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New Stars in Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’

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John Coltrane playing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 1962

From the early 1960s through the mid-1960s, John Coltrane led one of the greatest quartets in jazz history, but some of the band’s most thrilling moments in concert took place when the pianist McCoy Tyner and the bassist Jimmy Garrison laid out, leaving Coltrane and his drummer, Elvin Jones, to perform as a duo. (One such moment can be seen nine minutes and fifty-two seconds into this clip on YouTube.) If the Coltrane Quartet gave birth to the ecstatic Afro-spiritual jazz known as “fire music,” the dialogue—or was it the collision?—between Coltrane’s stentorian tone and Jones’s thrashing polyrhythms was its molten rock.

In 1965, Coltrane and Jones made their only recording as a duo, a rousing workout titled “Vigil.” A year later, Jones quit the band, angry that Coltrane had added another drummer, Rashied Ali (born Robert Patterson), a young and ambitious percussionist who did not defer to his elder. (Jones complained that with an additional drummer he could no longer hear himself, or the music; he was not alone.) But Coltrane never gave up on the idea of creating music for saxophone and drums, untrammeled by chordal instruments. In February 1967, five months before his death at forty from liver cancer, Coltrane invited Ali to the studio to record a suite of improvised duets, built around melodies that he named after different planets. It was released seven years later as Interstellar Space.

Interstellar Space is one of the albums that detractors of “late Coltrane” invariably cite as evidence of his creative disintegration. They hear his playing on it as harsh, turbulent, even violent, and they’re not entirely wrong. For all its intensity, the music of the “classic quartet”—as heard, for example, on The Lost Album, a recently discovered session recorded in 1963—is based on well-proportioned and harmonious group interplay, saturated with blues feeling, pulsing with modal grooves: the essence of jazz. Only a few years later, Coltrane stripped his music of these anchors in pursuit of something more elusive: the essence of instrumental sound. His torrential improvisations on Interstellar Space, like Beethoven’s late quartets, are a reminder that, as Edward Said observed, “artistic lateness” sometimes manifests itself “not as harmony and resolution but as intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” 

Although the album features a gorgeously yearning ballad, “Venus,” Coltrane spends much of his time exploring the limits of what can be expressed on his instrument, availing himself of all the extended techniques at his disposal, notably multiphonics, in which he plays two or more pitches simultaneously. (Coltrane achieved this effect through “overblowing,” literally blowing so much air through the horn that upper harmonics would reverberate more loudly than the fundamental pitch that he was fingering.)

Ali’s drumming, meanwhile, has a whirling energy—Coltrane called it “multi-directional”—that is far from Jones’s thrusting propulsion, much less the time-keeping of conventional swing. Where most jazz drumming marks time, Ali splinters it, suggesting what has been called a “time beyond time,” an eternal present more reminiscent of Asian and African vernacular traditions than of Western music.

On first listen, Interstellar Space can sound wild and unruly. But on repeated hearings, the impression of chaos vanishes. Some of the pieces open with Coltrane playing bells, creating an aura of meditative calm. No matter how far he ventures from the stated themes, Coltrane’s improvisations are purposeful, even methodical. When he returns to the head at the close of each piece, the impression is not so much that of order restored as of an explanatory coda, as though he were underscoring that even the most extreme, twisting digressions were contained in the original melody, like the branches of an immense tree. Interstellar Space is a work of diligent, lucid, and ultimately serene pedagogy—a master class in musical clarity comparable to Bach’s studies for the keyboard.

In spite, or perhaps because, of its demands, Interstellar Space has always enjoyed a following among saxophonists. It has also spawned a lively sub-genre of saxophone-and-drums duets, starting with Duo Exchange, which Ali recorded with the tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe in 1973, a year before the release of his album with Coltrane. The latest contributions to this body of work are by two gifted and exploratory young tenor saxophonists, born a year apart in the early 1980s. Neither James Brandon Lewis’s Radiant Imprints, nor Travis Laplante’s A Dance That Empties, is an explicit homage to Interstellar Space, but both are striking tributes to the album’s legacy, and to the vitality of Coltrane’s late style.

