Dr. Lewis Porter on John Coltrane: More Inspirations
March 24, 2013. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This article, the last 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.
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John Coltrane: More Inspirations
In my last two blogs, I revealed sources John Coltrane used to create one of his most famous works, “Impressions.” Now I have a final reflection on that piece and another on Coltrane’s composition “Big Nick.”
In my 1998 book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I devoted a chapter to showing where the saxophonist found some of his inspirations. In the case of “Impressions,” these included a theme from composer Morton Gould’s “Pavanne,” the form of Miles Davis’s “So What,” and the repertoire of pianist Ahmad Jamal.
At the time I wrote my book, I also believed that a second theme in “Impressions” might be drawn from a phrase by French composer Maurice Ravel. However, that turns out to be false, as I will show now.
Let’s listen first to what Coltrane plays over the bridge of his most famous version of the piece, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in November of 1961:
Now here’s the second theme from Ravel’s “Pavane pour une enfante defunte,” as played by Sviatoslav Richter:
This theme became well-known after it inspired a pop song called “The Lamp Is Low,” which was recorded by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and other popular bandleaders. Here it is, as sung by Mildred Bailey in April of 1939:
I no longer believe Ravel’s composition is a source for Coltrane’s ”Impressions,” for two reasons. The first is that while what Coltrane plays over the bridge in his most famous recording of this piece does vaguely resemble Ravel’s phrase, it is not identical to it; in the case of the theme he borrows from Gould’s “Pavanne,” it is.
More importantly, I have listened to every recording of Coltrane playing “Impressions,” including bootlegs never released to the general public, and it's very clear to me now that in this case he's simply improvising over the bridge.
About half of the times Coltrane performed “Impressions,” he did not play this theme over the bridge. Rather, he played the main or "A" theme, Gould's theme, over the bridge, but takes it up a half step to follow the harmonic movement of the piece.
Other times, Coltrane plays improvised lines which are sometimes very close to what he plays on his most famous version of “Impressions,” but sometimes not.
So I think it's very clear that Coltrane did not write a bridge for this piece, but rather he simply played what he felt, or played the A theme up a half step.
Now let’s move on to “Big Nick,” which is a very cute but not well-known composition of Coltrane’s. I have learned from an Italian pianist, Carlo Morena, through my good friend, Italian jazz scholar Maurizio Franco, that this piece does have a source: it’s the “Impromptu no. 3” by French composer Francis Poulenc.
Now let’s listen to the beginning to Coltrane’s “Big Nick,” as recorded with Duke Ellington in September of 1962:
As we can hear, Poulenc’s first eight notes are identical to Coltrane's melody - and this is important, because it is a very unusual melody. Even more significant, the Coltrane piece is in the same key as the Poulenc one!
The combination of these two elements makes it almost impossible that this is a coincidence. Coltrane's melody is very clever, and the rest of Coltrane's melody does not come from the Poulenc piece. But the beginning does, very clearly.
This answers a big question for me, so a big thank you to Carlo and Maurizio! I have always wondered, "Why is this melody very different from all the other Coltrane melodies?" The answer is, it's inspired by Poulenc.
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