John Coltrane (1) Meets Glenn Branca (8) In SOTC's March Madness
Sound of the City's search for the quintessential New York City musician enters Round Two this week, with battles in the Round of 32 daily. Keep up with all the action here.
Give or take Downbeat polls or a sometimes-imagined rivalry with fellow downtown composer Rhys Chatham, neither John Coltrane nor Glenn Branca ever left much room for competition. During his lifetime, Coltrane cut a giant figure, an acknowledged giant of jazz whose ever-present curiosity helped the music blossom from bebop to the spiritual free improvisation he championed later in his life. Since his death in 1967, his reputation has only grown larger, one of the last unifying figures in jazz history. Branca, meanwhile, created symphonies of alternate tuned guitars, massive harmonies, vibrating holes in the universal fabric and, in part, inspiring Sonic Youth. Without either, we'd be a lot less free.
John Coltrane: "My Favorite Things"
Coltrane transubstantiates Rogers & Hammerstein's legendary melody from a charticle-y catalogue of twee delights into the delight itself, his saxophone soaring bird-like over McCoy Tyner's wide-handed chording and Elvin Jones' intricate and subtle cymbal-work. Pointing the way towards the abstract territories he would soon cover, "My Favorite Things" is a collective sleight-of-hand that is still utterly magical, carrying the listener from the instantly familiar showtune, move by move, into the ever-present and sacred Now of close improvisation.
Glenn Branca: "Symphony No. 6: Devil Choirs at the Gates of Heaven, 4th movement"
Using homemade instruments, from jerry-rigged guitars strung with hardware store wire to modified harpsichords, the Branca stepped into a world charted by freethinkers like instrument-builder Harry Partch. But with his 6th Symphony, Branca scaled back to a "simple" orchestration of drums, bass, keyboard, and between 8 and 10 electric guitars, all pulsing and grinding in dramatic rhythms, mapping a path beyond Earth and heavens through sheer visceral beauty.
Longevity: Coltrane passed away in 1967 at the age of 40. Branca, now 63, continues to debut new symphonies, including 2010's "Running Through the World Like An Open Razor." But Coltrane crammed far more than a lifetime into his years, blowing on well over 100 studio albums; he also has a nearly bottomless catalogue of live shows and session work.
Starpower: Your grandmother probably hasn't heard of Glenn Branca.
Intangibles: Though many, many people can and will rhapsodize about the sacred free music of John Coltrane, sitting (in person!) through one of Branca's symphonies to experience their equally sacred and free power (Branca spent years studying the universal/cosmic math of harmonic systems) might transform the conversation into a very different thing. Plus there's his awesome hair.
Likely winner: Branca doesn't have a church named after him, nor is he generally recognized as a saint.