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Life Is A Long Song: John Coltrane, Miles Davis And Prog Rock With Trumpets

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Photo by Geoff Tischman

Something akin to one of the BBC’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures would appear to have taken place in my parents’ sitting room over the course of a pre-festive season catch-up with the Yorkshire branch of the family: my cousin Clive joining myself and uncle Steve, the man who did as much as anyone to give me even a scrap of purpose in life by opening up his record collection and, in doing so, showing me how much could and would be geared towards listening and learning.

Years later he would tell me that he’d sensed I needed an escape from the often confusing business of life as a disabled person in an able world, and so we would retreat to his room and immerse ourselves in whatever took our fancy, often ending with me going home with bags of anything and everything, having been taught the virtue of an eclectic taste.

Occasionally the student teaches the master, a case in point being my managing to convince him there was some merit in Black Sabbath after all (Bill Ward’s playing in retrospect the nearest thing I ever got to an introduction to jazz prior to actual jazz), though mostly his guidance has shaped me. The simple act of putting something on and showing me into its world probably being one of the greatest gifts its been my privilege to receive

Fast forward and we and our fellow traveller, seemingly cut from the same cloth, were discussing what we’d been listening to lately as we often will. Steve had revisited Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music, Clive extolled the virtues of the random nature of his playlist and I chipped in with Bitches Brew, which had taken my fancy for some longer-form listening one evening recently.

This then gave way to the state of things for 2018, the consensus being that nothing much had overly grabbed us. On the agenda next was the end of year best album lists in both Uncut and Mojo magazines, Steve and I both long term readers and talk soon turning to Kamasi Washington, whose face adorns the cover of January 2019’s compilation of goodies for the second of those fine publications.

Washington’s Heaven & Earth, though, did nothing for dear old uncle. What he said afterwards as the conversational jazz began flowing is the reason I felt compelled to write this: “It’s just prog rock with trumpets.”

Can it be true and is it really that simple?

Cut to Clive on John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and possibly life itself: “Sometimes when I listen to it I think it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve heard and on another day I find it discordant and wonder what the fuss is about.”

This is an opinion shared by Martin Gayford for the Daily Telegraph, who wrote that if you as listener are in the mood, “…it’s majestic and compelling; if you’re not, it’s interminable and pretentious.”

Criticisms which can equally be laid at the feet of Steve’s point of comparison. He had inadvertently caused me to discover all this over a shared love of the Flaming Lips (who can be interminable–if you can brave The Terror and everything after–and in the sweep of The Soft Bulletin, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots utterly compelling), whom we’d seen live at the bargain price of £20 each just prior to Christmas a good seven or so years ago now during their tour for the Embryonic album, upon which Miles had been mentioned as an influence.

I’d known the name but not heard the music, so off I went to gobble up Birth Of The Cool- On The Corner (a stack which sits atop the stereo as I write), marking a shift for him from straight blowing to sheer absorption of the likes of Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown into his orbit.

It’s tempting to suggest that in doing so he himself went further into the stratosphere marked Prog. But an emissary (allegedly) from beyond the stars could be said to have gone further even than that and indeed Coltrane’s own auditory statement of faith, an admission that his talent came from a higher power. Herman Blount of Birmingham, Alabama seems to have run with some pretty out-there thinking of his own in that he claimed to speak through music on behalf of a higher power. In an interview he once said:

“My whole body changed into something else. I could see through myself. And I went up… I wasn’t in human form… I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn. They teleported me and I was down on [a] stage with them. They wanted to talk with me. They had one little antenna on each ear. A little antenna over each eye. They talked to me. They told me to stop [attending college] because there was going to be great trouble in schools… the world was going into complete chaos… I would speak [through music], and the world would listen. That’s what they told me.”

And so Sun Ra came into being.

Drawing upon Ancient Egypt, adopting the name of the god of the sun, he was prog before prog, sitting in a pyramid all his own, taking instruction from his new masters.

Of course, that part of history did much for ancient music in itself, also later not least spurring Miles to forgo pure acoustic in favour of experimenting with electronics post-Nefertiti, which would come to fruition in his Brew from which poured Pharaoh’s Dance. But looking further back, just to widen the scope a little, consider that both jazz and its questing equivalent draw upon the ancestors of primitive instruments, Ian Anderson beaten to the flute by at least 41,000 years worth of history going on analysis of an equivalent found at Divje Babe (Slovenia) carved from the femur of a cave bear.

Life is a long song, indeed.

And from there, the trumpet.

Drums have of course been with us for a similarly long stretch of the road out of Africa, serving similar communicative and ceremonial functions. Whether the message is still the same is surely up for discussion, days of future passed as both genres discussed here have tried to press for something deeper, spur us to continue a search for meaning.

And if they can do that, surely they’ve achieved something between them.

We’ll close with Clive again, as if “on the whole the brilliant days outnumber the discordant ones,” to round off his Love Supreme critique, surely you’re living (and indeed listening) right–lessons I’ve tried to take from both my fellow participants here to whom this is dedicated.