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When Trane Met The Equinox: Happy Birthday, John Coltrane

The convergence of two stellar events: the birth of John Coltrane and the beginning of autumn.

John Coltrane 1960

Photo: Wikipedia/Francis Wolff

John Coltrane in 1960, the year that he recorded "Equinox."

John Coltrane recorded his composition “Equinox” nearly 50 years ago. It was late autumn, just five days after waxing his tour de force version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “My Favorite Things.” It was an especially busy week in the studio for Coltrane: The John Coltrane Reference Book lists 29 masters and alternate takes made between October 21 and 26. In the meantime, he was leading his recently formed quartet in performance six nights a week at New York’s Half Note club.

I found myself thinking about Coltrane earlier this evening while taking a look from my backyard at tonight’s super harvest moon. He was born on September 23, 1926, and in the past I’ve always paid tribute to the date by listening to some Coltrane records and reading about his life and music. (There’s a new Coltrane book out that I’ll be reviewing on this site soon.)

The Vernal ‘Equinox’

This year, the saxophonist’s birthday crosses paths with the autumnal equinox. (If you’re going by Coordinated Universal Time, aka UCT, the vernal equinox is at 3:09 a.m. on September 23). The coincidence put me in mind of Coltrane’s “Equinox,” one of my favorite compositions and performances by him.

“Equinox” is a minor-key blues with a dramatic Latin-rhythm introduction. It has a subtle but smoldering power, and heard from the perspective of many years later, it sounds like a musical announcement: The arrival of the Classic Coltrane Quartet is imminent. (Pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones were already on board for this session; bassist Jimmy Garrison would join the group more than a year later.) How appropriate, then, that it was first released in 1964, near the height of the Quartet’s prowess, on the LP Coltrane’s Sound.

‘A Preacher, Building To A Higher Pitch’

In his book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Lewis Porter devotes several pages to analyzing “Equinox” and transcribing Coltrane’s solo:

The relentless underpinning of the piano and bass, contrasting with the leisurely, uncrowded melody, creates an ominous, primeval atmosphere…. Over this background Coltrane invents an astounding improvisation that builds and builds, then winds down again before Tyner solos. He starts simply, poignantly, building to faster and faster notes with each chorus, and to higher and higher notes. Each of his eight choruses (after the two theme choruses) has its own characteristic motive – furthermore, there is a logical development of motives from one chorus to the next…. Coltrane is sounding like a preacher, building to a higher and higher pitch (literally) as he exhorts his audience.

In its own hypnotically quiet way, Coltrane’s solo here is as compelling to me as, say, Paul Gonsalves’ epic 27-chorus ride at Newport in 1956.

For More Coltrane

  • You can find more of Porter’s illuminating commentary on “Equinox” on pg. 184-188 of John Coltrane: His Life and Music.
  • In the meantime, here’s Coltrane’s 1960 recording of it. Happy birthday, John Coltrane, and a happy autumn to all.
David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • Markus from Cologne

    Thanks for this fine comment on one of the most compelling pieces of music I know. I’ve heard Equinox yesterday evening and started today before going to work with all my thoughts on this tune.

    To me it seems that Coltrane is painting this and always I try to imagine it looks like, could it be seen. Some hooks must be there, some little barbed hooks.

    And again, a marvelous McCoy Tyner.

    Thank you for remembering this composition.

  • http://b.rox.com/ Editor B

    I am fascinated by this piece of music and appreciate this piece of writing for shedding some illumination on it. However, I’m confused by the reference to the vernal equinox. I assume that is in error.

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