One Track Mind: John Coltrane, "Like Sonny" (1961)

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by Nick DeRiso

“Like Sonny,” reportedly based on an element of a Sonny Rollins solo — perhaps during “My Old Flame,” from Kenny Dorham’s 1957 Jazz Contrasts record? — illustrates the remarkable attention to detail that still makes John Coltrane’s music not just interesting but important.

He wasn’t a stylist, or someone attempting to mimic someone else. Coltrane was trying to make his own way, to construct his own sound. He did it, at least at first, by incorporating elements of key mentors (like this one, issued in 1961 by Atlantic as part of Coltrane’s Sound) — and also taking apart then reconstructing pieces of the standard.

“Like Sonny,” actually recorded in March 1959 on his first session as a leader on Atlantic with pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Lex Humphries, has remained one of my favorites because it’s both an early example of Coltrane’s interest in Latin- and African-tinged jazz, and enduring proof of every woodshedding myth about his doomed genius.

Coltrane, see, kept coming back to this one, too. He also did a bossa nova take in December of 1959, then put the same tune on a record, but in a more free-form style, for Roulette a year later with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Billy Higgins and others — with an updated title “Simple Like.”

We now know Coltrane as this sort of endlessly engaged tinkerer, someone who took the corners of conformity and stretched them in the most interesting of ways. Jimmy Heath tells a story of one night, after the front desk called their hotel room between gigs to share a complaint about the noise of his endless practicing, seeing Coltrane continuing to finger his horn — running through scales with no sound.

During this time, Coltrane was surrounded by wandering confederates — not least of whom was Miles Davis. Coltrane has been rightly celebrated for early work alongside the trumpeter, roughly from 1955-56 and then from 1958-60, but later more angular excursions, I’ve always thought, found their foundations in a stint in 1957 with Thelonious Monk.

Miles was then using fewer and fewer chords, opening the music up to eddying pools of sound and slow-moving rivulets of space. Coltrane seemed more emotionally connected with the natural turbulence found with Monk — who had a singular devotion to unlocking different pieces of form, an almost mathematical vision. Charles Lloyd once said that, for him, Bird discovered the atom, but that Coltrane smashed it.

This search, and the stop-start nature of discovery, defined the rest of Coltrane’s career — making for a musical experience that mirrors his personal struggle.

Admittedly, it’s filled with all of the dizzying highs and unsettling lows associated with such great efforts. There would be compositions of lasting complexity, where peace is often suddenly disturbed by pain, where consolation reignites into fiery determination. There would be towering blues, and stuff some just didn’t like.

Still, for me, much of what we have come to understand to be his sublime intellect as a composer and soloist can be traced back to Coltrane’s remarkable dedication to craft, to this deep admiration for his forebears, to his ear for the smallest of details — like a turn by Sonny Rollins in the midst of a favorite riff.

Coltrane knew, instinctively, that you had to learn how to color inside the lines before you started drawing outside of them. That makes “Like Sonny” the key that unlocks a whole lot doors in the Coltrane legacy.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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