltrane"

Geoff Dyer's recent article in theNY Times "Catastrophic Coltrane" was brought to my attention this morning. Here is a link to the article and a brief reaction to his piece.

Dyer does raise an important issue:  the Temple University concert represents a last rather than late example of Coltrane's art.  We don't and can't know what he would have done if he had been able to stay on this planet longer.  Thus, both Dyer's analysis and my reaction to it are both speculation based on our understandings of Trane's legacy.  Perhaps the difference is that Dyer wants to understand Coltrane's music within the scope of jazz and his impact on that idiom.  I want to understand Trane in the broader cultural and musical sense. He was not just a jazz musician, he was a cultural, revolutionary, spiritual and artistic force.

Dyer’s analysis makes sense if one views Trane’s music only through the window of ‘jazz’.  In this article, the writer fails to acknowledge the power of the activity of music making as a communal experience and process and as a site of not only personal development, but also cultural exploration, revolution, and redefinition. In my view, these issues were extremely important to Coltrane and essential for any kind of understanding of the last few years of his life.  Dyer seems to be looking for coherence in terms of the traditional harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, and formal concepts deriving from the jazz tradition.  Such obvious points of reference may be beside the point when we consider the music from the Temple University concert or other recordings from this last period of Trane's life.

I believe that Trane saw (or was beginning to see) the activity of doing/making music with and for people as primary.  The recording from Temple University seems clear evidence of that to me. The actual sounds resulting from the process might even be secondary to what was happening with Coltrane's music during that time, hence his tendency to include more and more participants in the music making.  Perhaps the use of the older tune-based improvisations like “Favorite Things” served as a warm-up or as a way of drawing in participants to a deeper experience. In any case, the importance of actual musical results as observed and evaluated by outsiders (let’s not forget that we are listening to a live recording nearly 37 years later) is secondary or perhaps even further removed.

The author’s suggestion that ‘free jazz' had hit a brick wall shows his lack of understanding of the communal aspect of music making and of subsequent developments in European (and now international) directions and developments in free playing.  Trane was simply pointing music in another direction.  Many people moved in that direction and the road has not ended yet.  Coltrane’s own career demonstrates an incredible arc of development: from simple imitation and music as entertainment to complete technical mastery of the idiom to artistry and innovation within the idiom.  Eventually, through intense self-examination and searching he eventually broke the bands of that idiom and began to question not only his relationship to the jazz tradition, but the purposes of music itself and the changing roles of performers and listeners.

This search and questioning should be viewed not within the narrow window of ‘jazz’ but rather within the broader cultural revolutions of the 1960s.  Speaking just within the field of music, we have at the same time period John Cage, Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, the Fluxus movement, etc. all asking similar questions. Some of them were very much inspired by Trane of course. What is music?  What is it for? Who is the performer and who is the listener?  I find it interesting that in 2014 we still have not fully come to terms with the things people like Coltrane and Cage were saying and exploring.  Many in the jazz world (and many critics certainly) are still extremely conservative.  What happened to the tradition of innovation left to us by Trane and other giants of the 20th century? Has the malaise of the post-modern (or post-post-modern?!) condition extinguished the desire for revolution? This question is directed first and foremost to myself and my own music, but it is worthwhile for anyone to consider it.


Post a Comment