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Six Definitive Songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to John Coltrane

When deeply ensconced in the discussion of truly influential artists, one name invariably crops up, that of John Coltrane. Although he passed away 55 years ago today, it is a testament to the potency of his work that he has managed to stay at the forefront of everyone’s minds for so long, and not see his relevance wain. For him, it has been quite the opposite, and his pertinence has increased exponentially in the 21st century, with the contemporary generation striving to discover new ways of incorporating jazz into genres such as dance, rock, hip-hop, and pop.

One of the most acclaimed figures in the history of jazz, John Coltrane’s licks on the saxophone are unmatched, and understandably, he has influenced everyone from Radiohead to Yusef Dayes. 

Born in North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia after graduating from high school, and there he studied music, which would change his life forever. Early in his career, he learnt the way of the bebop and hard bop forms, which gave him the foundation needed to pioneer what is now known as free jazz. 

One of the most meritorious musicians in his field, as well as being one of the most captivating saxophonists of his day, Coltrane led well over 50 recording sessions and collaborated with some of his most eminent peers, two of whom were trumpeter Miles Davis, who’s classic 1959 record Kind of Blue he elevated, and pianist Thelonius Monk, with their 1961 opus Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane a must have in any record collection. As for his own works, 1965’s A Love Supreme and 1966’s Ascension are essentials.

It’s a clear reflection of Coltrane’s grandeur that he has received a string of posthumous awards, including a special Pulitzer Prize, and was even canonized by the African Orthodox Church, the latter of which gives you the sense that his contributions were not solely limited to the musical. 

In 1966, less than 12 months before his death, Coltraine provided an account of his work, which explained a lot about the man behind such magnificent music: “I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world. I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

Given that John Coltrane has had such a transformative effect on culture, and that his spirit lives on through the myriad of ways he made a mark on society, today, we’ve listed his six definitive songs.

John Coltrane’s six definitive songs:

‘India’ – Impressions (1963)

One of Coltrane’s most vital moments, ‘India’ is a masterpiece in avant-garde jazz. Recorded live on November 3rd, 1961 at New York’s Village Vanguard jazz club, it features the classic Coltrane quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, as well as saxophonist Eric Dolphy and bassist Reggie Workman. 

A droning piece made up of many shifting emotions, it reflects Coltrane’s evolving musical palette, as he blends the traditional music of India with what was the most refreshing sound in jazz. Dolphy provides an extended bass clarinet solo on the track, as Garrison helps to resemble the otherworldy drone of Indian classic music. However, the highlight is Coltrane’s saxophone work, as he produces every note perfectly, whisking us off into an avant-garde dreamland. 

Indicating just how far-reaching Coltrane’s influence was via ‘India’, according to Roger McGuinn, the frontman and guitarist of psychedelic heroes The Byrds, when they were on tour in late 1965, the band were blown away by the only cassette recording they had to listen to on the road bus, which had Ravi Shankar on one side, and Coltrane’s Impressions and Africa/Brass on the other. He said: “We played that damn thing 50 or 100 times, through a Fender amplifier that was plugged into an alternator in the car.”

Totally inspired, when the band recorded their most influential track ‘Eight Miles High’, from the following year’s Fifth Dimension, they claimed it was a direct tribute to Coltrane and ‘India’.

‘My Favourite Things’ –  My Favourite Things (1960)

Not only is ‘My Favourite Things’ one of John Coltrane’s best pieces, but it is also one of his most significant, and the emotive response you get from the key changes is quite something. In March 1960, whilst on tour in Europe with Miles Davis, the trumpeter purchased a soprano saxophone for Coltrane. 

The instrument had been popular in the early days of jazz, but by the ’50s it had become almost obsolete, apart from the legendary Steve Lacy, who kept its flame alive. Intrigued by it, Coltrane used it for his dates that summer and became fascinated with it.

That year, Coltrane left Miles Davis, and formed the first version of his quartet in order to further investigate modal playing, with a freer direction and an increasingly Indian-influence sound. The highpoint of this period is the cover of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound of Music, transforming it into a narcotic haze, that far eclipses the original. It became a hit and helped Coltrane move into the mainstream.

Coltrane was such a fan of the track, that he once said it was “my favourite piece of all those I have recorded”.

‘Chasin’ the Trane’ –  Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard (1962)

The world wasn’t ready for the visceral style of jazz the John Coltrane Quartet were making when the live album Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard was released. Providing a stark contrast to his much-lauded previous album Africa/Brass, this live album created a backlash from fans and critics alike, as the challenging sentiment of the music sent them into a meltdown. This didn’t matter to Coltrane, the quartet moved into a realm that had never been tapped into. 

Of course, ‘Chasin’ The Trane’ was the pinnacle of this challenging spirit, which kicked off the wave of avant-garde jazz that the ’60s delivered. “It had a fairly good amount of intensity in it, which I hadn’t quite gotten into a recording before,” said Coltrane in a 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky.

Furthermore, in the liner notes for the album, Coltrane provides some insight into the first time the track was recorded, only the night before the album version: “The melody not only wasn’t written, but it wasn’t even conceived before we played it. We set the tempo and in we went.”

‘Giant Steps’ – Giant Steps (1960)

One of the most important jazz compositions of all time, ‘Giant Steps’ was first recorded by Coltrane in 1959, before it was released on what many deem his masterpiece 1960’s Giant Steps. It has been so impactful that the cyclic chord pattern that it features has come to be regarded as a ‘Coltrane change’. Now a jazz standard, it is a testament to just how game-changing John Coltrane was. 

A rapid song, it moves through three keys, B major, G major, and E♭ major, and since its release, it has been one of the most challenging songs for jazz musicians in their repertoire, striking fear into their hearts, as it is a Herculean task to improvise over the difficult chord progressions. 

Coltrane named the song after the bassline: “The bass line is kind of a loping one. It goes from minor thirds to fourths, kind of a lop-sided pattern in contrast to moving strictly in fourths or in half-steps.”

‘Crescent’ – Crescent (1964)

One of the saxophonist’s most swooning tracks, ‘Crescent’ is perfect for a dimly lit, smoky jazz club, at the point in the evening where your tipple of choice is starting to cloud your perception. The sound of a James Ellroy work such as L.A. Confidential or one of Dashiel Hammet’s many pieces of pulp fiction, there’s a real atmosphere to this track, and it ramps up as Coltrane’s soloing jumps from the traditional to the pioneering in the blink of an eye.  

Utilising the tenor saxophone here, the track is noted for the way Coltrane’s busy work juxtaposes Jimmy Garrison’s double bass, which in many ways is the glue that holds the entire piece together. At points, the pair create the type of dissonance that had become customary for avant-garde jazz, which was now flourishing. 

‘Resolution’ – A Love Supreme (1965)

If you’re a diehard Coltrane fan and you do not regard Giant Steps as his magnum opus, then the chances are that it is A Love Supreme that you place right at the top of the pile. Reflecting his genius, the album is a through-composed suite, split into four parts, with Coltrane playing his trusty tenor saxophone on all of them. 

Viewed as a musical embodiment of Coltrane’s faith, as well as his interest in Ahmadiyya Islam and the struggle for purity, there’s a conceptually sacred essence that carries the album. Recorded in one session on December 9th, 1994, at Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, it was hard to pick a highlight of the album, but it was ‘Resolution’ that finally made the cut. 

Containing all the key facets of a Coltrane track, such as busy saxophone work, locomoting dynamics, and numerous key changes, this was the moment when the quartet had truly hit their creative stride. 

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