The ruler of darkness sometimes stumbles on his own intentions. How else could you explain that a one-week unplanned stop in New York, on my return trip, coincided with a Coltrane engagement at Birdland? Trane was on his way at the speed of a runaway horse, the after-burner was lit completely, he had learnt how to fly but still not sail like the kite he was about to be. The chords, the "sheets of sound," were sitting as they should, his possessed technique practices were paying off, and he had his Selmer sax under full control. Single, unaccompanied (or Elvin sometimes as the only companion), excursions in the out backs of music, pure saxophone-classes, added to the singing Afro-Indian long notes. In a way he started to go forward reversibly, to basics. In mastery lies a paradox that those through fire reach serenity. It was evident that he was beginning to arrive to this point. But there were still roads to travel, jungles to explore. I must tell you about my childhood experiences sitting playing on the kitchen floor listening to my father, an accordion player, practicing. It is not unusual to me what I heard then, in relation to the kind of playing Coltrane was into at times. There was a similarity between the need for technical skill, and even the rattling sound of the keys was similar in nature. Therefore, to me Coltrane is also an accordionist, at times [! Metaphorically, of course ;-) - eds.]
The New York audience is tough on serious musicians. Maybe it's because they don't take a solemn attitude towards the music but see it as a reflection of the city beat. It is messy, noisy, in the clubs. Laughter; glass clinks. To be a serious artist with something important to say could destroy you. Artistry calls for courage, strength, stubbornness, self-confidence. Or else you are lost. Birdland was no exception. High background hum, from lack of interest by people coming for just to talk, or by those unwilling to give public appreciation or who are unable to recognize good from bad. In the United States all is business, you have to be able to sell your product and most is on the client's conditions. Trane handled this. Forward leaning, rockin', he gave it all on his own terms. And strangely these selling points were taken right on. The merchandise was so strong that it stood up to the hum, the mess, all the irrelevant comments. Not mentioning all those charlatans, all those fools living in the past with their dried-up views and "anti-jazz" judgements, etc. As you might understand I don't have much left for the slanderers of John Coltrane. I am unreasonable, but then again I can afford the luxury of a personal standpoint. But you are not a punk if you dislike him; you're just a puff.
I didn't speak much about Coltrane's last performances. Breaking up his quartet marked a new chapter in his career and development. The same outfit that provided such immense possibilities, which had opened up a window to expand through around 1960, by 1965 had become a kind of prison. Being what he was, a constant investigator of the mysteries of music, in the quartet he had gone through every road on the map and now he needed another dimension to be able to proceed. Elvin and McCoy in particular were not ideal for this mission; he knew he had to look for something different. Harmonically, structurally, sound wise, everything, the quartet was used up. It must have been a tremendous, yet frightening, challenge to throw all overboard. And it was a totally new situation from what he had ever had before. This time he didn't know where to go, what to look for or where it would lead him. He just knew he had to reprogram his mind, to forget much of what he had accomplished with pain and work and merely hope that the land he was entering had the opportunities, was fertile. And he couldn't bring Elvin, McCoy, Garrison with him (Jimmy tried for a short while though).
The John Coltrane career, from the very start and right on up to 1965, had been propelled by his more or less clear image of what he was after. It was all about making yourself ready for it, do everything you can to make it happen, to polish and tune your gear and by the time you get there you'll know for sure, it will be like seeing an old lover after such a long time. And the revelation when you find her will match the emptiness when you realize you have no future together. From 1965 on it was a different ball game. After starting cautiously by blending new members into the group, he soon would cut the ties to the past completely with a whole new band. I can only say, to sum up the 1965-1967 phase, that this project of transition was never finished, barely introduced, there wasn't enough time. It is intriguing to consider what would have become of it, had it been allowed to continue. Beautiful, new, mind twisting, outstanding, no doubt.