Sunday, November 18, 2012

Another Thought on Beethoven and Coltrane

Guitarist Etan Haziza has shared with me the following video, in which pianist Brad Mehldau suggests some parallels between Charlie Parker and Mozart, and between John Coltrane and Beethoven (4:05ff.). (Mehldau has also written some interesting essays at his website under the heading, "Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane.")

It is sometimes pointed out that the history of jazz mirrors that of European art music, only in microcosm, and so these kinds of comparisons are irresistible. I have occasionally thought that an additional parallel between Coltrane and Beethoven has to do with the unexpected importation of voices into typically instrumental forms. 

Coltrane's non-normative introduction of the voice into the ostensibly instrumental format of A Love Supreme (both through actual singing on "Acknowledgment" as well as the text-based melody of "Psalm," as Lewis Porter argues) at least superficially resembles Beethoven's revolutionary use of vocal soloists and choir in the final movement of his 9th Symphony. Coltrane would revisit this unusual addition of voices with the recitation on "Om" and his wordless singing in live performances like "Leo" from Temple University. 

This comparison is not entirely precise, of course. 

Although Beethoven's use of voices in a symphonic setting was not wholly without precursors, its impact was as if it had been. This was not the case with Coltrane's A Love Supreme, since instrumental jazz groups had already used vocalizations and singing in a number of different ways. Just one example is "Original Faubus Fables" from Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, recorded in 1960, with its satirical lyrics. More importantly, the traditional instrumentation requirements for jazz are obviously not as strict as those for classical-era forms: "vocal jazz" is ubiquitous throughout the history, whereas the symphony in the early 19th century was unmistakably an instrumental form. 

Nonetheless, someone listening to a jazz quartet led by a saxophonist generally does not expect to hear singing or chanting. Furthermore, both A Love Supreme and the 9th Symphony represent career-culminating works, both are perhaps the most popular and influential works of their respective authors, etc. 

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