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Friday, January 30, 2015

'Chasin' The Trane' - Another Listen

Chasin’ the Trane…..

How many times have I listened to this? It must be in the hundreds by now, I know nearly every note of Coltrane’s solo as well as much of what Elvin and Jimmy play too. But listening to it again in the car the other day brought a new understanding of why this is such a great recording, and such an important piece of music in the jazz canon.

On the face of it – three musicians playing a blues – there’s nothing remarkable about it. It doesn’t do anything new structurally, nor reinvent the wheel as far as the 12-bar form of the blues is concerned. There is no standout theme as such – Trane plays a simple descending line and off they go for over fifteen minutes. So, three guys playing a blues with a skeletal theme, bright tempo, regular key (F), normal form – nothing remarkable in any of that. But of course it is remarkable, it remains one of the best-known recordings of Coltrane’s, and is recognized as one of the great recorded blues performances.  So what is it that makes this stand out? Even in Coltrane’s roster of recordings, (which contains so many classic and influential pieces), this is acknowledged as a landmark performance. Why?

Because this recording shows three great musicians, at the apex of the culture they come from, taking a musical form which evolved in their culture, (and one that is implicit in all forms of American jazz), and playing it at a level that both respects the structure and ethos of the form, while at the same time creating what can only be described as high art.

These are virtuoso musicians, at the height of their powers, at the forefront of their tradition, playing a song form that is vital to that tradition, and playing it in a city (New York), and at a place, (the Village Vanguard), synonymous with the greatest players and creators of this art form. Coltrane, Garrison and Jones, playing the blues at the Vanguard, is Rostropovitch playing Shostakovitch in Moscow, Ali Akbar Khan playing Raga Marwa in Delhi, Willy Clancy playing jigs and reels in Clare. It represents the highest manifestations of a musical culture, one that takes something vital from that culture and renews and honours it in live performance.

There is something ritualistic about ‘Chasin’ The Trane’. Although the band, and especially Coltrane, are stretching and pushing at the edges of the blues form, there is no breaking of it, no deconstruction or reconstruction. Unlike the Miles Davis group of the same era, Coltrane’s classic quartet, (at least in this period), did not engage in perilous experiments with form, which stretched pieces to breaking point and beyond. Instead, as in this performance, they set out with a certainty of where they were going. Yes, they were improvising and pushing their creativity, but within the clearly defined structure of the blues – one that can be clearly heard throughout this piece.  

The declamatory nature of the blues is also contained within Coltrane’s marathon solo here too – he always was a great blues player and here again he demonstrates it. Elvin propels everything forward and is extraordinarily responsive to every twist and turn of Coltrane’s line, sometimes working alongside it and answering it, at other times almost contradicting it. Garrison remains at the centre of everything – powerful, immovable, reinforcing.

Dynamically it remains fairly constant throughout – it starts at a bright mezzo forte, and stays constant with that level, only raising the heat a little as the piece goes on. This performance does not have the usual rising dynamic arc of the contemporary jazz solo, it maintains its opening dynamic throughout, but increases the intensity by the sheer accumulation of power over the 15 minute length of the piece. Like so much great jazz, it is not only about what is played, but also the way it is played. 

Despite the fact that this is a twelve-bar blues and Coltrane is playing quite chromatically at times, there is also a trance-like quality to the piece, and the repetition, the ticking-over of the twelve-bar form, combined with the power and cohesion of the three players, makes for a listening experience whereby the listener is inexorably drawn in as the performance continues. To the point that, when Coltrane abruptly finishes, it comes as a complete surprise, and indeed a wrench to the listener.

Coltrane’s solo, and this whole piece, feels to me like it has no beginning, middle or end – it is one complete statement, declared at the beginning, and repeated and reinforced as the music unwinds. But in a way his solo cannot be taken in isolation, since the power of the piece is the result of the common purpose of all three men as they create, declaim, proclaim and exclaim - and of course, to use a technical term, swing their asses off!

If it's possible that you've never heard this then please do you yourself a favour and check it out as soon as possible. If it's been a while since you've listened to it, then get back to it. And if you've listened to it recently, then do it again! Great art never gets old….

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