Show #246: World Music Influences on John Coltrane’s Music

The brilliant jazz artist John Coltrane (1926-1967) is an iconic musician for so many reasons. There are his masterpiece recordings and his mastery of the soprano and tenor saxophones. He re-wrote the saxophone book with his 1959 album Giant Steps. He searched relentlessly for musical exaltation and spiritual truth in albums like A Love Supreme, Om, and Ascension.

Coltrane also explored other musical mediums and styles in his constant search for new sounds. He learned about Indian modes and scales from the sitar master Ravi Shankar. He studied African rhythms with Nigerian percussionist Michael Babatunde Olatunji, and recorded the adventurous big band album Africa/Brass in 1961. On this show we’ll listen to Coltrane recordings that show the influence of his studies with Shankar and Olatunji.

We begin with Coltrane’s 1960 hit “My Favorite Things,” from the album of the same name which sold over 50,000 copies in its first year. It was an astounding sales figure for a jazz instrumental album. There were even 7-inch 45 rpm singles of it for budget-conscious consumers. A song-plugger had given him a copy of the sheet music for this Rodgers & Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music. Coltrane reworked it into an innovative jazz classic.

What’s interesting about this piece is that Coltrane employs just two chords, E major and E minor, and the E minor section is done in a Phrygian mode. On the piano, Phrygian is all white keys going one octave up beginning with E. It gives the music a more exotic sound and feel. In it, Coltrane was using some of the elements he learned from the Indian sitar master. The sound of his soprano sax sometimes resembles the Indian shenai, a double-reed instrument used in Indian and Pakistani music, seen and heard in videos of cobras uncoiling and coming out of baskets. I drove my family crazy by listening repeatedly to My Favorite Things in my bedroom in high school. I still listen with amazement after all these years.

We next hear a live recording of “India” from one of Coltrane’s amazing concerts in early November 1961, at the Village Vanguard in New York City. This different version of “India” was not released on the album Impressions for which these Village Vanguard sessions were originally recorded. It features Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Ahmed Abdul Malik on oud and (I believe) sitar, Garvin Bushell on oboe, bassoon, and contrabassoon. Critics at the time called this music “anti-jazz.” In my opinion, however, it was and is an expression of pure energy and exaltation, evoking White Light and other Jackson Pollock paintings.

The audience’s tepid applause at the end of the piece suggests that they either didn’t get it or like it, or were just exhausted after the intense 15 minute performance. I only know one person who attended these historic Village Vanguard sessions, and it was the director David Greene. He told me that he was on his feet screaming during these sessions in a state of total and transcendent immersion. “India” from the Vanguard set is not music for the faint of heart. It is an intense musical experience that pulls out all the stops. Eric Dolphy’s solo is as intense as anything he had ever done, and Coltrane’s inspiration and influence are evident throughout.

The final track of this week’s triptych is “Tunji,” which Coltrane dedicated to Nigerian percussionist Michael Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji’s seminal album Drums of Passion was the first traditional African album produced by a major U.S. record label, Columbia Records. “Tunji” is a slow, bluesy, and haunting ballad. I’ve only heard it performed live by one other musician—Branford Marsalis at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, long ago.

Coltrane was a musical seeker who has been one of the most important influences on my musical tastes and career. I will always be a follower of this amazing artist, his powerful music, and gentle spirit. For those who are interested in learning more about John Coltrane, I highly recommend the 2017 film Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 1/19/18

  1. John Coltrane / “My Favorite Things” /My Favorite Things/ Atlantic
  2. John Coltrane / “India” / The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings / Impulse!
  3. John Coltrane / “Tunji” / Coltrane / Impulse!