Music That Laughter
posted by October 23 at 13:29 PMon
On November 1961, the John Coltrane Quartet recorded “Impressions.” The performance, which runs for 15 minutes, is on Impulse’s Impressions, in the middle of five tracks that begin with the mysteries of “India” and end with fond memories of “Dear Old Stockholm.” “Impressions” is a storm in the middle of calm Eastern meditations and European reflections. “After the Rain” is the Owl of Minerva that takes flight at dusk. But “Impressions” is a sonic rage and riot.
It opens on a solid (and even catchy) harmonic base and then, with the force of an explosion, charges into the future with the audacity, the recklessness, the passion of something supernatural, something half-bull and half-human. And the power that is expended in this search (for truth? meaning? aliens?) is enormous. The drums are at war with time, the bass tumbles, flattens, doubles, and the piano offers no peace but strikes and shocks that are sometimes ahead and sometimes behind the wild, radiant energy of the sax.
This is the sound of a creative catastrophe. The world is coming apart and coming together at once. There is no center to hold until the very end, when the harmony returns, cools down, and dies with the bass. Then the strangest thing happens. The musicians start laughing. You hear Jones and Tyner laughing. And Coltrane starts laughing. Why this laughter? What are they laughing at?
I read somewhere that laughter in early humans was not an expression of happiness but of mockery. After beating an enemy to a pulp, the early human victor laughed at his opponent’s failure, pain, and suffering. “Hah, hah, look at you now! Hah, hah!” Is some of that prehistorical type of laughter to be found in the laughter that follows the quartet’s performance? Is this the laughter of victory? And if so, who has been beaten down to a pulp? Western music? The musical tradition? The critics of jazz?
Certainly, the quartet’s laughter has nothing to do with happiness. They are not laughing at something humorous. This form of laughter is hard to define because our age doesn’t know how to laugh at what the quartet is laughing at—being the cause, the generator, the emanation of greatness. With a boldness that is foreign to us, a race of political and artistic mice, the four musicians shattered the limits of all that is understandably human and travelled far into the nothingness that surrounds the light of the human order. Upon their return from this dark beyond, there was nothing left for them to do but laugh at having outdone themselves.