John Coltrane, Perfecting Improvisation
John Coltrane’s aesthetic concept was initially the complete opposite of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetics of imperfection.
When young Coltrane joined Miles Davis in the autumn of 1955, he blew so hard that he made a striking contrast with Davis’s style, which Metronome editor Barry Ulanov described as “like a man walking on eggshells”, and in 1958, noted jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term “Sheets of Sound”to describe Coltrane’s unique new sound.
In the next year, the sound came into bloom on Giant Steps (Atlantic Records, 1959), which was evaluated, at the time, as one of the most difficult, complicated, improvisations.
Pushing further, he featured many percussionists on the music manuscript for A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1964), and evolved his ideas to develop large-scale collective improvisation on Ascension (Impulse, 1965).
This concept was itself on the cusp of a sea change at the very end of his short life. His album Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1967) was a duet suite with drummer Rashied Ali, and a duo recording session, sadly unfulfilled, was scheduled with drummer Ben Riley at Huntington Dix Hills home studio a day before his death on July 1967. Coltrane was steering his music sharply in the direction of simpler ideas, wabi-sabi.
Although his life ended at the age of 40, if he had lived longer, he would have made more universal music influenced by Japanese culture/music/religion, the country he had toured in the summer of 1966—just a year before his sudden death.
Fujioka focuses on this charismatic musician whose followers are still many in the world even 50 years after his death.
Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka (Independent scholar, Osaka)
Board of The Coltrane Home, Dix Hills, NY
Author of four books on the subject of John Coltrane
- John Coltrane: A Discography and Musical Biography, with assistance from Lewis Porter and Yoh-ichi Hamada, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1995.
- The John Coltrane Reference (eds Chris DeVito, Yasuhiro Fujioka, David Wild, Wolf Schmaler and Lewis Porter Routledge 2007) awarded “The Best Book 2008” by the BBC; ARSC’s “BEST RESEARCH in RECORDED JAZZ MUSIC 2009.”
- Coltrane: The Jazz Martyr, Iwanami-shinsho, Japan, 2011.
- Coltrane Chronicle (photo album) DU Books, Japan 2011, English translation available online
A regular contributor for many Japanese magazines: Jazz Japan (former Swing Journal), Jazz Critique and many other major magazines since 1987.
Consultant on various Coltrane projects such as:
– The Hollywood movie Vanilla Sky starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, in 2000.
– Documentary Chasing Trane directed by John Scheinfeld in 2017, featuring a long section with Fujioka.
– BBC-TV-1 Imagine: Saint John Coltrane, broadcasted in the UK and Europe on June 16, 2004.
– ARTE (French-German TV) John Coltrane in 1996.
– Contributing to Coltrane collection exhibitions at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC and High Point Historical Museum, North Carolina, among others.
E-mails coltranehouse [at] msn.com
This conference is supported by JSPS Kakenhi grant number 16K02109.