On a day in which we formally welcome autumn, we too celebrate the birth of John Coltrane. The symbolism of it all can be heard rather than seen. That is why, today, I listen to Ballads.
Autumn has a distinctive feel. While urban meteorologists Tony! Toni! Toné! once reported that it never rains in Southern California, those of us located in more temperate climates recognize that this is the season that hosts a combination of grey skies and heavy precipitation. Only exacerbating this dismissal forecast is the inevitable darkness that will steadily begin to swallow the waning moments of summer. For this reason, our collective mood will begin to shift in accordance to the season. Many would argue that melancholy is best prescribed to adequately define our not-so-sunny dispositions during this time of year. And as such, autumn’s score is composed with a somber tone and delicate rhythm.
As I look outside of my window on a day such as this, I hear Coltrane’s Ballads. It’s difficult for many to properly place it. Amongst the myriad other projects included in the Coltrane catalog, this album is not considered to be a dominant feature. It does not present the framework for a new compositional paradigm like Giant Steps, nor does it engage in the experimental recklessness of Om. This understanding, however, should not be taken as a shot at the album, but to instead, present it for what it is. Ballads has an importance that deserves more praise than it has received. It is a thematic masterpiece, capturing variations on a sentimental mood. It does so in a manner that is never trite and surprisingly underplayed. It maintains a certain course, one from which it never strays. This is heard immediately on the opening record, “Say It (Over And Over Again).” Beginning with a subtle polyphonic texture, a substantially pronounced Coltrane emits a sound that borders on lethargic. Everything seems to be stressed and drawn out for just a moment longer. Its emotional pull does not lean towards sadness, but instead a mellowed composure. This is the type of music that lends itself well to a rainy afternoon in September.
There are spots on the album in which you expect Coltrane to elevate the mood with a newfound vigor, only to realize that these are just momentary deviations from the already laid out path. On “What’s New,” McCoy Tyner begins with a stunning display on the piano, presenting the audience with an elegant showcasing of what has made him a legend of jazz. Despite such an effervescent introduction, the song retracts its initial tone as Coltrane enters the composition sporting the languorous touch found in the album’s onset. It may disappoint some, but this return marks a decidedly well-structured album.
Ballads concludes with Jimmy Van Heusen’s beautifully written romantic piece “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” Again, we find Coltrane comfortably situated in his lane, playing the role of balladeer, in all of its austerity. Even in instrumental form, the elevated musicianship of Coltrane, Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones manages to convey every ounce of feeling found in its most popular inception, performed by Frank Sinatra. Despite a linear narration, the album is an effortless display of emotional provocation.
In the most ironic of fashions, Ballads has been made into a rather complicated point of discussion as a result of its misunderstood simplicity. Ballads is, without a doubt, one of Coltrane’s most accessible works. While it may not venture off into the abstractions explored in the latter part of his career, it does deserve recognition for its impeccable cohesiveness. If we could provide a personality type to music, then Ballads would be considered an introvert throughout. This is what autumn sounds like. Its wistful demeanor provides the perfect soundtrack for a contemplative look at one of music’s most intriguing characters.