Still Trying to Make the Trane

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The image of John Coltrane will loom large over the Playboy Jazz Festival this weekend at the Hollywood Bowl. The impact of his airy sound and dense improvisational style has made him, arguably, the most influential musician of the last four decades. But it has taken the approaching 75th anniversary of his birth (Sept. 23) to trigger some long overdue acknowledgment of his vital importance to jazz.

"You think saxophone for the 20th century and the two principal names that come to mind are Charlie Parker and John Coltrane," says Michael Brecker, who performs on Saturday at the festival in the "Love Supreme Suite" with the Carnegie Hall Orchestra. Few musicians would disagree. But the relatively low visibility accorded Coltrane, and most post-'60s jazz for that matter (with the exception of Wynton Marsalis), in the Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary series has been further diminished by this year's celebration of Miles Davis' 75th birthday.

But with Brecker performing at the festival along with Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd--three of the jazz world's most authoritative saxophonists, all impacted by Coltrane's art--the 23rd Playboy Jazz Festival has been invested with the qualities of a Coltrane celebration.

No one is more aware of Coltrane's importance than Brecker, Shorter and Lloyd. Each has created his own powerful individual musical persona, but each is also quick to acknowledge the continuing presence of the colorful palette of Coltrane's influence.

Brecker, 52, vividly recalls his first encounter with that palette.

"It was a recording," he says, "'Live at Birdland.' I was still a teenager, and I hadn't heard anything like that before. I didn't understand his sound, which was harsh to me, and the drums were really crashy. I actually had a friend who bought a Dizzy Gillespie album at the same time, and I liked that one better. But I continued listening to the Coltrane record, and I finally started being able to hear it. I got past what initially sounded harsh to me and starting hearing the beauty in it. It took me a while to be able to understand and appreciate his music, but once that door swung open, it swung wide open."

Lloyd, like Coltrane, started out as an alto saxophonist before switching to the larger, deeper-toned tenor saxophone. Perhaps because of the similarity of that instrumental experience, he found it easy to make an early linkage.

"When I switched from alto to tenor as a kid," says Lloyd, 63, "the two choices of direction were with Trane or with Sonny Rollins. But Trane somehow touched me with the spirituality of his sound, with his seeking. He had this deep spiritual quest and yet he brought the whole of the tradition along with it. And that always moved me about him."

Brecker makes a similar comment regarding the motivating force underlying his selection of Coltrane, rather than Rollins, as a model.

"I loved Sonny Rollins," he says. "I loved his playing--I still--I loved his approach to the tenor, his time, the notes, everything. But there was something transcending that with Coltrane that somehow spoke to me. The only way I can really describe it is to say that it just propelled me."

Shorter, on the other hand, had a more direct contact with Coltrane at a relatively early stage in his career, shortly after he was discharged from his Army service in 1958. It turned out to be an instantly illuminating experience.

"When I met Coltrane," says Shorter, 67, "the first thing he said to me was, 'You're doing some of that other stuff. That funny stuff.' And I knew in my head right away that I didn't have the right horn, I didn't have the right mouthpiece, I didn't have the right reed. That process of melding with your instrument wasn't happening.

"We went over to his place, and Coltrane showed me one of his old horns and said, 'If you have the stuff in your instrument that links up with you as a person, you don't have to fight it.' That was an important insight for me."

Coltrane was only 40 when he died in 1967 of liver cancer. But each of the three major stages in his career--his early work with Davis, his performances with his own classic quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones) and the transcendent, spiritually driven playing of his final years--produced music that would affect, in differing ways, players of succeeding generations.

This diversity of styles within a single artist--the warm romanticism of his ballad playing, the relentlessly exploratory soloing with his quartet, the communal musical collectivity of his recordings with his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane--has produced a body of work still overflowing with unexamined lodes of rich creativity.

Yet Coltrane was rarely satisfied with his work, even when his efforts astonished everyone within listening range.

