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Marty Ehrlich & Greg Osby: In Traning

Fell asleep to “After The Rain” last night. Fun to seen so many Coltrane nods in the last few days. Yesterday, of course, was the great one’s birthday. Lately I’ve been unpacking ancient interviews, and came across chats with Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins about their thoughts on Trane’s approach. Here are two more from that era, the late 80s. Marty and Greg had spent lots of time considering the tenor saxophonist’s impact on jazz, that’s for sure. Think I’ll add Eugene Chadbourne’s thoughts to this tonight.


I once said that Trane had a harmonic density. I didn’t mean it in a “cluttered” sense, I just meant he had a whole lot of options. A lot of players exhaust their options quickly. Coltrane could hold your interest by just playing a vamp, or some modal stuff. He had more resources; he studied a lot more. He was more of a searcher, he never stagnated, he never stayed in one place for too long. To me, the main thing he represented was change. When his peers, or others of his generation, got hip to what he was doing, he was off into another thing. No idle time. Those are things I’m interested in.

There are a lot of people now who are trying to adhere to old principles, old ideas, and establish those as modern day traditionalism or whatever, and that’s cool if you want to preserve the things you think are jazz. But I don’t think there are any dictates or prescribe methods people should have in their playing. Trane knew that.

I heard him when I was still listening to funk. I guess it was around ’74 or so. I hadn’t been playing for more than two years, and we had a little funk band. I’d play my little funk licks on top of “Giant Steps.” I didn’t know any of his musical logic, but I could enjoy it. I knew it was bad, and I knew one day I wanted to get with that. That’s when I discovered Charlie Parker, too. I’d been listening to Ronnie Laws, David Sanborn, and Grover. But I was drawn to the magnetism and density of what Bird and Trane were doing. They were playing a whole lot of notes.

Jazz is about versatility. You’re supposed to derive stuff from all sorts of sources. I hear some players today who are so conservative they could be on Reagan’s staff. The music isn’t really progressing right now because people are afraid to cross a few lines.


Coltrane seemed to be one of those artists who, besides his incredible popularity and meaning to those who listened to jazz and paid attention to black culture in general, was someone who  commanded the attention of many people who don’t listen to jazz. A couple of things made it happen. It’s interesting because he wasn’t a commercial artist in the sense of someone reaching across boundaries today; he was very serious and at times played very difficult music. A lot of that had to do with the times. His music certainly reflected the energy of the ’60s. I’ve found an interesting parallel between him and Bela Bartok: within their respective cultures they represented a few of the same things. People who didn’t listen to contemporary music often listened to Bartok. So here are these two artists who communicated beyond the style they played in. Both were very innovative, expanding the language of their idiom, but at the same time used traditional and folk materials in their music. Radical conservatives, really. They both had visceral emotions with involved processes, so they grabbed you intellectually and emotionally in a way that doesn’t often happen. A Love Supreme was a gold record. It’s very hard to think of a record of that intensity being a gold record in this day and age. People wanted a bit more seriousness at that time. To me he was an example of what a committed artist could be.

He was very consistent. I like all his stuff. At the end of his life, around the time of Expression, you can hear new areas of time, along with some very beautiful harmonic motion. Consistent definitely, maybe a bit obsessive. We hear his long solos, and we’re more used to shorter ones these days.

Everyone has to play out of their own psychology. I’ve never known Trane to play anything funny or tongue in cheek, like Sonny Rollins would. What we learned from him is how hard he worked to find what he had to do. Even though he was a part of the mainstream in a way that Ornette and Cecil never were, he still had to find his own way, which isn’t easy. Everything he played sounded like he had lived through it, like he had felt it first.

Wayne On Trane

Today is Wayne Shorter’s birthday, so I dug up a chat I had with him years ago regarding John Coltrane’s impact and the way the two seminal saxophonists shared ideas. I like the “Lockjaw” Davis and Chu Berry part. Wonder if Wayne can do a slick Dexter Gordon? Here he is in his own words. Click into Accujazz’s Shorter channel while you’re reading. 

John’s wife introduced us in 1958. I was working with Horace Silver in New York. When I first saw him play, it was at Birdland; he was with Miles. He was doing lots of short phrases, all over the place. I knew there was something to that, that he was going to develop it, and as time went on those short phrases got longer and longer. Eventually they weren’t the same anymore. But that night with Miles, he was playing against everything, and when we talked about it later he said he was tired of playing against “Billy Boy” and things like that. After a while he stuck out like a sore thumb.  So he had to go with his own band, where it would all blend in.

