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In 1955, Davis hired Trane to play sax for him. Coltrane was still a junkie at the time, and had yet to discover his own style. Unlike his contemporaries Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon, he was still deriving his sound from the work of others, and critics were hard on him when he landed a gig in the hottest band around. Davis' enormous success at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival had moved him to the forefront of the genre, and he was chastised for choosing Trane over Rollins. Still, the volatile bandleader had a gut feeling about Coltrane.
The first time around, however, dope ruined their collaboration--Davis fired Coltrane when heroin finally crippled the sax player's professionalism. The period that followed was rough. Coltrane played what gigs he could find, shot dope and drank heavily. If he made it to work at all, he would show up in slept-in clothes, fat from too much booze. Sometimes he would nod out in the middle of a concert. Finally, bassist Reggie Workman confronted his friend and implored Coltrane to clean up his act.
Soon thereafter, Trane sequestered himself in the bedroom at home where he practiced and told his wife to bring him water whenever he asked for it. Days went by as he weathered the storm of cold-turkey withdrawal. When it was over, he emerged and never shot up again.
Davis also kicked his habit, and rehired Coltrane in 1958. The Miles Davis Quintet quickly started to set the pace for modern jazz groups.
In a fortuitous experiment, Davis began slowing down chord progressions while moving to more subtle, abstract harmonies. Trane had embarked upon his own harmonic explorations--fascinated by modes from all over the world, his notebooks from the time show pages of exotic scales. He also took an interest in Eastern philosophies and cultures, and the combination of Davis' new sound and Trane's musical and spiritual awakening proved synchronous.
In one of his few interviews, Coltrane described how Davis' "direct and free-flowing lines" let him "stack chords, play three chords on one."
"But on the other hand," Coltrane said in 1960, "if I wanted to, I could play melodically. Miles' music gave me plenty of freedom." By slowing down the harmony--sometimes to one chord for every 16 bars--Davis gave Coltrane the room to create his "sheets of sound."
By the time Trane founded his own group in 1960, he had started to use stiffer reeds to get more power and volume out of his horn. Hard reeds demand tremendous breath control and physical stamina, but audiences and musicians who heard Coltrane during this period described him as surprisingly calm and centered, even after playing long, loud and hard.
Trane began to take longer and longer solos--searching, it seemed, for just the right sound or pattern. He also picked up the soprano saxophone, rescuing the instrument from obscurity in his fever to reach higher sounds and more expressive dynamics.
Coltrane needed new compositions to express his new ideas, but he was a reluctant composer. "I just have to write the tunes myself, and I don't really want to take the time away from my horn."
Eventually, however, he did take the time. And like his playing, many of Coltrane's compositions were ahead of his era. "Giant Steps" even threw master pianist Tommy Flanagan for a loop in one recording session captured on disc two of the Rhino boxed set. Flanagan was provided with the difficult chart for the tune prior to the take--but not the tempo. When the tape started to roll, he quickly retreated to a simple chordal approach as the changes whipped by him. Learning to play "Giant Steps" is now considered a rite of passage for any serious jazz student.
During the mid-'60s, Coltrane's solos got even longer, his dynamics more intense, and the texture of his music more crowded and demanding for the listener. Drummer Jimmy Cobb remembers filling a three-hour matinee with one song--no breaks, no intermission, just three solid hours of blow, man, blow.
"Bird had discovered the atom for me," saxophonist Charles Lloyd says of that period, "but Trane was smashing it."
The rawness, fiery intensity and sheer volume of Coltrane's late-career cries and squawks cost him many fans, but listeners who stayed with Coltrane through his epic solos often reported entering a trancelike state where they became unaware of the passage of time. The names Trane gave his later compositions reflected his spiritual intent: "Pursuance," "Ascension," "Joy," "Selflessness."
There is a sweet reverence to the tone of people who knew Coltrane well when they speak of him. Like a chorus, they utter variations on a theme: "soothing to be around," "peaceful attitude," "soft-spoken," "earthy." Perhaps veteran saxophonist Jimmy Heath put it best: "There was no hate in him." Coltrane was confused when critics dubbed his horn "an angry tenor," and his composition "Alabama"--written after the 1963 bombing of a black church that killed four young girls--is a tender elegy, not an angry cry.
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