John Coltrane, Venus (1967)
Transcribed by Lewis Porter; performing edition edited by Eric Hewitt
John Coltrane's "Venus" was recorded in 1967 as a duet with Rashied Ali, a pioneer of what was called "multidirectional/polytonal drumming." It accompanies "Mars," "Jupiter," and "Saturn" on one of Coltrane's final albums, "Interstellar Space" (released posthumously in 1974 and again in 1978 with two additional tracks: "Leo" and "Jupiter Variation"). This album was a revolution in the art of jazz music, as well as in the art of saxophone playing. For the Yesaroun' Duo, it represents the genesis of our instrumentation as well as a monumental landmark in avant-garde music - composed or not. For me personally, Venus is a modern virtuosic jazz caprice in a style that is never really explored by "classical" saxophonists, and to be a "complete" saxophonist is to understand this virtuoso by playing his music in the same way that violinists better understand violin playing by conquering the Caprices of Paganini.
At first, the exact reproduction of an improvised musical composition may seem antithetical to its creation and essence, as well as impractical and probably impossible. Our attempt to create a live experience of a performance of Venus stems from a belief that this, although improvised in its creation (just as so many of the masterpieces of many Baroque and Classical composers), is art music that must continue to live and breath in the world today. This intensely spiritual work was one of Coltrane's final reaches towards the heavens which, we believe, even in recreation reaches as high as has the music of only a handful of composers.
Composer Ken Ueno offers the following thoughts on Venus:
Here is a complex arch-form with no real "head," but instead an opening motive that is thoroughly developed, contrasted, and recapitulated. There is no harmonic progression, but rather a clear sense of chromatic accumulation. There is no meter, but there is a consistent sense of pulse. No accompaniment, or "comping," but instead a self-sufficient saxophone part. All this makes for a piece in which it is impossible to distinguish between that which is "composed" and that which is "improvised." In Venus, created at the end of his life, Coltrane achieves total integration between composition and improvisation. Another way to consider the form is as though Coltrane has created a new genre, one in which a personal raga is played through the voice of jazz. As in a raga, the elements that define the abstract identity of the piece are evoked through the improvisation. It is the culmination of Coltrane's lifelong experience in jazz, self-education in Slonimsky scales and Indian music, technical mastery of the saxophone, and pursuit of spirituality. There is nothing here but pure music.