II. John Coltrane
Let us sing all songs to God
To whom all praise is due …
The Coltrane quote above comes from his album A Love Supreme, which was an expression of Coltrane’s inner spiritual struggle and his gratitude to God. The movement alludes to some of Coltrane’s famous tunes and “licks.” After a free intro, there is a written-out solo over changes that are inspired by Giant Steps, but instead of II-V-I sequences transposed by Major 3rds, it uses II-V-I sequences transposed by minor 3rds.
The coltrane movement
As much as the Persichetti movement has strong personal ties, Coltrane was my most difficult personality to imitate. My interpretation of the Coltrane is not organic but rather reverse engineered. Supported by “thumbs up” from Cynthia and jazz musicians who heard the premiere, I’ve decided to include in this article a primer on interpreting jazz for the classically trained musician – sharing the knowledge I gained in the process of working through this movement as well as tidbits I picked up over the years playing with my dad’s dance band and as principal flute with the Philly Pops.
I liken the Coltrane movement to having to learn to speak in a foreign language by mimicking its most fluent native. Before the movement was composed, I listened to an NPR special on John Coltrane and borrowed a few of his LPs from my friend. I discovered that Coltrane’s sound was raw and on edge but his music-making was laid back. I tried to emulate that style in my performance, as well as his discriminant use of vibrato. I used Giant Steps for inspiration and a slow down machine to get it to 1/8 speed so that I could practice a to transcribed version of the first thirty measures of this solo with the master. I notated the slides and the amount of swing, which seemed to be proportionate to changes in his articulation. I then played along until I could get the first section up to speed.
CYNTHIA FOLIO’S THOUGHTS
Email from Cynthia to Lois: “I’ll get the Coltrane movement to you as soon as I can. This one will be fast and somewhat challenging (technically) for both you and Matt!”
Cynthia did not use the same major 3rds changes but minor 3rd tonalities, and composed her own improvisation so everything I learned while preparing Giant Steps was brought close back to square one when learning her movement. I had about a week and a half with the new part before the premiere!
The one thing to keep in mind when performing the Coltrane movement, is the opening is like warming up the horn. While Folio says to use “jazz articulation”, she advised me to play this opening section rather straight and slur in groups of two. In performance I progressively get more laid back with slides, leans and held notes as this opening section progresses.
When the Love Supreme four-note motif enters later on, Cynthia advised me to change the articulation to accentuate the part. I finished which a “dat” articulation, which cuts off and punctuates the ending with a snap. It draws attention to the otherwise fleeting lick.
Email from Cynthia to Lois: The piccolo solo is challenging because it requires some familiarity with jazz articulation and you learned to do this in a short amount of time–sounding like a pro.
MY PERSONAL HISTORY WITH JAZZ AND DANCE BAND
Before I was born, my dad, Bill Bliss, played the tenor sax and clarinet with the big bands in the Philadelphia clubs surrounding WWII. Then for forty years he had his own quartet, the “Cordials”, who performed together at clubs, weddings and parties. I heard his music rehearsed in the house while growing up and when his rehearsals went to other members houses, the wives would go with me in tow, and we would play games or do puzzles and listen while they played.
When I got older, I played the flute with the Abington high school jazz band, took a few improvised solos, and eventually learned to play the tenor sax when I tired of transposing parts for myself to play. I honked away at my dad’s King Super 20, trying to imitate my dad and my older brother Ken who also played tenor, as well as Boots Randolph from the many recordings at my house. My sound wasn’t bad, but it was wrecking my flute playing embouchure, so I gave up the sax after high school.
My own personal swing interpretation when growing up was, in my dad’s words, “corny”. I played jazz as it was explained to me, two plus one triplets, which did not seem right. I was always told to “just feel it” which is a little like telling a drowning person to “just swim”. I only got slightly better at interpretation after I went out on gigs with my dad’s band in high school and college, singing lead vocals and playing the flute on a few numbers like Jobim and always on “Bill’s tune” which was my dad’s idea of getting me to improvise on a straight forward I, IV, V, I progression.
LEARNING JAZZ INTERPRETATION
I tell my story so anyone can see that I didn’t come by performing jazz organically. Classically trained musicians learn how to “feel” jazz to varying success. I will use this space to attempt to teach how to approach jazz from analysis.
First, I learned from improvising with my friend, the fabulous jazz/classical violinist Diane Monroe. She instructed that in swing the strength is on the second eighth note of a grouping of two, not the first. Also, in classical music beats one and three are the strong beats of the measure. In jazz it is the opposite – beats two and four.
I heard from listening to recordings of Coltrane that the second articulation or approach to the note was strong and the first was week so I developed a “yoo-da, yoo-da” articulation for a majority of this movement because in rehearsal Cynthia preferred the articulation to not be slurred very often.
HOW TO SWING
I gained a level of proficiency with the help of some great players who sat next to me when I played principal flute in the Philly Pops. Here is Tony’s secret that taught me to finely feel swing correctly: Place the swing rhythm exactly between two eighths and a two plus one triplets. Add to that placing the strength on the “and” and not the downbeat.
The right “feel” should happen without needing to “feel it”.