Dr. Lewis Porter on John Coltrane: Impressions, Part Two
February 17, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This article, the second of three on saxophonist John Coltrane, is the latest in our regular series of blogs on jazz history, "You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter." To read previous installments, click on the links below.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
John Coltrane: Impressions, Part Two
In our last blog, I explained how the direct source of saxophonist John Coltrane’s "Impressions" was composer Morton Gould’s "Pavanne," a well-known piece at the time Coltrane was coming into his own as a musician.
But wait - there’s more to this story.
In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devoted a chapter to showing where he found some of these themes. Since then, I have learned more about Coltrane's inspirations.
What Coltrane did to create "Impressions" was take Gould's melody, the second theme of "Pavanne," and apply it to the AABA form of a composition he knew well - trumpeter Miles Davis’s "So What."
Coltrane was a regular member of Davis’s groups in the late 1950s, and he recorded and performed "So What" several times with Davis in 1959 and 1960, most famously on the Columbia album Kind of Blue.
But why would Coltrane choose to combine "So What" with "Pavanne?"
Davis frequently said, in interviews and again in his autobiography, that Chicago pianist Ahmad Jamal was an important influence on him in this period. While Coltrane in Davis's group, they regularly played staples from Jamal’s repertoire, such as “Just Squeeze Me,” and a few Jamal originals.
In October of 1955 and again in January of 1960, the Ahmad Jamal Trio recorded Gould’s "Pavanne," playing both themes. This is very significant, for without a doubt, Coltrane was familiar with the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s versions of this piece.
On the 1955 version, it’s guitarist Ray Crawford who plays "Pavanne’s" second theme:
The 1960 version, in which Jamal plays the theme, brings us closer to what we hear Coltrane do with this material just months later:
Indeed, when Coltrane started to play Impressions in concert in 1960, "Pavanne" was part of the the Jamal Trio’s active repertoire.
But when Coltrane first started to perform "Impressions," he didn’t know what to call it. Apparently at first he also called his version “So What,” and in November of 1961, when he played his famous, incredibly intense version at the Village Vanguard, which was later released as the title track of a 1963 album for Impulse! – he still did not have a name for it.
In fact, even in June of 1962, when he recorded 2 short versions of this piece in the studio - these were never released on LP, but have since been released on CD - he was calling the piece “Excerpts.”
This always makes my students laugh, because they say, "After all, his theme is an excerpt from Morton Gould!"
Finally, you may be surprised to learn that Impressions was recorded on two albums by non-Coltrane bands, before Coltrane’s version was released in July of 1963.
Both times, the tune was titled “Why Not?” and the composer was listed as the late drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims!
The first version is by saxophonist Rocky Boyd on his album Ease It, recorded with trumpeter Kenny Dorham and Sims on drums in February of 1961:
A later release of the same album, under Dorham’s name as West 42nd Street, included a second take at a slightly slower tempo:
I asked LaRoca about this session, and he told me that of course he knew the piece, because he’d played it as a member of Coltrane’s quartet in the summer of 1960, before Elvin Jones took his place. LaRoca also said he also knew the theme wasn’t Coltrane’s, and it was by Gould.
“I might have been in on the thought process, underlying naming and all the rest of that,” he told me, but he also acknowledged that he shouldn’t have been listed as composer and suggested that might have been Boyd’s idea.
My friend, jazz photographer John Rogers, has also reminded me that the quartet of the terrific vibraphonist Dave Pike also recorded this theme, with Bill Evans on piano, in February 1962. LaRoca is not the drummer on this date, yet the piece is still credited to him.
Why? I emailed Pike recently at his current residence in California, and it turns out that LaRoca was, once again, his source for this tune.
Pike writes that he was performing with LaRoca at that time, “and he played it for me. I thought that either he wrote it, or it was just what we used to call a ‘riff’ behind somebody's solo.”
In fact, on Pike’s version, Bill Evans solos on piano while the band plays the theme behind him.
By the way, in “Why Not?” the bridge is the A theme played a half-step higher, as Coltrane himself sometimes performed it.
© 2013 WBGO
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