Coltrane, Nicolas Slonimsky, Modal Music and Trance

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My first heavy music experience was with John Coltrane.  I was sixteen.  Before that I enjoyed plenty of strong musical medicine, mostly  rhythm and blues, watched the American Bandstand and the Johnny Otis show, and loved Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Miller, Ray Charles, Link Ray, and so on.  I had an older brother who brought all those 45 rpm 7” singles home.   But  Coltrane’s 1961 Impressions album, recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York City, cast a spell on me.  Songs like “India” and “Impressions” propelled me into an out-of-body experience.  I was a kid and didn’t drink or do drugs.  I was a swimmer, surfer, and just a mediocre student in my junior year at Palisades High School.  What exactly was happening? Why did Trane’s music have this effect on me?

I think the answer lies in his approach to improvising.  When he switched from chordal to modal music, he was embracing an old world music paradigm that often induces altered states of consciousness and trance.  Modal music takes you on a voyage, and certain scales affect people in powerful ways.  It is often used in sacramental rituals in traditional world cultures.   Coltrane had read Russian music lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky’s exhaustive Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.  It contained not only classic Western modes like diatonic, chromatic, lydian, phrygian and other well-established musical elements, but also modes from various world music genres:  Indian scales, North African and African styles, Middle Eastern modes, and more.  Coltrane studied these patterns and modes and used them in much of his exploratory music from 1961-1967, the year of his death.  He also studied Indian modes and scales with Ravi Shankar.  Perhaps this was why Coltrane could make his soprano saxophone sound more like the Indian shehnai, the Indian oboe used by snake charmers to hypnotize cobras.  Yusef Lateef also explored traditional world music in a similar fashion and used these idioms in his music.  For both musicians, modal improvisation allowed them to reach a deeper spiritual plane than standard chord progressions would, the latter which Coltrane had thoroughly covered in the 1950s on albums like Giant Steps and his work with Miles Davis for the Prestige sides.  Today we also benefit from the research by the studies of  Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin, who have explored the primal effects of music on our brains.  There is also the classic study Music and Trance by French writer Gilbert Rouget.

Many cultures outside of Europe see music as elixir and anodyne, not just entertainment or even art.  Music forms a part of daily life, devotion, spirit and ritual, not just in clubs or concert halls.  This is where the modal model comes in.  It is outside of the European model perfected by Bach and Mozart.  You hear these modal sounds in Djivan Gasparyan, the great Armenian musician.  You hear it in sufi music from Turkey and Iran.  You hear it in gnawa trance music from Morocco.  You also sometimes hear it in raves and trance music. You will also hear it throughout Africa and  in the New World, in the African diaspora religious ceremonies of Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil.

It is music of the soul, and transports both mind and body into new dimensions.  Coltrane was a seeker who wanted to go deeper in his music.  And that is why he is revered not only as musician but also as a musical healer as well.  He was a true musical sufi who transcended many musical boundaries, and his music prefigured what we enjoy now in world music.  And hearing that 1961 album, Impressions, changed my life and musical journey  forever.