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Wednesday, 18 July 2012

A Love Supreme


"Today, even at the highest levels of sport, coaches are creating robots. Movement is not paint by numbers -it is an expressionist drawing. It is not a classical aria, it is a jazz riff". Vern Gambetta

45 years ago yesterday, John Coltrane passed due to liver failure at the age of 40. The legendary jazz saxophonist is probably the most infuential sax player of all time, guiding not only further generations of jazz players, but many musicians in other disciplines, not to mention inspiring the whole of African American culture. In San Fransisco, there is even a St John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. 
Besides being a technically gifted player, and a major player in the most famous of jazz quintets (Miles Davis' first great quintet, which recorded - among other things - Kind of Blue), Coltrane was known for driving the form of the music forward. Jazz is a music that is always building. Always searching. Always changing. Both in its play, and in its growth. Context and content, both. From the time that Coltrane first burst on the scene - and especially once he became leader of his own group - he epitomized what jazz is best known for: improvisation. 
Beginning with his time with the Davis quintet, continuing with Giant Steps in 1959, where Coltrane first debuted his famous sheets of sounds (layering notes on top of each other - 'multiphonics'), then through the more contemplative improvisations of A Love Supreme in 1964, and into his last, Eastern influenced modal explorations of Expression and Interstellar Space, Coltrane was never static. He was forever searching. Improvisational solos would stretch to 30 minutes and more in the pursuit of...
It is this improvisation which is the underbelly of the music, and it's what sets Coltrane apart from mere mortals before and after (In 1966, an interviewer in Japan asked Coltrane what he hoped to be in five years, and Coltrane replied, "A saint."). Yet there is a structure to jazz, as there was with Coltrane. It's important to work to that structure, but have the freedom to improvise within it. It is when Coltrane seemingly abandoned structure, improvising for extended periods on a very simple theme - when exploring what has been called avant-garde, free improvisation, free jazz, and 'the new thing' - where he lost much of his audience (Including me. I listened to his later records over and over for years - figuring there must be something in there that I'm not getting, and it would eventually come to me; but it didn't and I eventually gave up. Give them a listen to, and you'll see what I mean). The public and critics alike were not able to accept this 'free improvisation' - it was just too chaotic. 
Wynton Marsalis has said, “In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary.”

Coltrane chose to ignore structure, or perhaps was operating from a structure that the majority are unable to see (it's also important to note the influences on the direction of his music during this period; including his increasing interest in Eastern religious thought, Indian music, and how jazz was seen as the artistic equivalent to Black Nationalism - thus, a more expressive, violent, and dynamic language). 
So yes - Gambetta's oft-repeated analogy of the good coach needing to be like a jazz player and not a classical musician is apt, if a little incomplete (the anaolgy has also been used, by Gambetta as well as others, to describe athletes, systems, and movement - as it is in the quote at the beginning of this post).
Taken by itself, I feel the analogy does a bit of a disservice to both musical forms: almost suggesting that jazz is only free-form improv - lacking structure; while classical is strict and soul-less. Improvisation exists as a part of many forms of classical music, especially before the 'early-ninteenth century development of the concept of the fully-notated, independent, "great work," which gave birth to the concepts of Werktreue (being true to the work) and Texttreue (being true to the text)' (Eric Edberg). Even with this form though, there is a degree of improvisation available to the arranger, band-leader, and conductor. Ever listen to Beethoven's 5th? Same notes, same instruments, but few sound the same.
Expert in early-Western music, Jordi Savall is quoted as saying "the most impressive part of the music we play is the art of improvisation...it is always risky, because of its very nature, but it needs to be organised to prevent chaos...it doesn't mean you do what you like. You have to follow the structure and work out which instruments will be involved before you go on stage."
Without structure. Without a rich and deep musical understanding. Without years of training, the improvisation is just noise. Innovation, creation, and improvisation is born out of this structure. "Coltrane...was a master of technique; he would practice his horn for many hours each day. In these periods of acquiring technique, Trane truly found himself, and found a way to musically express his experiences and feelings. He was genuinely obsessed with the basics of his horn, the basics of his sound. A musician once recounted to me how Coltrane's practice sessions went...first he played an entire hour of only whole notes, focusing exclusively on his tone. Then came another hour of just half notes, then another hour of quarter notes, working on scales, arpeggios, along with his tone. Next was an hour of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and faster runs, incorporating everything he had done so far with speed as well. He would then spend a few hours working on exercise books for other instruments, such as violin and harp. Finally came time spent on actual songs or compositions, which would often consume a few more hours. Every musician practices technique and scales, but very few are obsessed with the basics of sound in the way Coltrane was". (from The Art of John Coltrane and Ralph Ellison, an essay by Derek Wright)


I'm not a huge believer in the 10,000 hours rule, and some of the messages being promoted by the pop science-authors, but we cannot deny that a thorough understanding of the fundamentals are the basis for anything that comes after; for the coach and athlete, both.
For coaches, it is imperative that we have an underlying structure. A guiding methodology. But we cannot become 'handcuffed' to it. The body is an organic, dynamical system of inter-connections and inter-dependencies. We can predict how it will adapt to stress, but it's always just that - a prediction. The most successful coaches are the ones who can best recognize when the adaptation is askew. When our prediction is faulty. The quicker we can do this, the faster we're back on track. Like Coltrane, this involves more than just playing a bunch of random notes, and calling it 'jazz'. 


Without a thorough understanding of your sport, as well as a workable knowledge of the related disciplines, and an ability to think laterally, we can not begin to think of ourselves as 'jazz musicians' - and nor can our athletes.
I think we need to find that 'sweet spot'...the Kind of Blue spot. The Giant Steps spot. A Love Supreme spot. 
'Structured improvisation'. 
Not 'free improvisation. Not Interstellar Space. Not Expression.

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