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The Saxophone Guru: Rediscovering John Coltrane’s Musical Genius

John Coltrane, an American jazz saxophonist and composer, was undeniably one of the most important artists in the 20th century. Not only was he one of the most technically proficient musicians to hail from the jazz tradition but also one of the most spiritually profound. His undying devotion to his art has and continues to inspire a whole slew of musicians who followed in his footsteps. Ace saxophonist, TSM Course Director and die-hard Coltrane fan, Pawan Benjamin, along with Pro Keys faculty Sharik Hasan, Pro Bass faculty Breno Viricimo, Pro Vocals faculty Sim Virdi and Pro Drums faculty Ruben Steijns, conducted a masterclass on Coltrane’s musical genius in the TSM Auditorium on 24th July 2014.


Pawan and the TSM Pro faculty kicked off the masterclass with a lively performance of Blue Train, one of Coltrane’s most renowned compositions. Following this, Pawan gave the attendees a background on Coltrane, like the fact that he was born in 1926 in North Carolina but on losing his father early on, moved to Philadelphia to live with his mother. As a teen, Coltrane joined the navy to avoid joining the army and at that time the navy was a good gig for musicians because they could be part of the navy band. This is where he got his first taste of playing music. The navy band that Coltrane was playing with did him a lot of good, not just in terms of experience but opportunity as well. Through it he met several musicians in Philadelphia, one among them was a saxophonist called Jimmy Heath who introduced him to jazz legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Coltrane received his first big band experience playing with these artists and this led to a mind-numbing opportunity for Coltrane because another saxophone maestro, namely, Miles Davis very quickly took him under his wing after noticing his work. Together, they came out with Kind of Blue in 1959 and Coltrane’s popularity soared. Pawan revealed that it was during this period that Coltrane started finding his own voice and recorded an album called Giant Steps, the breakthrough album for Coltrane as a leader. The faculty then performed a beautiful rendition of a ballad from that album called ‘Naima’.


Coltrane was raised in a spiritual household and was a serious musician who was profound and practiced a lot. He took music a step ahead into the spiritual realm and was considered a saint of sorts in the jazz world. Pawan revealed that Coltrane, even while recording, was searching for something. There was an instance when he kept playing and Miles had to remind him that they had an album to record and that he was using up all the tape. In response to which Coltrane replied saying he couldn’t help it, he just felt like playing a lot and didn’t know how to stop to which Miles famously said, “Take the horn out of your mouth”. Pawan then screened a rare interview of Coltrane speaking about his influences, his music and his future plans.

Next, Pawan introduced the attendees to Coltrane’s quartet that was responsible for creating and performing some of Coltrane’s most profound work. One song, in particular, by the quartet garnered a lot of attention; it was a rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from the musical, Sound of Music. The 60’s saw the beginning of an influx of Indian music in to America and Coltrane was already promoting a form of music called modal music wherein the song doesn’t have that many chord changes and everything is played primarily over one tonality, much like Indian classical music. Coltrane fused these ideas to create a very special version of ‘My Favourite Things’ that the faculty recreated for the packed auditorium at TSM.


Post the brilliant performance, Sharik Hasan, then took the stage to speak about how Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner, revolutionized the way piano was played. In an era where bebop was prevalent and pianists were expected to play sparsely with scalar solos, McCoy used wider intervals, triads and pentatonic scales. He was credited with introducing the use of fourths after which a lot of young pianists started to impersonate him. “The piano took on a new role in the quartet where it created a strong rhythmic blanket of sound that allowed Coltrane to just explode into the stratosphere”, said Sharik. Then, Ruben shared some insights on the playing style of Elvin Jones, the drummer for the Coltrane quartet and he explained that, in the realm of jazz drumming, there was a time before Elvin and there was a time after. He stepped out of time conventions thereby changing the way drums were perceived and his trademark style was using lots of triplets to fill up the empty spaces. Owing to these 2 musicians, Coltrane’s sound at the time was being called sheets of sound with Coltrane himself revolutionizing the way jazz harmony was played. This discussion was followed by a stirring faculty performance of Coltrane’s ‘Body and Soul’.


Post the performance Pawan played a recording of Alabama, a haunting composition written by John Coltrane that appears on his album Live at Birdland (1963) to illustrate his knack for experimenting with Indian music. Pawan revealed that Coltrane was so influenced by Indian classical music that he named his son Ravi Coltrane, as a tribute to Ravi Shankar. The masterclass was concluded by a scintillating performance of ‘Acknowledgement’ and ‘Resolution’ which are part 1 and 2 of Coltrane’s magnum opus titled A Love Supreme. A truly inspiring and insightful evening!


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