"He had a deep humility," says Lloyd. "He was always very generous with compliments for others, but not for himself. Occasionally I would stop by to hear him working in a club. And at the break, he'd be in a back room at the Five Spot or the Jazz Gallery, practicing during intermission. I'd say, 'Trane you sound so beautiful tonight.' And he'd say, 'No, I just can't find it tonight.' And it would just bowl me over, because as far as I was concerned he was finding it all.

"I can actually remember nights when it seemed as though he actually moved the room, transformed the molecules. So I always made the analogy that it was Bird who discovered the atom, and it was Trane who smashed it."

Shorter recalls coming face to face with that atom-smashing approach when he got together with Coltrane for talks about music that inevitably wound up in actual hands-on experiences.

"I was at his house once," says Shorter, "and he asked me to play the piano for him. He said, 'Play anything.' And I wound up playing clusters--like [Thelonius] Monk used to do when he took his whole forearm and hit the keyboard. And Trane would do the same thing for me. He'd hit a cluster and say, 'See how much of this you can catch on your horn.'

"It was amazing, like hearing the sound of fireworks, and trying to get the essence of something where there was no tune, melody or rhythm. You'd try to get the nucleus of it, with the emotion of it, and you'd find yourself trying to play a whole bunch of notes simultaneously that had nothing to do with speed."

Shorter finally realized that Coltrane was pointing toward a kind of creative expression which--despite his famously virtuosic performances--had little to do with technique as such.

"I realized," he continued, that what he was saying was, 'Can you catch the emotion of this, the essence of it?' He was saying that the technique is all embedded inside but you can't actually take it apart and start studying it. When he played those fast passages you could feel it and say, 'Man, that's it.' But when someone just tries to emulate the notes, they don't actually get it."

Lloyd agrees: "I think a lot of guys try to go in there and play Trane's stuff without recognizing the spirituality of his sound."

He and Brecker echo Shorter's feelings about the multiple levels of Coltrane's art, about what Andre Gide might have described as its "great density."

In Brecker's case it directly affected the most essential decision of his life.

"I would go so far as to say that it is Coltrane's music--and particularly the music of his quartet--that propelled me into choosing music as a life's endeavor. It certainly reached me emotionally; it was highly intellectual, spiritual and certainly technical. And all those things combined amounted to create this powerful force. I mean, I was just smitten by it." Lloyd's inherent spiritual beliefs have played a significant role in his own personal association with Coltrane's art.

"One of the important things about Trane's music, for me," he says, "is the knowledge that it's in the hands of the higher power. When you go into that area, it takes a great deal of surrender and devotion and dedication. Trane had the sound, the swing, the harmonic conception. But above all, there was the way in which his spirituality became manifest in the reality of his music. And I think that had to do with the pursuit of his own inner quest."

Coltrane won't be present at the Bowl this weekend to directly display his remarkable artistic adventurousness. But, in the hands of Shorter, Brecker and Lloyd, the spirit of his music will be vividly present and vividly alive. In fact, and in a more subtle fashion, it will flow throughout the entire festival as a surging creative energy unrestricted by style, manner or substance.

As Brecker put it, "I think Coltrane's music reaches across the board, affecting every aspect of jazz, and in fact of all the arts. For me, it underlines the power of art as a vital life force."

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Schedule for Playboy Festival

The 23rd Playboy Jazz Festival is Saturday and Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood.

* Saturday, 2:30 to 11 p.m.: Nancy Wilson, the Max Roach Quartet, Medeski Martin & Wood, David Benoit, the Charles Lloyd Quartet, Keb' Mo', Michael Brecker and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band directed by Jon Faddis, Juan Marcos' Afro-Cuban All Stars, Banu Gibson & the New Orleans Hot Jazz, the Washington Prep High School Jazz Ensemble.

* Sunday, 2 to 10:30 p.m.: The Wayne Shorter Quartet, Isaac Hayes, David Sanborn, Ozomatli, Femi Anikulapo-Kuti & the Positive Force, Keely Smith with Frank Kapp's Juggernaut, the Cos of Good Music VI, the Stefon Harris Quartet, Toshi Reagon.

(Not listed in order of appearance.)

Available tickets, $27.50, (310) 449-4070.

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