Z is for Coltrane

| February 10, 2014

John Coltrane

While reading Ingolt’s work, I’ve been thinking about Klee’s notion of taking a line out for a walk in so much as it relates to jazz improvisation. I spent a formative chunk of my life intensely studying music theory, under the influence of the major pioneers of mid-late 20th century pioneers like Coltrane and Monk. When discussing and describing the melodies we improvise over chord changes, the term most often used is “lines”. ( e.g. “Miles played some really weird lines over those changes!”)

Coltrane and Charlie Parker were two of the most significant innovators in gracefully weaving complex lines effortlessly through the formal restrictions of chord changes. I use the term ‘weaving’ in a similar sense to the notion of the ‘hyperbolic space‘ of the woven sculptures that we examined in class last week. It’s the notion of taking a confined space, and maximizing the amount of movement that can be embodied and carved out within it, through line-weaving. A sort of a maximalization of restricted space through exaggerated lines.

To that end, I want to share this animation of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” solo, widely regarded as a groundbreaking work in creating a new style of playing really fast lines above/within/around/through rapidly moving chord changes. If you think of the chord changes as tetris-like obstacles that shift bar by bar as irregularly-shaped blocks, the goal is to (expressively!) create intricate and compelling melodies in the harmonic spaces the chords create. And Coltrane did that in a way that no one had heard before.

I think this animation captures some of the pyrotechnics of the solo, while reinforcing that despite the seemingly effortless flow, the soaring freedom of his expressive lines, Coltrane was working within really tight, confined harmonic spaces (as symbolized by the angular geometry of the animation).

Watch and enjoy…