Giant Steps

New Rhino reissues illuminate the bold leaps of '60s jazz heavyweights

Turbulent times produce turbulent music. The jazz of the early '60s is proof enough of that. As the civil-rights movement's cries for justice became increasingly insistent, the music of young jazz titans also strained for greater freedom.

These daring, noisy, almost cacophonous sounds were reviled by older listeners. Many white listeners saw the music as angry. Evil events, such as the Selma church bombing that Spike Lee recently dramatized in 4 Little Girls, lend credence to that interpretation.

Yet the evidence of five milestone recordings reissued during Black History Month by the Rhino label argues that this music had much more than anger going for it. A spirit of joyful exploration unites these recordings. John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Roland Kirk (later known as Rahsaan Roland Kirk) stretched the boundaries of jazz to an extreme never heard before (and, sadly, rarely heard since). The albums--Coltrane's My Favorite Things and Giant Steps, Coleman's Free Jazz, Mingus' Blues & Roots and Kirk's The Inflated Tear--seem so fresh, so personal and so untied from commercial logic that they sound timeless.

For instance, Coleman's Free Jazz, originally released in September 1961, still sounds like music from another planet. That's not a bad thing, because it makes listeners reexamine every thought they've ever had about music. Coleman's major idea for the piece was to set no limits except for those imposed by the skills and listening abilities of the musicians themselves. He wanted them to dig into their deepest souls for music that would express who they were, implying that conventional styles of jazz kept them from doing so. Yet he also wanted them to listen to one another and make their music a continuous dialogue.

Coleman had only three small predetermined bits going in. These short parts would be called up on his cue, and the piece would start and end when he gave the signal. Those were all the instructions. It required a new mindset from players used to developing the harmonic and melodic content of their solos over the repeated chord patterns that form the skeletons of most songs.

Essentially, Coleman was playing the ensemble, not just his own horn. However, he wasn't a puppeteer. He didn't make them play this or that thing, except in his three predetermined figures. This was a group improvisation, and the original 37-minute version encompassed two sides of an LP. Since there was no silence during any part of the performance, the music faded out at the end of side one and faded in at the start of side two. The rerelease includes the 17-minute "First Take" that casts a light on exactly how free the proceedings were. The mood and texture of the piece are indistinguishable from Free Jazz, although the actual notes played vary quite a bit.

What's clear only in retrospect is how tentatively Coleman's musicians embraced their freedom. They weren't playing conventional chord patterns, but the two bass players (Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden) played walking-bass style and kept the pulse of the session swinging. Drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell didn't have traditional song cues to react to, but they didn't play out of rhythm either. They swung. So when, for a few moments, a single horn plays, it sounds like a conventional jazz session. Also, the musicians brought some set ideas to the proceedings as shown by a bass section that sounds remarkably similar in both recordings.

Freedom is too often confused with a lack of discipline. There is nothing undisciplined about Free Jazz. Coleman on alto saxophone, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet all were musicians of great skill trying to make expressive music on the spot, relying on nothing but their wits. Remarkably, they succeeded most of the time.

On the other hand, John Coltrane's Giant Steps (January 1960) and My Favorite Things (March 1961) sound more conventional today than they did when they came out. That simply means that Coltrane's innovations have become so widespread that we don't notice them anymore. Coltrane went through a number of periods in his work, but this one, which started while he was working with Miles Davis in the late '50s, may be his best.

Although both Coleman and Coltrane were on quests to create the most personal expression possible in music, Coltrane took an opposite approach to get there. Coleman threw out harmony and melody, but Coltrane developed his instrumental ability to completely master them. This made him one of the greatest tenor saxophone players ever, but that greatness didn't seem to matter to him.

For Coltrane, life was one long practice. He rarely put down his instrument for long. He confessed that he wasn't sure what he was seeking, and the alternate takes of My Favorite Things show that uncertainty, as he starts off from the same point but takes his solos in different directions. His solos always emphasized the trip over the destination.

Coltrane was criticized for putting too many notes into his solos, as though he was showing off his technical proficiency and ignoring expressive musical content. That's like criticizing the English language for having too many words in it. Studying Coltrane's solos shows that every note, no matter how fleeting, has a strong musical relationship to the chord changes of the song. To organize that complexly on the fly is amazing. What's apparent even with a casual listening is that the sheets of sound Coltrane produced gave his music a complex texture that also was emotionally engaging.

Whereas Coltrane practically cloistered himself in pursuit of his muse, bassist Charles Mingus remained totally engaged, in a social and political sense, in the events going on around him. If little of Coleman or Coltrane's music spoke specifically about being black, Mingus (a native Arizonan, by the way) often wore his race on his sleeve, turning the music of the black church to his own ends in such tunes as "Better Get Hit in Your Soul." In the liner notes to the March 1960 release of Blues & Roots, Mingus admitted that the idea for a record focused on the blues came from producer Nesuhi Ertegun, and said it was a response to criticism that Mingus didn't swing.

Mingus, who did on a number of occasions overintellectualize his music, delivered a passionate, earthy recording to silence his critics. Beginning with the gospel flavor of "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," Mingus made his expanded group of nine players dig into a place where carnality and spirit merged. The ensemble passages rock with the force of a larger group.

Multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk remains the most overlooked of this group of musicians. This is probably because Kirk's music was the least well-served by his recordings. Ironically, Kirk, blind almost since birth, was a particularly compelling visual performer, known for playing up to three horns at once. This was no gimmick. His embouchure (the position of a player's lips when blowing into the horn) was not perfect, so he'd get more squeaks when he played multiple horns, but the sight and sound of this one-man horn ensemble was a remarkable thing to experience. Certainly, there never was a tighter horn section. When Kirk played a single instrument, he leaned toward tenor saxophone or flute. When playing flute, he would sometimes vocalize into it.

Kirk got many ideas from dreams. He changed his name from Ronald to Roland, and later added the name Rahsaan, all because these names came to him in dreams. So did the multiple-horn idea.

Where Coleman and Coltrane essentially always played in their style, whatever it might be in a particular phase of their lives, both Mingus and Kirk were eclectic and used elements from every style of jazz and the blues in their music. Kirk so fully understood the music that even when he played snatches of New Orleans-style, it sounded thoroughly contemporary and alive, a feat that has completely eluded such highly touted modern-day performers as Wynton Marsalis.

Unlike the other four albums in this batch, The Inflated Tear was recorded late in the decade (1967) and released in June 1968. Coltrane's death in 1967 saddened Kirk, and may have influenced some reflections on his own mortality. The Inflated Tear was about being blinded accidentally when a nurse put too much medicine in his infant eyes.

The song's overwhelming opening line, in which Kirk blows three horns with all his might, gives way to a sad but dreamy melody. The whole album juggles moods in much the same way, from melancholy to an almost joyous sense of triumphing over adversity.

Much as Giant Steps marked the beginning of Coltrane's best period, The Inflated Tear heralded Kirk's top phase. He followed with a number of strong efforts, such as Volunteered Slavery (possibly his best album) and Blacknuss.

Soon after, this era of jazz closed out. The persistent echoes, though, haven't faded yet.

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