My Favorites (Jazz): "Transition" - John Coltrane

For the person who is a beginner to John Coltrane's music, they may find this recording to be a bit advanced and difficult to follow.  The way the rhythm section plays doesn’t give you anything to hold on to.  They play so loose that you can't really tell where the beat is.  In fact it's easier to tell the beat by listening to Coltrane.  Some of the easier recordings of Coltrane’s music are from the 1950s where you can hear the traditional rhythm section approach, when you get to the mid 60's it takes a more advanced listener to appreciate what's happening in the music.  You also have to keep in mind the context of the recording.  It was recorded in 1965 which is during the tumultuous period of the Civil Rights Movement and soon after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X (the recording was done in May and Malcolm was assassinated in February of 1965). 

When listening to “Transition” you have to listen to the whole conversation between the rhythm section and Coltrane’s saxophone.  Some people initially thought that this music didn't swing however if you catch the implied rhythms its swings like crazy, maybe not in a traditional way for you to dance a jitter bug to but if you let the music take you, you may just do the holy dance.

The way to approach this recording is to view it is a journey. Coltrane makes the initial statement that is 16 bars.  Then he expounds on this idea (going over the bar line in many instances) in 16 bar increments as each chorus of his solo builds in intensity. He interjects screams for emotional emphasis, which are actually chords played on the saxophone. To create a chord on a saxophone you have to overblow on the reed to create harmonics which are basically layered frequencies.  The band listens intently to Coltrane’s solo and they add emphasis to the ending of his phrases and also provide support to his expositions. 

The part that made me go crazy (in a good way) was when I heard the build up of his solo and the subsequent explosion that happens at 3:40 in.  His statements become more intense as he approaches his climax and then he begins to scream and wail building the intensity with higher and higher frequencies.  The rhythm section (especially Elvin Jones on the drums) builds along with him supporting his phrases with accents and pauses.  Then at the 3:40 mark they drop the atom bomb and you are left reeling from the fallout of having your mind blown by sheer musical ecstasy.  The fact that everyone in the rhythm section knew exactly where to drop the bomb, was unfathomable to me.  It was as if they were acting as one mind and in complete synchronization. 

Needless to say this recording is one of my top favorite Coltrane pieces along with “Resolution” and “Pursuance” from A Love Supreme. I think the unity of the band is what makes this recording stand out.  When you hear Coltrane you can’t help but feel the energy and power in his playing but when you couple that with the rhythm section acting as one synchronous whole it’s like a laser beam that cuts through anything and you are left speechless.  This of course is not to say that Coltrane’s rhythm section doesn’t connect on other recordings, in fact they connect on most if not all recordings during this era.  It’s just that on this particular recording there is a miraculous moment of oneness that, for me, stands above all others. 
With all of that said, I think the best way to experience Coltrane’s music from this era is not to “think” about it at first, just listen.  Let the music do its thing to you and then go back and find out why.  Just as with the debate over science and spirituality, listening to music is by far more important than studying it.  My view is that science is mankind’s rudimentary attempt to understand the spiritual realm, but that spirit definitely trumps science.  As Louis Armstrong said, “If you hear good music, don’t try and figure out what it is, just go on and enjoy it.”

John Coltrane - tenor saxophone
McCoy Tyner - piano
Elvin Jones - drums
Jimmy Garrison - bass

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