“Big Ears”

I’m on the verge of giving up. I’ve been trying to “understand” John Coltrane’s music for too long.

Since university days, when I first started sampling jazz, his name has come up repeatedly as a ‘seminal’ figure, a musical ‘colossus’ of the form. I take no quarrel with that. Everything I’ve read and heard about Coltrane suggests a man supremely dedicated to his art, always searching and stretching for the sake of his craft; someone of great personal and musical integrity.

There are examples, during perhaps his early period, when he was playing what you might call more “conventionally” (i.e. ballads and hard bop) that I find myself warming up to his playing to some extent. Where I start to have problems is the highly acclaimed duo of recordings called Live at the Village Vanguard and Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, recorded in 1961 and 1966, respectively. These recordings have had so much praise heaped upon them from all directions that I feel slightly heretical in saying I just don’t get what the fuss is about.

I’ve owned the recordings for many years and (perhaps ‘religiously’ is not an inappropriate adverb) gone back to have a listen in the hope it would all come together for me. After more than 30 years, it hasn’t. I hear a man (perhaps heroically) trying to bend, stretch and expand the genre right before your, uh, ears. You can just feel the commitment, energy and effort. The technical virtuosity is a given.

Sadly, though, it just doesn’t sound ‘musical’, appealing or ‘good’. Maybe it’s just the sheer force of the effort that ruins it for me. I’ve listened to a fair bit of “out there” music in my time. Sonny Rollins, no stranger to bending musical rules and forms, often really captures me. Not Coltrane, though.

My friend Bill, who had the benefit of a formal musical education at the Berklee College of Music, said they had a term for what you needed to “understand” some of the (more experimental) music: “big ears”. Last I looked, mine are normal size. I guess I’m just doomed not to love the Trane.

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