By Nick Dedina,
Drop a needle on a John Coltrane record, hit play on one of his digital playlists, or watch Chasing Trane and it’s easy to understand why the saxophonist is universally revered as a musical giant. The ways in which Coltrane influenced jazz are vast.
But the saxophonist has also had a more subtle influence on the world of pop music, and on society as a whole. ‘Trane’s stylistic advancements are key but so was his searching, yet gentle, spirit, his spiritual curiosity, and how he used music to capture unexplainable feelings around our inter-connectivity with each other, the wider world, and the divine.
I created this playlist as an accompaniment to Chasing Trane and to highlight this influence, to point to some of the many performers past and present whom John Coltrane touched in various ways. [NOTE: You can listen to the embedded Spotify playlist or click this link to open in Spotify. You should also be able to find most of these tracks on other music streaming services, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and so on. If the embedded Spotify player won’t play on your browser, click on the green Spotify button on each player to open a Spotify window with the track.–ed.]
More on the Artists/Tracks
Today’s young jazz breakout sensation Kamasi Washington creates tracks like “Truth,” which connects directly to A Love Supreme. Chance The Rapper’s “Blessings” is an openhearted and blissful exploration of gospel music in the truest sense. Likewise, Esperanza Spalding draws inspiration across decades, cultures and musical genres to bring Coltrane’s civil rights concerns to the modern world on her loving history lesson “Black Gold.” Vocalist Gregory Porter has an urgent sense of purpose that reconnects directly back to ‘Trane’s protest era.
Like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock was another Miles Davis disciple whose spiritual concerns, quiet intensity, and loving nature outweighed Miles’ cool, wall-offed persona. There is a direct line between Miles’ introspective Kind of Blue, Coltrane’s expansive A Love Supreme, and Hancock’s macrocosmic Maiden Voyage. Likewise, the brilliant Coltrane devotee Charles Lloyd walked away from rock level stardom in the 1960s to travel a more meaningful, less materialistic path.
In the 1970s, a few artists bridged the gap between today’s sounds and Coltrane’s era. Chief among them was Stevie Wonder, who carried on The Beatles, Ellington, and Coltrane’s ability to endlessly experiment while retaining a sizable following. While, Wonder also preached ‘Trane’s positive, spiritualist message, Joni Mitchell took a pinch of Miles’ saltiness to create a stunning experimental body of work that weaved the advanced harmonic language of modern jazz with folk-rock.
Many of today’s most successful, and creative artists, are infused with Coltrane’s spirit. Steven Ellison, AKA Flying Lotus (the grand-nephew of late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and of John Coltrane; and the grandson of late singer-songwriter Marilyn McLeod), takes electronic music and hip-hop out to the furthest reaches of the astral plane (and samples Alice and John in “Cosmic Course”). Mos Def changed his name to Yasiin Bey and walked away from the commercial mainstream for a purer artistic life.
Talib Kweli, Frank Ocean, and Anderson .Paak show that personal integrity can work with a clear-eyed rendering of the beauty and the ugliness of modern American life. On the jazz end of things, young musicians such as Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Christian Scott expand the template of Coltrane by also drawing influence from the pop music that came after him.
Finally, John Coltrane’s influence is felt most obviously on today’s saxophonists, from Branford Marsalis’ heartfelt acoustic jazz to the familial pleasures found in (son) Ravi Coltrane’s searching sound. Lifelong Coltrane fanatic David Bowie tapped saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s band to infuse his final masterwork, Black Star, with the spirit, if not always the sound, of cosmic jazz.
The lesson of John Coltrane is that you can still look the uglier actions of humanity directly in the eye even as you reach out for the positive energy found in the divine.
Nick Dedina has worked in the digital music industry since its inception, helping to launch, populate, and program a number of globally successful streaming services along the way. He has done everything from write an entire SF Jazz catalog and offer on-screen commentary in a feature-length BBC music documentary to create online radio stations for iconic brands. He currently manages music services at PlayStation Music. Newcomers to John Coltrane may want to start with A Love Supreme, Blue Train, Ole Coltrane, and Ballads. Old ‘Trane fans may want to pull up a chair, buy him a drink, and tell Mr. Dedina why those choices are completely wrong. He blogs about music at Nick’s Vinyl Picks.