Spaced Out

OK. I’ve finished The Planets, and so I’m listening, once again for the 30th time, to John Coltrane’s closely related Interstellar Space album, with just himself and Rashied Ali on drums. I love Coltrane, of course, as who doesn’t? Black Pearls, A Love Supreme, AscensionGiant Steps, My Favorite Things, Ballads, they’re all among my favorite jazz albums. But Interstellar Space I admit I have trouble figuring out. Mars and Venus should be polar opposites, but I have trouble finding much variety of mood or method on this CD. What am I missing? Postclassic is possibly not the right venue, but can anyone tell me how to listen to this last Coltrane disc (1967) and find it as wonderful as his earlier work? 


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  1. says

    You should take this as a kind of an impressionistic opinion of Interstellar Space, rather than any kind of analytical statement. But I have always heard the compositions behind the individual pieces on this recording as being mere starting places for improvisations, rather than being the basis for structured extemporized compositon. The brief compositions are stated, and then the pieces rocket straight up and out into space. Those performances seem rooted to the time and place of their recording. Had it been made on a different day the album might have been a completely different affair. The pieces all do seem to share common ground sonically and in terms of their emotional content. Yet, there are a variety of subtle moods: the sinuous, erotic lines of “Venus,” the war cry (that’s what I hear) of “Mars.” (Though admittedly, there is much on Interstellar Space that is warlike.) But ultimately, with Interstellar Space, you either hear it or you don’t. It doesn’t always speak to me. But when you least expect it, however, it can sneak up on you. Hope this has been of some value.
    KG replies: Yes, thank you, that’s very good. I’ll think about it and keep listening.

  2. says

    Kyle,
    Venus & Mars were lovers, as you know, and while opposites attract, Venus does have her warlike aspect, which calls to mind the proverbial belief that these two gods might be the only patrons in whose service “all’s fair.” (Please note that the Geneva Convention supercedes all previous proverbial understandings regarding the conduct of Martial service.)
    James,
    I don’t hear Coltrane’s late recordings as warlike. They reach me as pain/pleasure possession/ecstasies; apprehensions of realities both terrible and gorgeous. Aside from that quibble, I like your account of that music — thanks!
    Kyle again,
    Have you heard Coltrane’s “Stellar Regions”? Recorded around the same time as “Interstellar Space,” with the quartet, and less frenetic. Most of it wasn’t released until the last 10 years or so, I think.
    KG replies: I’m aware of it, haven’t heard it. I’ve got a jazz collection of maybe 250 CDs, love it, and I can sometimes convince my undergrads I’m an expert, but I don’t keep up that pretense anywhere else. Obviously. Maybe I’m trying to read too much astrological significance into Interstellar Space and it’s really just about… outer space.

  3. Michael Kay says

    I can’t offer any insight into Coltrane’s compositional intentions on this one, but the thing I’ve always loved about Interstellar Space is that he seems to cover all of the improvisational trails he blazed throughout his career: “sheets of sound,” the Giant Steps-era harmonies (equidistant keys and so forth), the more open-ended modal blues (Impressions), some of the stuff from Love Supreme, and total free improv. I admit that the fact that it was his last recording makes it tempting to hear it as valedictory, but I hear all that in there.

  4. Bill says

    There’s nothing programmatic about Coltrane’s late work and so you won’t find anything in the titles. I believe all of his later works are variations on his LSD experience. The only music I can think of to reference it to is the live music of the Grateful Dead that came shortly after. If you listen to that, then Interstellar Space, all becomes clear :)

  5. says

    I’m pretty sure that the _Interstellar Space_ recordings were released in 1974 (about 7 years after Coltrane’s death) and given titles by his widow, Alice. I’m not sure that Coltrane gave the improvisations w/Rashied Ali any titles, so your search for musical coherence very understandably ends in frustration.
    As for hearing the beauty of this music, this is a more complex question. First of all, I would advise letting go of Eurocentric aesthetic biases. Even with that said, much of Coltrane’s improvising on _Space_ follows a harmonic logic with links to “tonality.” On “Venus” I think you can most clearly hear Coltrane moving around tonal centers–he shifts pitch centers by moves of major 3rds, much as he did on “Giant Steps.” The movement via major 3rds can also be heard on other tracks on the album. For a thorough formal analysis of “Venus” (very much of the traditional Western classical bent) check out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane.
    But I would say the beauty of the music goes way beyond Coltrane’s navigation of scales and pitch centers. For me, the beauty is largely in the rich timbral nuance of his tenor sound–at this late point, he could really produce a variety of saxophone sounds. The beauty is also in Coltrane’s rhythmic elasticity–and especially the rhythmic energy created in symbiosis between Trane & Ali. (My ear is not good enough to hear if they are always playing with reference to a meter, or set of meters, but it seems there is always a driving pulse, very flexible, that undulates like breathing).
    Late Coltrane is one of the touchstones of free jazz: the ethos of his music in 1965-67 has influenced so many since then. The very sound of his saxophone from that period, I think, carries a unique emotional/intellectual meaning for those who identify with the music.
    I don’t think one should listen for “warlike” sentiments. By this point, Coltrane had become deeply immersed in spiritualist (though not specifically religious) thought–he viewed his playing, the act of improvising and physically playing the horn, as a way of exploring his awareness–much like meditation, you might say. (I don’t mean this to sound like some kind of pseudo-hippie crap–I take it seriously, as we hear Coltrane did. He sincerely viewed his musical endeavors as a creative/spiritual practice that combined elements of religious ritual, meditation, and self-expression).
    And, yes, it was a music specifically tied to the moment of its realization. (But what music is NOT of its time? I think Beethoven is great specifically because his music conveys a mode of musical thought that is very much from the early 19th century). That said, the “spiritualist” camp in jazz–especially avant garde strains–has not by any means died out. The musical elements and creative ethos cultivated by Coltrane has been carried on by numerous subsequent musicians: David Ware, William Parker, Glenn Spearman, Frank Wright, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Peter Brotzmann, McCoy Tyner, et al.