The legacy of Trane- intensity

In the day to day grind of making a living performing, musicians too often forget some of the more noble reasons they decided to be a musician in the first place. Even if the musicians working with you are outstanding, the very act of playing for unresponsive listeners can easily dull the higher aspirations. For most of us out here in the musical trenches it can be difficult to keep the inspiration flowing at 'cocktail enhancement/Jazz wallpaper' gigs. That does not mean that in cannot be done in these sort of situations, it just takes a bit more focus.

When I'm about to play a particularly musically demanding gig with players who are at or above my level I will mentally prepare for it the entire day, or even for several days. I become less talkative and my wife will usually notice a faraway look in my eye. The bigger the gig, the more mental preparation needed. I may even practice more before a big concert, god forbid! I really try to do my best to prepare myself to unleash all the mental, emotional and spiritual energies that I can possibly muster.

I grew up sitting in the front row of the great Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, where I watched many Jazz legends perform just a few feet away from me. I would vacuum up the club and get free tickets to every show. One of the things that always struck me was just how much these masters exerted themselves when they performed. They were often soaked with sweat and had to change shirts on the breaks. It seemed like they were having intense gut wrenching emotional upheavals onstage. They were working themselves up to a level of intensity that the average person only feels in life or death situations or in the last mile of a marathon. Inner cauldrons were boiling over onstage and the audience felt the radiation raw energy as they listened to the music.

As a teacher it's difficult for me to communicate to my students the importance of this type of intensity when playing Jazz. I can't just say," stop functioning in that ordinary mode of normal consciousness", or," this time try to have a religious experience this time and break the restricting bonds of your ego awareness". I often don't see these students making any attempt to make the leap to this higher level of intensity. If you're operating at the same level of emotional and mental intensity when you're reading the paper as when you're on the bandstand then something is dreadfully wrong. It's like beginning a triathlon with the same attitude as you have when you're about to take your dog for walk. Creative improvisation takes every ounce of energy that you can possibly muster!

If there's one thing that bothers me the most about many young players it's this, they may be highly proficient, but that 'extra gear' is just not here. I'm not interested in what someone came up with while in the wood shed while messing around with three-tonic digital patterns. I don't want to see you pick up your axe and start playing with the same flat affect that you always have. I want to see sweat dripping off you like a summer monsoon. I want to see your body tremble and your eyes roll back into your head. I want some gran mal seizures at the piano! Where are the bursting blood vessles? Where are the demonic groans?

Don't be polite, did you find god or not!?

This is life or death here people!

This thing isn't for you if you're not willing to unearth your darkest feelings in front of a room full of strangers. Didn't Trane teach us ANYTHING!?!?!


The Dissonance said...

Gawd I luv this post. But I have to ask, can your normal Sam Sax give that kind of intensity? My guess is no, it takes a very special person with specific genetic traits and skills.

But that's me being pessimistic again. My instructor thinks I can do it; I'm not so sure.

Unknown said...

Eyes rolling in back of your head, intense concentration, an other worldliness kind of concentration...first musician popping into my head - Steve Grossman. I had the good fortune to hear him live quite a few times in NYC.


David Carlos Valdez said...

Players played with true intensity long before Trane did. He just took it to another level.

If young players aren't exposed to the real shit, then they may never even consider the possibility of non-ordinary states while playing.

Not everyone can be a Trane or a Garzone, but everyone can push themselves to their own personal limit (and past it). Sam Sax can be aware of the fact that he's milk-toast and change his approach to be more intense. 'More intense' for Sam may be closer to something like 'more probing' or 'more focused', or even just 'more concentrating'.

Greg Sinibaldi said...

Thats a great fucking post...

Kontakt said...

This is a great post!
There's one important thing for every player: Experience. I think that's part of those secret things which are not possible to learn at schools. It's something that us youngsters naturally lack and occasionally gain, no matter what kind of experince one exactly means...

Kokopelli said...

Great insights and post there David.

Some people like milk toast.....

Some people don't understand the Trane intensity....

