Monday, August 20, 2012

Bechet, Coltrane, and the Operatic

Historians of the 19th century origins of jazz occasionally remark on the influence of opera in addition to that of popular dances like the schottische and quadrille, as well as numerous other influences. Interestingly, there is even a certain (loose) similarity between the social atmospheres in which jazz and opera emerged: much like the singers of early 18th century opera seria, early jazz players needed to project their sounds over the din of a drinking, eating, cavorting audience.

Growing up in Creole New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century, jazz pioneer Sidney Bechet was exposed to opera at a young age. “He always retained fond memories of visiting the Opera House with his mother, and from childhood loved the sound of the tenor voice. Some of the first gramophone recordings that he ever heard were of Enrico Caruso; the dramatic vibrato and the panache of the great singer made their mark on the youngster’s imagination.”

Bechet’s soprano saxophone playing exhibits an undeniably operatic sensibility, and he even incorporated quotes from opera into his compositions. As a commenter points out here, the minor key phrase of Bechet’s “Blues in the Air” quotes from the overture to “Raymond,” written in 1851 by Ambroise Thomas. (The phrase in question is heard at 0:45 and 1:27 in the following videos, respectively).

John Coltrane’s connection to Bechet is usually cited with regard to the former's revival of the instrument pioneered by the latter, the soprano saxophone. Indeed, Coltrane said in an interview that “the sound of that soprano...was actually so much closer to me in my ear... there's something about the presence - of that sound, you know? ...that, that to me, I didn't want to admit it but to me it seemed like it was better - than the tenor - I liked it more, see?” Lewis Porter suggests that the link between Coltrane and Bechet was in fact mediated by Johnny Hodges, a hero of Coltrane’s who was inspired and encouraged by Bechet early in his career. (“‘I ask myself if, today, I only play the soprano saxophone to stay in the lineage of Johnny Hodges—unconsciously, of course.’”)

Regardless, the empirical relationship between Bechet’s sound and Coltrane’s “late period” sound is obvious, even when Coltrane plays tenor. Listen to the first few seconds of Bechet's "Dear Old Southland" and Coltrane's "Ogunde," in which both artists begin with an ascending fourth interval. Similar is the dramatic intensity, wide vibrato, and bravura.

In the liner notes to this Impulse release, Ravi Coltrane recounts:
“I recall a feeling I had the first time I heard [“One Down, One Up”] from the Half Note [1965]—at the B section in John’s first chorus. He plays a seemingly simple, understated, and beautiful line using his vibrato in just the right spots with weight and operatic beauty…”

Indeed, Coltrane’s playing in his last period reintroduces an operatic sense of drama and Dionysian ecstasy that was prevalent in early jazz but had been mostly quelled by classicizing forces in the 1940s and 50s.


Trumpeter, composer, and scholar Steve Lampert reminds me that the Brazilian folksong "Ogundê uarerê," a version of which Coltrane recorded for the album Expression in addition to the Olatunji Concert above, had been recorded in the late 1940s by Brazilian soprano and Metropolitan Opera artist Bidú Sayão.

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