Coltrane and Picasso–Perfecting Older Styles, Inventing New Ones

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Recently, while listening to a new compilation cd featuring selections from Concord Records’ extensive jazz catalogue—The Definitive Series—I heard the familiar sound of John Coltrane’s sax playing during his “sheets of sound” period, when he was recording for Prestige Records.

Coltrane had what musicians call “even fingers”, meaning that his notes were precisely articulated and right on time, no matter how fast the tempo.  This comes from practicing all the time.  Classical musicians have it, some jazz players do. Coltrane certainly had it–he never stopped practicing.

This was Coltrane’s style from the mid-to-late 1950s.  He played very fast and his notes were so close together they resembled a single sheet of sound.  Later he was to simplify his expression, exploring modal and world music idioms, and evoking a more primal spiritual essence.

Around the same time Miles Davis, after perfecting bebop and working with Charlie Parker, abandoned the style in favor of fewer notes and a modal approach that came to be known as “cool jazz”.

It occurred to me that some artists perfect older styles before inventing new types of expression.  Coltrane mastered the older style of bebop and post-bop with his 1959 tour de force “Giant Steps”, a piece so virtuosic that it stunned jazz musicians (especially sax players) and critics alike.  Then he moved on, recording amazing musical explorations like “India”, “Chasin’ the Trane”,  “Ascension”, and his spiritual masterpiece, “A Love Supreme”.

In this respect, Coltrane (and you can include Miles Davis here as well) was similar to Picasso.  His early works done in Barcelona show him to be a master of realism in the style of El Greco.  Later came the subdued tonal palette of Blue Period with masterpieces like “Man with the Blue Guitar”.

And finally, after seeing the powerful African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and turned the 19th century on its head, propelling the art world into the 20th century.

Of course Picasso wasn’t the only artist to embrace, then dismiss older forms.  There was also Arshile Gorky, Miles Davis, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock.

Both Picasso and Coltrane were trendsetters who perfected earlier artistic rhetoric before exploring new modes of expression.  Both are colossal figures on the artistic plane, whose work is celebrated by millions around the world.