Some people need a challengle to grow.... others will never move....

there is also a special form of intensity in the earlier Coltrane ballads.....in my humble opinion.

Maybe I'll grow to understand more
I hope so....

markfretless said...

Yeah,man. This is the shit!
You were exposed to the real deal and were drawn to it. Ya gotta know what it is and have a desire
to find it in yourself if you're gonna make that effort to go deeper/higher and manifest the intensity and emotional honesty you refer to in your playing. That may seem obvious, but...there are folks
who haven't had the good fortune to
be deeply moved by anything! They don't know that they're sleep-walking...
Thanks for keeping the flame burning brightly and intensely with your blogs and your music...

MonksDream said...


Great post. I think that this is a good avenue of exploration. I know that you've read some of what the Sufis have to say, but I know that Chogyam Trungpa, founder of the Shambhala Centers of Buddhism in the U.S. has written extensively on the act/art of transforming mental/emotional energy.

From the transformation of anger into positive energy, to changing, say, nervous energy into creative energy.

A player who doesn't think they can do this might first try to channel any stage fright or nervous energy they might have about playing with better players into the type of emotional intensity that David's talking about. Maybe the first time, it just works a little bit. Second time it might work more effectively.

A lot of musicians in a lot of different genres of music are able to do this. This is what takes music to a high level not really expressible in any books or written notation. I think that it might be what Dolphy referred to in his famous quote at the end of "Last Date,": "When you play music, it's gone in the air. You can't ever recapture it."

This is also what makes music such a powerful medium of expression. When you listen to recordings of Trane, Bird, Miles, and others, some would say that you hear the spirit and soul behind their improvisation coming through the speakers. This immediacy and urgency are what make Trane's search for "the one true essential" so exciting to listen to.

Me Me said...


Zapacuerno said...

Charley Parker famously remarked "If you don't live it, it won't come out your horn." I think musicians must educate themselves about a broader range of topics relevant to humanity.
Trane was wailing against segregation and the racial hatred of his era when he covered "My Favorite Things". When the dog bites indeed! While it is tempting to withdraw into a purely musical space devoid of politics, religion and current events, one has to know what one is transcending before one can play transcendent music. Without context the passionate expressions lose resonance if they are merely well-executed renditions
of Trane's ouvre.

Stefan Kac said...

Actually, I see plenty of aspiring musicians (some young, some not so young) making a conscious effort to reach this level of intensity. They do it by making faces, jumping, writhing, and moaning on stage. Needless to say what they're actually playing is worthless, but they sure are intense!

I hear what you're saying with this post, but I actually think that our eyes can deceive us much more than our ears when it comes to diagnosing the intensity of a player. A baseball coach once told me that I was not competitive enough; this when everyone who knows me well will tell you that I am far too competitive for my own good. These things are expressed outwardly in different ways by different people. In my case, I have always made a conscious effort to keep both the athletic competitiveness and the musical intesity as visually hidden as I possibly can. I think this is because having these things shoved in my face by others has always made me uncomfortable, probably because most of the time, it's not someone really great that you're watching/listening to, it's someone who has appropriated the body language without attaining any significant level of competency in the given medium (the similarities between your average pickup basketball game and your average jazz jam session are striking).

And the really galling thing is that people just eat this shit up, whether it's sports, music or anything. How on earth did Rick Fox START for the Kobe/Shaq Lakers all those years? See my point? It seems to be deeply entrenched in our subconscious; the same way everyone knows who the "alpha male" is, whether it's humans or felines, the same way we are moved by a certain flair or "intensity" as you call it. I'd be fine with that were it merely complimentary to the central (musical) issue here, but the fact that dancing around on stage like an idiot will get you further than actually being able to play has made me just a tad bit reactionary on this subject. I don't disagree that many (most?) aspiring players lack intensity in an important way. I disgree that our first impulse should be to point to the way the masters looked on stage.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Just take a look at the Dave Koz YouTube videos I posted a while back to see someone who's acting intense. Squirming around like you have a bunch of gerbils in your butt (sorry kids) is certainly not what I mean by intensity. The proof is in the pudding, not the packaging. The only thing that matters is the intensity in the music, not the body language. In fact, I find it very difficult to watch players who move around on stage.

