Weird Impressions

Two new sets of reissues document the strange side of a pair of jazz giants

From the '60s through the early '70s, jazz fans clamored for something as "far out" as what was happening in rock music. They were offered what many found to be a choice between two flavors of awful: the dissimilar, avant-garde rantings of saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Seven recent reissues, five by Coltrane -- Impressions, Ascension, Kulu Se Mama, New Thing at Newport and Interstellar Space -- and two by Coleman -- The Complete Science Fiction Sessions and Skies of America -- resurface Twilight Zone material that many still find to be garbage.

Garbage was not what anyone was expecting from John Coltrane come the mid-'60s. The tenor saxophonist was hot stuff, an important presence on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue -- still considered by many to be the greatest jazz album ever -- and the creator of a heady interpretation of Disney's popular theme on his own My Favorite Things. Both albums were in the collection of anyone who listened to jazz. College students played them when they studied, and young Hugh Hefner wanna-bes used both as soundtracks for bedding the bouffanted babes. Coltrane was on his way to becoming a household name -- a rare thing in jazz -- had he continued to regurgitate this perfect mix of library jazz and nookie music.

Instead, he ruined his reputation. Coltrane was becoming more and more obsessed with his instrument -- he played everywhere he went. He walked and even slept with his sax. The tenorman was also becoming more spiritual, turning to Eastern philosophies for answers just as the Beatles and Donovan would several years later. He played standards less and less, instead using his horn to express a nonverbal form of praying on extended, open-ended jams with titles like "A Love Supreme" and "Song of Praise." It was not what the nightclub crowds were expecting to hear.

Would you rather hear a jackhammer or a car crash?: Coltrane (right) and Coleman's stranger moments get a reappraisal.
Would you rather hear a jackhammer or a car crash?: Coltrane (right) and Coleman's stranger moments get a reappraisal.

Miles Davis and Coltrane had experimented with modal playing, improvising for lengthy periods over a single chord. On 1963's Impressions, Coltrane took the approach much further, soloing over the title cut's two chords for 15 minutes -- and much longer in concert. "India" was an ode to the spirituality of that country, featuring fellow trailblazer Eric Dolphy on an unlikely instrument for jazz: the bass clarinet. Dolphy's playing was as angular and skewed as a Picasso painting -- a perfect foil for the unnerving style Coltrane was developing. Though Coltrane referred to the music as meditation, the thousand-note-a-minute soloing sounded like a mind gradually unreeling itself into dangerous territory.

A critic accurately referred to his auctioneer-speed horn glossalalia as "sheets of sound." Many fans agreed: To them his manic wailing sounded like a sax slammed against sheets of metal. Coltrane's old audience quickly disappeared.

The new Coltrane, though, was just beginning. 1965's Ascension made Impressions sound tame in comparison. Two trumpets, two alto saxophones, two basses and two tenor saxophones were piled together, with most of them soloing simultaneously. The Ascension album was a single 38-minute piece which the Impulse! label had to cut in half, filling both sides of an album. Coltrane informed them that the wrong version had been issued. The label, displaying an amazing degree of flexibility regarding an album that would sell only a handful of copies, released Coltrane's favored version. Most listeners, though, were unable to tell the difference, finding the versions -- both on the reissue -- equally ugly. So did two of the band members. The group's intensity buried the presence of longtime Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. Both were now openly angry with the direction of the saxophonist's sound -- once genteel, now a soul-searching howl.

Eric Dolphy, Coltrane's most advanced cohort in cacophony, died before Ascension had been recorded. He was replaced by the growling and wailing of Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, two sax extremists who were nowhere near Dolphy's class. While 1965's Kulu Se Mama was less assaultive, with its smaller horn section and moody African percussion, the splinter in the listener's ear was tenorman Sanders, whose raspy yelps sounded like a throat being cleared. New Thing at Newport, released the same year, featured Shepp's mean squawking, with his and Coltrane's quartets each occupying half the album. The association with both Sanders and Shepp whacked the nails deeper into the coffin of Coltrane's mainstream career.

Conservative jazz fans hated Sanders and Shepp even more than the new Coltrane -- at least Coltrane had proven himself capable of playing straight ahead, unlike these two impostors who only honked. Sanders and Shepp squealed and grunted while Coltrane knew how to soar -- admittedly, even lyrically -- in his outlandishness.

The ultimate proof came with 1967's Interstellar Space. Brain-draining as Coltrane's music had been on the previous releases, his direction and internal rhythm were much more obvious as Coltrane dropped his army of sidemen and blew hard with only drummer Rashied Ali as support. Ali was a likely choice, his free-form drumming as appallingly raw and lightning-quick as Coltrane's sax. Coltrane's cries quickly moved from psalmlike melodies to blatantly painful shrieking, sounding as though the studio had become his wailing wall. Few listeners knew what to make of the album. On Interstellar Space, Coltrane's soul-exposing was so off-putting that he at once sounded intimidating and vulnerable.

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