The 10 Best John Coltrane Solos

by Jacob Adams

1 February 2012

Photo: Charles Stewart (Impulse/GRP publicity photo) 

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5. “Alabama”
from Live at Birdland

“Alabama” was written as a memorial to the four girls killed by white supremacists during the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Coltrane plays with the kind of sparseness and spiritual sensitivity appropriate to the subject manner. The music in and of itself serves as a eulogy. You can hear the emotions of sorrow, anger, and hope all coalescing into one solo. It’s also one of Coltrane’s most accessible solos, thus a really good place to start for anyone who’s not that familiar with his music. The opening and closing sections are out of time, with Coltrane and his band mates moving together at their own languid pace. The effect is wildly hypnotic.

4. “Resolution”
from A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme is justifiably one of the most well-known records of all time, jazz or otherwise. Musicians and artists from all different genres and mediums have cited Coltrane’s 1965 masterpiece as an important influence. Trane’s creative juices were really flowing here, for he was making music that was both technically brilliant and spiritually relevant. It was like Trane was channeling something here, a sort of energy that only he possessed but was kind enough to share with the world. The entire album is essential, and there really are no standout tracks or solos. “Resolution” is as representative as any, though. Trane’s solo features equal influence from the blues and the more experimental, modal music that’s a hallmark of this record. Coltrane takes a melody and shifts it through several different keys, as if to prove its versatility.

3. “Giant Steps”
from Giant Steps

You haven’t really made it as a jazz musician until you learn to play on “Giant Steps” a tour de force featuring a new chord change on virtually every beat. Although this type of song structure has the potential to yield boring, mechanical music, Trane’s solo goes beyond just breathtaking on a technical level. This was the pinnacle of Trane’s “sheets of sound” approach, wherein his goal was to create music vertically (focusing upon arpeggiating chords) rather than horizontally (focusing upon creating distinct melodies). Coltrane would explore the many implications of each chord, often substituting alternative chords for the more traditional one that the listener would expect. Within the barrage of notes, though, the shifting patterns create a kind of spellbinding effect. Coltrane brilliantly returns to certain key notes to create a sense of repetition, providing an anchor for the listener. Nobody can do this like Trane.

2. “Blue in Green”
from Kind of Blue (Miles Davis)

When one thinks of Coltrane on the saxophone, one most likely thinks of flights of technical brilliance that leave one breathless. This is understandable, since Trane no doubt played a lot of notes during his career. However, he was also one of the greatest melodists in the history of the music. Never did his abilities to construct a beautiful melody shine through more than on “Blue in Green”, the most sublime, gorgeous track on Miles Davis’ landmark 1959 record Kind of Blue. Trane’s solo is short, but sweet. The chord changes to “Blue in Green” are complex, often shifting modalities and moods. Coltrane manages to construct a simple melody amongst all the harmonic complexity, one that is relentlessly sing-able. I often go to “Blue in Green” when I experience major events in my life, whether positive or negative. It always seems to speak to my current emotional state, and Coltrane’s sensitive solo deserves a lot of credit for the song’s power.

1. “Crescent”
from Crescent

Here we find Coltrane at the height of his powers, playing with perhaps the greatest ensemble in jazz history. In 1964, Trane stood betwixt and between the tonal music that had made him well-known, and the experimental, free-form jazz that would define his latter career. “Crescent” employs definite chord changes, but Trane pushes the limits of what is possible in tonal music, often slipping in and out of the keys. He never loses his sense of melodic construction, though. The more abstract moments on the record are tempered with beautiful, bluesy melodies that sound as natural as anything Coltrane has ever played. The solo’s effectiveness is enhanced by the playing of fellow musicians Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums), and McCoy Tyner (piano). Their playing is remarkably tight and calm. No matter how animated Trane gets as a soloist, they keep the groove locked down. Tyner even drops out about halfway through the solo, giving Trane all the space he needs to do his thing. Saxophonist Dave Liebman has ranked this solo as amongst Coltrane’s most memorable, citing its uniquely poetic qualities. I agree with him.

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