When he was stretching out those notes with Miles, he knew he had to move on because it’s the only way his playing could crystalize. It would work better if he was the only one in the front line. He was actually orchestrating by instinct by not having another horn player up there with him. He would have to navigate that band alone. At that time I called the rhythm section the vessel. John was the leader. McCoy would join in with the navigation. He and McCoy were the front line.

After we met he invited me to his house. He said he wanted to get together because we were playing…not the same way, but in the same areas of the horn. He said, “You’re playing some funny stuff.” He wanted to sit down and talk about it. He’d play, I’d play, we’d talk about it. He was playing piano mostly, I think it was the beginnings of “Giant Steps,” those augmented thirds over and over again. Then he’d get his horn and play two notes over and over again. Then two others. Then two others. For a long time. We also talked about doing impossible things with your instrument. Not just thinking of your instrument for what it is, but trying to do things that couldn’t be done on it – going beyond the limitations. Like what Paganini did, and since then what other violinists have done. We also talked about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end at the same time. Musical sentences and conversation.

Other people came by, too. George Tucker the bassist. Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard. They’d all leave and he’d ask me to spend the night. We’d cook food. Then he came to my parents house on Thanksgiving. He talked with Albert Ayler; he liked him. He wanted to check out what was going on with the scene. Not just tenor, but flute and other things. I think that’s why he grabbed the bagpipes towards the end. Music is all encompassing. Charlie Parker realized that towards the end, too.

He would never crack jokes. Miles said Trane’s humor came out early. In the dressing room before the gig he’d start playing like “Lockjaw” Davis or Chu Berry, or someone real comical. Miles said Trane could do that really well, and that’s the sign of  a good musician, when you can impersonate someone with your horn. Obviously you try to stay away from that when you’re working your own thing.

From about ’55 on he had a sense of urgency, like he couldn’t get everything out that he wanted. I think he knew something about his health, even if he couldn’t pin it down. Maybe he went to the doctor and and the doctor said, “Hey, it might be soon.” Maybe he knew more about that around ’65.  But I imagine he got a hell of a physical. Being a serious person he might have taken that prognosis and used it as a yard stick to  see how far he could go.

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Five Great Wayne Shorter Quotes

For the last decade Wayne Shorter has led an inspired outfit comprised of drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Perez. Their chemistry was strong from the get-go, but with relatively steady work it has become rather incredible. The group treats the leader’s themes as mere suggestions – Shorter’s melodies may or may not be stated once the improv gets going, and the band has several ways to communicate a melody that might not seem obvious to other improvisers. That means the explorations are wildly mercurial. Shorter uses his tenor sax with regularity these days, so the music has girth as well as smarts. And we don’t really need to discuss the inspired caprice that marks his soloing, do we? It’s one of jazz’s miracles, and it’s only bolstered its belief in itself during the last decade. The investigative spirit that’s at the center of this group will hover over the stage at New York’s Town Hall tomorrow night (before heading elsewhere). Elaborate and gripping, the band’s fluid machinations are perpetually bending its material – this is music dedicated to flux.

Shorter does something similar in his conversation as well. He likes to bend chats off into places you least expect them to go. I traveled with Shorter and Carlos Santana during their summer tour of 1988. Deciphering Wayne’s thoughts was occasionally as perplexing as listening to him speak was fun. To celebrate the Shorter Quartet’s gigs, we present five quotes from the great man. The first comes from a celebration of Coltrane that ran in Musician magazine.

Jim Macnie: How close were you with John Coltrane?

Wayne Shorter: He invited me to his house after we met and said he want to get together with me because we were playing…not the same way, but in the same areas of the horn. He said, “You’re playing some funny stuff.” He wanted to sit down and talk about it. He was playing the piano mostly; I think it was the beginning of “Giant Steps,” those augmented thirds over and over. He’d get his horn and play two notes for a long time. Then two others, then two others. We also talked about doing impossible things on your instrument. We talked about about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end at the same time.  George Tucker, the bassist would come by, Cedar Walton and Freddie Hubbard, too. He’d ask me to spend the night. That happened more than once. We’d cook food. Then he came to Jersey to my parents’ house, on Thanksgiving. He’d talk with Ayler; he liked him. He wanted to check out what was going on with the scene. Not just tenor, but flute and other things. It was all encompassing. Charlie Parker was realizing that before he died, too.  From 1965 on, [Coltrane] had a sense of urgency. Like he couldn’t get out everything he wanted. I think Trane knew something about his health, even though he couldn’t pin it down. One of John’s legacies is that any melody has a flexability beyond what it initially seems. Nothing is frozen. He said everything can be opened up, though it’s a lot of work. There are people who say you have to do “Nature Boy” just the way it is. And the “Star Spangled Banner”…hey, you can take the “Star Spangled Banner” out!

