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Play it Like You Mean it

Kevin Sun
Kevin Sun
By Kevin Sun, Crimson Staff Writer

On a hazy afternoon last summer, I sat listening to John Coltrane with a friend in Brooklyn. This friend, who is a drummer, and I had gotten together to play some duets and before we played he put on a 1958 Coltrane record called “Soultrane.” Aside from being a very swinging record, the album is significant because in its liner notes, the critic Ira Gitler coined the term “sheets of sound.” The phrase is tossed around here and there in jazz history classes, but in practical terms it refers to Coltrane’s rapid-fire sequences of notes, which cascaded in groups of regularly ascending or descending tones.

You can hear this approach on any number of late ‘50s and early ‘60s Coltrane (e.g.,“Blue Train,” “Stardust,” “Giant Steps”), but my friend wasn’t as interested in the “sheets of sound” as he was in Trane’s rhythmic precision. As Coltrane played run after run on the loping medium-tempo track “Good Bait,” my friend mantrically repeated, “He’s playing what he means. He’s playing what he means!”

Jazz improvisations, by their spontaneous nature, have no intrinsic textual antecedent—that is, if you want to take a look at the notes and rhythms a musician performed on a given night, you can’t ask for a score as you might after an orchestra concert; instead, you usually have to do the work of transcribing, or slowly notating the pitches and rhythms, the recording. On “Good Bait,” you’ll notice how many of these “sheets of sound” rarely fit neatly into the metrical subdivisions usually suggested by Western music notation. In his book on the recordings of the Miles Davis quintet '65-68 studio recordings, Keith Waters aphorizes, “Discrete equal-tempered pitches temporally placed along a time line of equally spaced beats create convenient fictions or half-truths.”

Although this is generally acknowledged, a more important issue, I think, is how we consider whether it matters if Coltrane intentionally played with such a micro-rhythmically expressive relationship to the time, the rhythmic pulse. What my friend meant wasn’t only that Trane “meant it” in the emotional sense—that he was playing without a shred of superficiality—but also that Trane “meant it” in a technical sense: that these groups of notes might lay 4.5, 5, 5.5, or any microdivision of notes against each beat rather than in a neat 2:1, 3:1, or 4:1 note-to-beat ratio.

If you believe Coltrane meant every rhythm and pitch that he played in a technical sense, then he’d be the undisputed master of the music with regards to control: a supreme technician expressive to the microlevels of rhythm and pitch. This is a pretty scary thought. Although it might not seem plausible, it’s certainly a helpful thought experiment because it requires you to confront the role of intentionality in art.

On the topic of intention, there’s one fascinating little detail among the thousands of other fascinating little details in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” that comes to mind. Near the end of the novel, a character is locked out of his home at 7 Eccles Street in Dublin and decides to climb over the railings. He lowers “his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement” and then lets himself down. Joyce could have easily made up the height of the railing, but we know from his letters that he taken the trouble to write his aunt Josephine in Dublin to ask precisely whether one could climb over the railings of the real 7 Eccles Street, then lower oneself until “within 2 or 3 feet of the ground and drop unhurt.” It would seem, in this case, that Joyce really meant what he wrote with regards to the facticity of this minute episode. But this still doesn’t answer the question of what it means that he meant it, or what he himself might have meant by it.

If we believe that Coltrane really did mean, in a technical sense, all that he played on “Good Bait,” there would be no counterargument for those who criticized Coltrane for “chaotic playing” (Philip Larkin, the lauded poet, was one of these detractors. He wrote in a review: “After Coltrane, of course, all was chaos, hatred and absurdity”). As a saxophonist, though, I’d prefer not to believe that Trane was consciously considering the microexpressive gestures and stylistic decisions that mark his style. This is partially because believing so would set an impossibly high mark, but primarily because, although there are attested anecdotes of the conscious preparation Coltrane undertook (writing substitute chord changes on lead sheets before recording sessions, for instance), intention doesn’t dictate how I appreciate and learn from his music.

Just as there are some connections to be made in Joyce that seem intentional while others might not, I think it makes sense to approach recordings in a similar way. How much do we really care that Joyce intended the detail of 7 Eccles Street to map onto reality? Not all microscopically precise details might be intentional in a performance, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t aspire to cultivate the kind of disposition and flexibility to create art with such subtle and, sometime initially unapparent and unintended, beauty.

—Columnist Kevin Sun can be reached at ksun@college.harvard.edu.

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