Sunday, March 25, 2012

Understanding Coltrane

I love jazz. I love Jazz because it is a language. It speaks to a culture, a sophisticated musical discipline, and a style. For the longest time, I wanted to like jazz music but didn’t. Not much of it, anyway. I liked Kenny G. The first time I heard John Coltrane, all I heard was chaotic lines of complex notes hurled out the tail end of a tenor saxophone. But now, when I hear John Coltrane, I can’t keep up a conversation with anyone else because of the conversation I’m having with the music. So, what’s changed?

In part, I believe it was because I started to learn to play the sax. I’d always wanted to play the sax. When I was a kid, my dad asked his uncle Lester, a professional sax player, what it would take to help me appreciate playing the sax. Lester told him to start me on the piano, move to the clarinet, and then to the sax. That way I would have the rudiments of music woodwind instruments to spring me forward as I started to play the sax. I never really met Lester. There exists a sun-bleached photo of me and my entire family posing for the camera on his back porch but this was before dawn of my consciousness—I was about three and don’t remember it at all. Well, Lester died. And nobody remembers exactly how, nobody remembers doing it, but somehow his horns showed up on my doorstep with my name on them. I was 13. I’d been playing the clarinet for 2 years and I was itching to start the sax. Problem was, I didn’t have one. Not until that day when Lester’s horns, (yep, he gave me not one but TWO saxophones, an alto and a tenor AND a clarinet) showed up thanks to a mystery and the US postal service. I scarcely remember a more exciting or more reverent day of my life than when I received those horns. They are the saxes I still play today. That day, I remember feeling like something very important had just happened to my life.

That summer, I started to blow through the horns and figured out how to finger the notes and make a decent sound before any teacher got to me. Lester was right and the clarinet and piano had paid off. As I continued to learn to play the sax, I began to learn to play jazz. And with just a little bit of experience of trying to play jazz, I began to appreciate listening to jazz. Not long after that, I loved it. With a little experience of jazz, the music meant something to me; I could understand the sounds I heard as emotions and experiences. I can hear intervals between notes, feel chord changes come and go and understand and appreciate the inherent tension and release of jazz. More than that heady stuff though, I can sit back and feel the groove and swing of it, I can feel the flavor and texture of it. I can appreciate the personalities behind the music. For me, when you’re invited to see the bigger picture, I can savor the individual parts better

This is often what happens when we begin to understand and appreciate the underlying form of almost anything be it jazz or yoga. A yoga asana is beautiful on the outside but understanding the underlying form—the mechanics of muscles, bones and even subtleties like energy and intention—makes the posture understandable, enjoyable and enlightening. Yoga is about understanding oneself deeper. Any deeper look inward, even just at anatomy, fulfills the ends of yoga.
The underlying form expresses itself clearly in the outerlying form in our yoga postures: slumped shoulders might manifest for the depressed or burdened or shy, broad shoulders for the confident, open hearted, and gregarious. As a teacher, I can’t read your mind, can’t feel your soul, but I can see how your consciousness produces the product of a very engaged outer form. So in that sense, I often know whether your mind is present by how your poses look. The outerlying form reflects the under.

Of course the underlying and outer lying forms are inseparable. You can’t have the pose without the energy or thought or emotion behind it, you can’t have jazz without its history and culture, you can’t have the blues, without feeling blue. So really what this means is to learn to see the whole picture is attuning our senses to the specifics and intricacies of a sophistication of seeing all the parts. We engage on a deeper level. It makes the practice of jazz or yoga so rich. By understanding the underlying form, we might acquire a taste for more complex things like deeper poses, meditation, Coltrane or dark chocolate. And soon we might begin to understand a little about the underlying form of all things and learn to see that with increased flavor and appreciation.

So maybe, years later, because I’ve learned a little about the underlying form of jazz, for my buck I’d choose John Coltrane over Kenny G, though I still understand Kenny G’s technical proficiency and his beautifully clear and distinct sound. Come to practice this week and let’s focus on understanding ourselves by looking at underlying form both in practical, anatomical ways as well as conscious, meditative ways.

Until then, if you’re interested click here to hear John Coltrane play Blue Trane, in my opinion one of the best sax solos in all of jazz.

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