Lewis, one of the most prolific musicians on the New York jazz scene today, first heard Interstellar Space as a teenager in Buffalo. “There were bells at the beginning of the record, and I thought, I’ve never heard that,” he told me. “It was one of those records that used to get on my mom’s nerves when I was kid.” Listening to duets like Interstellar Space and Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell’s live album Red and Black in Willisau (1985), “I realized how much work I had to do.” Without a chordal instrument, “it’s harder to keep things interesting”: the burden on the saxophonist, who has to supply both the melodic and harmonic content, is that much greater.

Lewis’s partner on Radiant Imprints is Chad Taylor, who has worked for many years in the Chicago Underground Duo with the cornetist Rob Mazurek, and it’s an inspired pairing. Lewis is a saxophonist of muscularity and fervor, with a big, brawny sound that evokes not only the Sanctified Church (his father is a Baptist minister), but also the sax playing of Albert Ayler and punk rock. Taylor can match him in intensity, but he’s also a colorist of great refinement and imagination, exhilarated by the timbres and textures of non-Western music. (His new solo album, Myths and Morals, is an enchanting reverie for percussion and electronics.)

On two of the eight tracks of Radiant Imprints, Taylor plays the mbira, an African thumb piano with two sets of keys. The bass notes of the mbira are played with both the right and left thumb, while the high notes are played with the right index finger. Taylor first heard the mbira more than twenty years ago, in a band led by the tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, one of Coltrane’s disciples, and, Taylor told me, “I’ve been obsessed with the instrument ever since.” Coltrane himself never used the mbira, but Taylor’s use of it reminds us that toward the end of his life, Coltrane increasingly drew inspiration from “ethnic” and ritual music made outside the West, from African percussion to Indian drones and Japanese bamboo flutes.

One of the most beguiling tracks on the album, “With Sorrow Lonnie,” opens with Taylor playing a warm and inviting rhythm on the mbira. Lewis, an energetic and voluble improviser, confines himself to a series of stark, mournful notes. “The mbira is already busy, so it forces me to be more minimal, which is a good thing,” he explained. As he moves patiently from the lower to the higher registers of his horn, his cadences call attention to Taylor’s sunlit timbres, as if a window were opened in a dark cathedral. Although the melody that Lewis hints at seems familiar, it’s only toward the end that we hear it in full: Coltrane’s ballad “Lonnie’s Lament,” from the 1964 album Crescent. And Lewis plays it so slowly and glancingly that it’s more like a memory of the song than the song itself.

“Lonnie’s Lament” is one of several Coltrane compositions that Lewis has excerpted and slyly reconfigured on Radiant Imprints. The opening track, “24,” is a mash-up of “Giant Steps” and “26-2,” early up-tempo tunes in which Coltrane perfected his “sheets-of-sound” style of improvising. “Imprints” obliquely invokes the 1961 modal anthem “Impressions,” while a motif in “Radiance” alludes to the first movement of his 1964 devotional masterpiece, A Love Supreme. “Sometimes it’s Trane speaking, and sometimes I’m speaking, and sometimes we’re speaking together,” Lewis says. “It’s like a collage—you still hear those pieces, just not in the order you’re used to.” By interweaving quotations from different periods in Coltrane’s career, Lewis illuminates the inner unity of Coltrane’s sound-world, in spite of the distance he traveled from bebop to free jazz. But because not a single track is a cover, and all we hear are melodic traces—“radiant imprints,” in effect—we are left not with a conventional tribute but with a highly personal essay on how Coltrane’s work reverberates in the imagination of two musicians who were born fifteen years after his death. The result is much more faithful to the spirit of probing investigation that, alongside his music, is Coltrane’s enduring legacy.

