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John Coltrane Talks To God

Music Review: Miles and Coltrane – A Tao Tribute To Teo Macero

The triad, Jing, (energy), Qi, (the flow of energy), and Shen, (the spirit), are the Tao of all that is. The fundamental of Taoism is the nature of the universe and in this there can be no light except by comparison with darkness; there can be no joy without the existence of sadness. Every action causes a counter action – all of life is a dichotomy; all distinctions are relative comparisons bound together by their mutual reference. In nature, there are no two-headed coins – love is on the other side of hate. In Taoism, there are no principals to learn, no canons to remember, no rituals to practice. Ultimately, it is useless trying to understand Tao; for it cannot be expressed in words. It is shapeless and formless. It is, what is unknown, but instinctively adhered to.

Yet, the March 1961 Miles Davis recording of "Someday My Prince Will Come" which features a tribute to saxophonist, composer, record producer Teo Macero called simply Teo is, for me, an example of glimpsing the unknowable – an audible revelation of Taoism dichotomy, an exposure to the supreme search being acted out. John Coltrane’s solo is so innovative, it’s akin to hearing someone pray a prayer that convinces you that it is, at that very moment, being received by divinity.

Mile Davis composed the tune "Teo" in honor of his long time friend, record producer and fellow musician Attilio Joseph (Teo) Macero. Teo was born October 30, 1925 in Glens Falls, New York and died February 19, 2008 after a long career as a musician, record producer, and film and television soundtrack composer. Teo was a producer at Columbia Records for twenty years and produced the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, which at # 12, is the highest-rank jazz album on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list and is the best selling jazz album of all time. Teo Macero graduated from the Juilliard School of Music in 1953 with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Teo also worked with Dave Brubeck, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus. He scored the 1970 Muhammad Ali documentary, aka, Cassius Clay and produced the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film The Blues.

So it was fitting that such an accomplished soul was given the tribute that Miles Davis bestowed on his music collaborator and one can only surmised that it was providence that inspired the musicians to such grand heights. This Miles Davis Sextet is comprised of Miles on trumpet, Hank Mobley and John Coltrane on saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul chambers on bass, and Billy Cobb on drums – all of whom went on to head bands of their own. There are six tunes on the album which has one of Miles’ several wives on the cover. The cut Teo which last nine minutes and thirty-two seconds is totally enlightening and John Coltrane’s solo is its spiritual core.

The tune Teo starts with a few bars of a bass introduction then it is joined for a few bars by the entire rhythm section before Miles began the journey with a calm call and answer that slowly evolves into a delightful bounce of notes that dance with themselves. Then there are a series of shape notes that jars the mood, repeats several times and then develops into the resolve of Miles’ hymn of preparation. Miles blow a series of defiant images which ends with a series of notes that seem themselves to want to prepare the path to the Way (As in Tao is the Way). All the while, the rhythm section is keeping up a driving orderliness – with special attention to the orderliness in order to contain within its perimeter what’s to come. There is a short rhythm section interlude that builds anticipation before Coltrane burst into consciousness.

And then it happens; John Coltrane enters like a screaming storm, melancholy and self-possessed, pleading for harmonic equality. There are echoes of the turmoil of the times – a musical declaration of freedom – We Shall Over Come. This feeling builds and become elaborate, convoluted and twists over and over and turns into repeated screams, and turns dark, then chaotic – and there you have frenzied images bubbling within the framed orderliness of the rhythm section. It is here that the sacred happens, a chaotic tidiness that is the oxymoron of Taoism infused into this tribute to Teo and links itself to the search for the mathematical equation physics seek that would reconcile Elbert Einstein’s harmonic General Theory of Evolution with the anarchic reality of Quantum Mechanics, that’s called the String Theory – The Theory of Everything. And listening to Coltrane there is no stretch between the search for the Taoism Way and the search for either the string theory or the righteousness of black Americans’ quest for social justice. They are all an expeditions to awareness.
Coltrane is still blowing.

When I first heard this recording in 1962, at the age of 20, I identified it with the movement towards social justice that was taking place in the streets. To me, it sounded like a fitting exhortation for the energy of Malcolm X or an anthem for the Black Panthers. As I grew older and became armed with other knowledge, I realized that there was also something more universal going on in this music. These cats were visionaries, far ahead of me – they could combine the contemporary with future expectations and talk about comprehending the cosmos – a thing far in the future, and a thing that had as much to do with the nature of Taoism as it had to do with the String Theory of Everything. Understanding is at the core of every quest.

Coltrane is breaking free of the turmoil and glides down to earthly realities where Miles can handle the transfer. Miles comes on exhausted from the energy spent translating the logic of Coltrane’s solo and it takes a few bars for him to regain, once again, the confidence of his own instincts which now collaborates with, or, may even now be born from the Coltrane performance – it is all one now and when Miles blow his last note, the rhythm section, alone, closed the curtains.
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author and teacher wrote once, that he seek to do with the English language what African American jazz musician had done with European instruments – mole and bend them until these instrument could tell their saga in an epic universal language. Nowhere in the annals of music is that statement clearer than in John Coltrane’s performance in Teo. Perhaps this is why he is one of President Obama’s favorite musicians.

Note: This recording is available on YouTube.

About Horace Mungin

Horace Mungin is a writer and poet. He has published many books. See more at www.horacemunginbooks.com.

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