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John Coltrane: Sheets of Sound

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If you love listening to John Coltrane, then you know that the phrase “sheets of sound" refers to the tenor saxophonist's cascades of arpeggios. The term is so closely linked to Coltrane that it's hard to find an article or book about the jazz giant that doesn't use it somewhere to describe his massively energetic style in the late 1950s and beyond. But do you know who originated the term?

Ira Gitler did.

“Sheets of sound" first appeared in Ira's 1958 liner notes to Coltrane's Soultrane. In reference to the album's final track, Ira wrote:

“I'm sure this [Russian] Lullaby would keep Nikita [Khrushchev] awake and swinging all night. Trane's 'sheets of sound,' which he has since put to wider use, are demonstrated in the beginning of the tag."

The phrase appeared again in a Down Beat article entitled Trane on the Track that Ira wrote on Coltrane for the October 16, 1958 issue:

“Coltrane has used long lines and multinoted figures within these lines, but in 1958, he started playing sections that might be termed 'sheets of sound.' “

Ira explained how this term came to be in his liner notes for the 1975 LP reissue of Coltrane's The Stardust Sessions:

“I first became aware of this ['sheets of sound'] approach when 'Trane used it on a date under [drummer] Arthur Taylor's name in 1957. I heard the tape long before it reached record. Without using the phrase, I referred to the 'sheets' in the liner notes to the original issue of Traneing In in 1957, writing of the ”excruciatingly, exhilarating intensity of rapid exigent runs with their residual harmonic impact' and actually called them by name relevant to Russian Lullaby, in the Soultrane album of 1958. It was never a put-down nor meant to be. Rather, it was a laudatory phrase which implied amazement and positive excitement at the man's ability to use his tremendous technical facility in unfurling colorful bolts of music. Enough sheet."

After spending much of Tuesday with Ira, I gave the legendary jazz journalist a call yesterday to find out if there was a story behind the story. Recalls Ira:

“That phrase has been quoted more than anything else I've ever written. Sometimes it has even been wrongly used against me, as in the case of a book by Ortiz Walton [Black, White & Blue], who characterized it as a negative statement on Coltrane. It wasn't.

“The image I had in my head when I wrote that phrase were bolts of cloth undulating as they unfurled.

“Coltrane never said anything about the term. He never referred to it when I saw him, and I didn't ask him about it.

“In 1961 I gave him a bad review in reference to his monotonous playing on Chasin' the Trane [from Live at the Vanguard]. I think I referred to his repetitive phrase on that track as “a treadmill to the kingdom of boredom." Put it on and hear for yourself. You can play the track anywhere along the way randomly and you'll hear the exact same phrase being played over and over again. In the review, I praised Elvin Jones as the most interesting player on the track.

“When I was teaching jazz history at the New School in 1986, I played Chasin' the Trane for the class. A student said he knew someone who had known Coltrane and that Coltrane had told his friend, “On that track I was just practicitng." I have no idea whether that was true or not.

“As for 'sheets of sound,' it's a term that's used all the time. I should have trademarked it [laughs]. Pat Riley, the former coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, trademarked the term “three-peat" after coming up with it in reference to the team's third championship in a row in the late 1980s. On the other hand, if I had trademarked 'sheets of sound,' no one would ever have used it. Come to think of it, you don't hear “three-peat" used anymore, do you?"

JazzWax tracks: Each of the albums above is available as a remastered download or CD. You'll also find the Prestige dates on the Fearless Leader box here. The Art Taylor track Ira referred to above is C.T.A., which was recorded during the May 22, 1957 Interplay for 2 Trumpets and 2 Tenors session and appeared on the Taylor's Wailers LP and CD.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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