JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


John Coltrane's "Chasing the Train" is referred to "all middle." Can you describe its departure from the listening experience one brings to his other performances, like Giant Steps and Acknowledgement?

"Chasing the Train" was really the Rubicon that Coltrane created that a lot of his fans couldn't cross. He, uh, never'd done anything like this before. Now you have to remember first of all that this is a long-playing album and the average long- playing album is minimum usually six or eight pieces on each side. "Chasing the Train" was one whole side. So even [though] those [were] only 15 minutes - which by today's standards is not that big a deal, there's all kinds of 20-, 30-minute pieces - the fact that it was the whole side just made it even seem longer then 15 minutes. And the entire thing is a tenor saxophone solo, nobody else solos, and it's all based on a 12- bar blues, and there's no theme really.

I mean, he starts [Giddins demonstrates] - and then he finishes that chorus and then he sort of, sort of echoes some of those ideas in the second chorus. By the third chorus you could see it's completely spontaneous, it's completely improvised. And so it has the feeling that you sort of come in in the middle of this piece and then he plays for 15 minutes and then he just stops. And you can also, the closer you listen to it the more you can hear that Coltrane is trying to get rid of the 12-bar format, he's trying to be completely free. But Elvin Jones the drummer and Jimmy Garrison are just having none of it. Every time the end of the 12 bars comes along, they do a press roll or something to tell you there's a new chord, so if you really are good and you pay attention and you can count really fast [Giddins demonstrates] you can actually count the choruses.

I went - I tried many times. I got lost - it's like 78, 80 chords. I mean it's science fiction how many chords does he play at that tempo. But for most people, they heard it and they said, "What is this? It's just noise." They didn't know where to begin. Whereas for a lot of other listeners it was - wow. This was, this was like getting high on a new kind of life. This was druggy in the best sense of the word. I mean I was a kid when I heard it. And I just instantly was enraptured by it and I was stunned to see critics saying that this was noise, it was - you know, what had happened to John Coltrane? Has he lost his mind? Now it's considered, of course, one of the benchmark recordings of the theory.