Ted Panken: Did you ever feel trapped in what you were doing in your career?

WS: Here’s what I felt. That the people, the masses were trapped, and I was trying to save them! Hah-hah! I was trying to get a rope and put it around the barred windows, like in the old westerns, pull the wall down, and let them out of jail. But a lot of people don’t want to be gotten out of jail. They’ve been in there too long. If you get in jail long enough, you think it’s heaven. With the hits! [laughs] With the hit parade, all those hits for 75 years, controlled by radio and controlled by what I call the gatekeepers.


Bill Milkowski: “Tinkerbell” sounds like it’s something generated spontaneously on the bandstand.

WS: Yeah, that’s something that came out in one piece with the bow and the piano and the fact that Brian (Blade) contributed by not putting all percussion in there every moment. As Miles would say…he would consider somebody valuable when they knew when not to play. If you could do that, Miles would say, “You’re good, man, and then walk right by you and keep walkin’. And you’d say to him, “What? What’d you say”? Miles liked that when you’d say, “What’d you say”? Because he’d kept walkin’ and he’d say to the bartender, “Get him a champagne. What you drinkin’ Wayne”? My drinking days are over but I had more fun with Miles than anybody…those years with Miles. The short time that I was with Coltrane, when he invited me to his house, we had another kind of fun because he would get into talking about philosophy. I had one little talk with Lester Young one time up at the Town Tavern on Young Street in Toronto. I had a little time left in the Army so they let me go on a vacation and I went up there and Lester was playing. During the intermission, the place was packed…this was in my drinking days. I had my gangster suit on — paisley tie, pinstripe suit — and I’m trying to get to the bar. You know, waiting your turn, six people deep. And suddenly this finger tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and looked and it was Lester Young. And he said to me, “You look like you’re from New York”. His voice was real slow. And he said, “Whatchu drinkin’? and I told him, “Cognac”. And he said, “Let’s go down in the wine cellar and get some REAL cognac”. So we went downstairs where the barrels were and he got these big water glasses and filled the up with cognac. And as he was talking, I was getting ripped. But you know, just standing there talkin’ with Lester Young…I don’t remember what he was saying or what I was saying…we didn’t talk about music or what I played. But I was just checking him out the whole time he was talking. Then we went up the stairs and he went to do his next set, and all I could think was, “That was Lester Young!” I started listening to him closely after that. I had heard him earlier, when I was 15. He was late coming to the theatre for a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Newark. He had the pork pie hat and everything and we were trying to figure out how to get into the theater from the fire escape around the back. So we finally got into the mezzanine and saw that whole show — with the Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie bands…both bands together doing “Peanut Vendor”, and Charlie Parker with strings doing “Laura” and stuff like that. And Russell Jacquet…Ilinois Jacquet, he was blowing up a storm at that concert too. The whole thing was so amazing to me. I was just 15 and in that moment I decided, “Hey, man, let me get a clarinet. So seeing that concert is what got me started on clarinet. I ended up getting one when I was 16, and that’s when I started music.


WS: “If you’re playing something that’s supposed to sound like it’s supposed to be . . . and you’re perfecting this mandatory expression with mandates all around it, it’s nothing more than a statue. Like polishing a statue.”


[Question from the audience] What can we do to save jazz?

WS: I think that taking chances is the beginning. Being unafraid of losing this and that, jobs, friends. You don’t have to have the extreme you see in biographies of Van Gogh, always being by himself or arguing with others, but you’ve got a lot of leeway. Knowing the difference between what you’re told and what you find out for yourself; starting as an individual, being alone. We don’t have to preserve jazz; we have to start preserving the stuff that comes before all of that.


Fred Jung: You kept me ringing my hands, recording only three albums over the last decade.

WS: Well, you know, Fred, there was nothing actually to record. There is so much more to living and life than doing music. It is working on, not working on, but exploring the areas of life that can be left unattended. You can do music, music, music, and then still be a cripple when it comes to what you’re really here for. You think you might be here for music, then the human condition, the humanity part of your life can be, you can be blinded to that part, be really out of touch and when somebody is saying something, you can’t always equate it with what you’re doing. There is a chance that the world revolving around baseball or music or boxing or whatever. It was like finding out what is your real purpose in life. I used to walk by a mirror and look in the mirror and say, “What’s your real name?” And we’ve been named as we are born and “what is your real name?” What is anybody’s real name? That sparked what are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to do also? By playing music, I am doing less than a fraction. Music is a drop in the ocean of life.


Josh Jackson spoke with our hero at The Checkout.

NPR’s A Blog Supreme has Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer drop some 101 science on why the saxophonist is so important.

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