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Deep Dive with Lewis Porter: What John Coltrane Borrowed From Ravel

Chuck Stewart
Courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
John Coltrane

The previous installment of Deep Dive with Lewis Porter concerned the sources that John Coltrane used to create one of his most famous works, “Impressions.” Here is a two-part coda: a final reflection on the bridge of 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 that I wrote my book, I also noted that the bridge theme in “Impressions” might be drawn from a phrase by French composer Maurice Ravel. I’m no longer certain of that, but let’s look at the pros and cons.

First, hear what Coltrane plays over the bridge in his most famous version of the piece, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in November of 1961:


Now here’s the brief closing passage from the first part of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une enfante defunte,” as played by Sviatoslav Richter:


(To hear the pertinent theme, you should let it play from 0:37 to 0:58.)

The original sheet music for the popular song “The Lamp is Low,” by Peter De Rose and Bert Shefter, bears an inscription: Melody based on a Theme from Ravel's Pavane. So if indeed Coltrane used it, he most likely got it from the popular song, which was, after all, well known.

Upon its publication in early 1939 it was immediately recorded and performed by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and other popular bandleaders. Here it is as sung by Mildred Bailey in April of 1939. (Mitchell Parrish wrote the lyrics.) This remarkable arrangement, with its unexpected introduction, is by Eddie Sauter:


I am no longer certain that Ravel’s composition is the source for the bridge of Coltrane’s “Impressions,” for two reasons. The first is that what Coltrane plays over the bridge in his most famous recording of this piece does begin like Ravel’s phrase, but the intervals are not unusual and only the first seven notes are the same. After that, Coltrane goes on quite differently from Ravel — and from “The Lamp is Low.”

But in the case of the theme that he borrows from Gould’s “Pavanne” for the A section, the pitches after the first few notes include some unusual and distinctive intervals, and are identical from start to finish (and of course the rhythm is changed by Coltrane into a swing feel).

However, it’s certainly possible that Coltrane took the beginning of “The Lamp is Low,” and then changed it as needed to suit his purposes. He was fond of puns, and titles with multiple meanings. So it stands to reason that, having taken his A theme from Gould’s “Pavanne,” he would have been delighted to take the theme for the bridge from yet another “Pavane,” by Ravel. (They’re spelled differently.)

I should note that among the versions of “Impressions” that have never been available to the public are several in which he doesn’t have a theme for the B section, and simply plays the Gould theme up a half step. You may recall from my previous post that two groups recorded “Impressions” before Coltrane did, and that in both cases they simply played the A theme up a half step for the melody.

Since they both got the melody from Pete La Roca, who had performed it with Coltrane in the summer of 1960, I suspect this is the way Coltrane originally performed it. By the time he recorded it live at the Vanguard in November 1961, he had worked up the theme that we now know for the B section.

Before you write in to say that you “know” that Coltrane based his B theme on Ravel, please understand what I’m saying: It’s perfectly likely that he originally played the A theme up a half step, and that after a while he adapted the melody of “The Lamp Is Low” to create a bridge. But without access to Coltrane’s thoughts, no one can be 100% certain of this chain of events.

As for “Big Nick,” it’s a charming but not well-known composition of Coltrane’s. I have learned from an Italian pianist, Carlo Morena (through my good friend, the Italian jazz scholar Maurizio Franco) that this piece does have a definite source: it’s the “Impromptu no. 3” by the 20th-century 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:


Notice that 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.

The combination of these two elements makes it highly unlikely that this is a coincidence. Coltrane’s melody is clever, and diverges after that from the Poulenc original. But the beginning does evoke it, clearly.

This answers a big question for me. (Thanks, Carlo and Maurizio!) I have always wondered: “Why is this melody so different from all the other Coltrane melodies?” The answer apparently comes from Poulenc.

By the way, I mentioned in Part One that there are versions of “Impressions” where Coltrane can’t help but play the background riff from Gould’s original. A few examples of this are found on Spotify. Listen to the theme of “Impressions” on these three versions:

The next installment of Deep Dive will be about the iconic Thelonious Monk composition "'Round Midnight," and what his friend Dizzy Gillespie brought to his arrangement of it. Stay tuned!