Trane never waved his bell to the sky or did the gerbil thing like Koz does. Uneducated audiences are the only ones easily fooled by these types of displays. A trained ear and eye can usually discern true intensity, and in the end the ear should always be the final arbiter.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Very good point Zapacuerno.

The thing that sets Trane apart from the rest is that his intensity was a spiritual one. Just take another look at his A Love Supreme poem to see the high level of his spiritual inspiration.

Trane was a true seeker, spiritually as well as musically. I really believe that this was what made his music so special. How many other tenor players have churches in their names?

"Hi, my name is Bob and I'm a deacon in the church of saint Michael Brecker."

I think not.

Me Me said...

Sometimes intensity and physical involvement can be distracting, but it may be unconscious and not readily controllable by the musician. I am blanking on her name but a wonderful Italian mezzo-soprano always distracted me with her facial antics. In that respect she was unusual for a singer -- her facial contortions were more like an instrumentalist's than a singer's. In singing, one generally tries to express lyrics so that modifies the physical movements, or should.

I got in big trouble in a chamber choir for singing with a huge smile on my face. I was transported by the harmony we were creating but the conductor did not want me looking happy on the piece. I could not for the life of me figure out why she was miming a sad clown at me during that particular movement until after the show.

Sinatra criticized Ella for standing still in front of the microphone -- she didn't tend to move around much on stage, though she did not give an air of being frozen in one spot. But Sinatra, Judy Garland and Sammy Davis Jr. all give such powerful performances with tons of intensity and movement that always furthers the music/lyric and is never distracting. I don't know about the others, but Sinatra evidently thought a great deal about the physical presentation of a song, including how he held his mic. That led to many cheesy imitations and what we now view as loungy mic-handling tricks, but it never looked that way in Sinatra's hands.

Ultimately it comes down to taste and ease. If you move very little and barely change your expression, but your playing is always in the pocket and tasty, that's great. Dave Koz is moving around like a textbook performer, and it's not terrible, it's just the music is so bland, it doesn't warrant much movement other than sleeping or wrist-slitting.

Zapacuerno said...

Well, just because someone is an entertainer does not mean their music is not intense. There is nothing inherently wrong with a musician dancing, for crying
out loud. Coltrane played his stuff at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, on the bill with comics and variety performers. Fats Waller mugged for the camera while tossing off immortal piano runs of undeniable intensity. On the other hand, the prayer that is printed on the Love Supreme cover is indeed a powerful reminder of the spirituality in this music. That particular prayer had a great impact on my playing, and to me separates Coltrane from the pack by declaring the intent of his intense saxophonic seeking. However, everyone has a right to express themselves and the public has a right to like it or not.

David Carlos Valdez said...

El Zapato,
I don't have anything against dancing while playing, or entertaining a crowd, two things you do so well. Just don't squirm around like you are harboring small rodents in your pants for gods sake!

I don't really see myself as an entertainer I guess. I'm going to do my thing and if they don't like it then too bad, so sad. I want my music to be the most important thing happening on stage. That's just how I approach it. I'm sure I could also call more recognizable tunes to get the audience more involved, but I don't. I could tell jokes to warm them up too.

Art is not always very entertaining. It's up to each one of us to decide how we will approach our music. Will it be obscure and unapproachable or will it be accessible and commercially viable.

You don't always have to make terrible sacrifices one way or the other, but you do need to make some profound choices that will affect your commercial viability.

MonksDream said...

But David,

You forgot to mention that you often make up for the entertainment by having a guitar player to stomp on some effects and take things out to the third stone from the sun, or an alto player playing nearby who can tap dance, and, well, remember that time you played with Elton John?

David Carlos Valdez said...

How true Monk.

It never hurts to hire fire eating pygmies to play in the rhythm section either.