Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Speed matters

Music is presence itself. Playing or listening, each note exists in its own bit of time, and until a note is appreciated and felt, it can't go on to the next note. But link the notes together, and presence may or may not survive the transitions.

I learned a little more about that from Joe Lovano's sheets of sound the other night at SFJazz, where Lovano played tenor with Jack DeJohnette's Spring Quartet. "Sheets of sound" was journalist Ira Gitler's term for John Coltrane's cascading eruptions of hundreds of blistery notes. Coltrane's wails started as harmonic inventions -- overlaying three different chord progressions in a single, dense arpeggio flurry -- and were reinforced by his belief that speed would enhance his quest for God.

For many years I didn't get it. Coltrane sounded cold to me, analytic and cerebral. Where was the heart and soul? Virtuosity for the sake of human accomplishment? I dropped him down the same hole I dug for Pink Floyd. Engineered music. Music for me was an escape from super-rationality, the hell I lived in. Music was a place to feel overt emotion, right?

But I noticed something as Lovano reprised Coltrane's effects. I imagined for once that I was inside the soloist, playing fast and using the heavily rehearsed structures of chords, harmonics, scales, and arpeggios as vehicles for freedom. By playing so much so fast, I felt, Lovano was forced to surrender to the moment completely. He never had breathing space to take control himself. He had to trust that God would fill his horn with breath and move his fingers with music. Surrender.

I can't find any video of the Spring Quartet. Too bad, because the soul resonance that emerged from Lovano and DeJohnette was palpable all night. I'm sure DeJohnette was playing figures at times, but I didn't once notice them. It was as if he was in every note with curiosity and energetic creativity that seemed to float above his drum kit. The two kids in the group, Esperanza Spalding on bass and Leo Genovese on piano, comped and supported the older men as they soared. It was a kick to see Spalding in awe of the music; the one time I saw her fronting her own group it seemed like so much ego and not much else.

Here's Coltrane flying through A Love Supreme:

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