Like Lewis, Travis Laplante discovered Interstellar Space as a young man immersed in Coltrane’s music. On his new album, Laplante performs in a duo called Subtle Degrees with Gerald Cleaver, a drummer of remarkable sensitivity whose long résumé includes a stint in Lewis’s trio. But if Radiant Imprints honors the Afro-blue melodicism of Coltrane’s work, Laplante’s A Dance That Empties underlines the spiritual quest of Coltrane’s last years, particularly the way that quest found expression in the pursuit of new sounds. Laplante, who grew up in Vermont, told me that when he first heard Interstellar Space, it was not only the “visceral quality” of Coltrane’s saxophone that moved him but “something behind the sound, a very intense purifying force.” Laplante divides his time between music and his work as a chi-gong instructor and says that “as time goes on, I feel there’s less of a separation between the two.”

A Dance That Empties was sparked by a dream in which Laplante heard the sound of a saxophone, then, through a flash of synesthesia, “saw the entire universe inside this sound.” The dream left him with “a longing to wash my ears to the point of being able to hear oneness, to hear the one true sound.” We eventually hear that “oneness”—a single note sustained for two minutes by way of circular breathing, and resonating with high overtones—but, as in one of Coltrane’s live improvisations, it takes Laplante a long time to get there. (The album clocks in at forty-one minutes, almost exactly the same length as Radiant Imprints.) Written on a commission from the Brooklyn performance space Roulette, the piece’s three movements are almost entirely notated, but Laplante left Cleaver, one of his early mentors, to create his own arrangements, and composed the piece with him in mind. In his words:

Gerald pushes me out of my comfort zone in a very beautiful way. Sometimes I feel I’m too rigid, and playing with Gerald I can’t be so in control. We’re diving into the unknown. And this format is the most exposing and vulnerable instrumentation I’ve ever been a part of, even more than solo saxophone concerts, because you’re fully relying on one person who’s fully relying on you. It’s quite raw and at the same time so beautiful.

In the first movement, which begins in near silence, Laplante uses special fingering techniques to produce multiphonics: rumbling noises that seem to conjure an impending storm. After about two minutes, this solo saxophone overture segues into cascading arpeggios, strongly reminiscent of Coltrane, which Cleaver accompanies with constant activity on his sticks and delicate, ceremonial accents on his cymbals. There is a fleeting prefiguration of the repeating saxophone motif that dominates the second movement, but hardly has it appeared than Laplante exits, and Cleaver creates a pattern of low bass-drum hits that resemble a heartbeat.

Once Laplante locks in with the drums, the second movement takes off. This is the “dance that empties,” using “repetition as a means of purification,” in Laplante’s words. It spins like a top, with furious and relentless motion, on the basis of notation so precise that, as Laplante explains, “if we get off by an eighthh note, the whole thing is off and it’s almost impossible to get back on.” In the final and longest movement, an eighteen-minute epic that combines elements of the previous two, Laplante’s solemn arpeggios slide into a minimalist groove that increases in speed and intensity, with an almost martial discipline, before culminating in a single note for solo saxophone that fades into silence, as if everything that preceded it were but a preparation for this moment—a “journey to the one,” to borrow a phrase of Pharaoh Sanders, who helped develop Coltrane’s teachings into a veritable jazz theology. 

A Dance That Empties isn’t as overtly evocative of Coltrane’s sound-world as Radiant Imprints, which ranges across almost every period of Coltrane’s career. But Laplante and Cleaver have extended Coltrane’s use of music as spiritual vocation, and by fusing sonic adventure with prayer, they have opened another door to interstellar space.


Radiant Imprints, by James Brandon Lewis with Chad Taylor, is out on Off-Record Label; A Dance That Empties, by Travis Laplante with Gerald Cleaver, is out on Subtle Degrees.


An earlier version of this essay misstated that James Brandon Lewis and Travis Laplante were born in the same year, whereas Lewis was born in 1983 and Laplante in 1982.