On John Coltrane’s “Alabama”


Best of 2020

We’re away until January 4, but we’re reposting some of our favorite pieces from 2020. Enjoy your holiday!

John Coltrane. Photo: Hugo van Gelderen for Anefo. CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first thing you hear is McCoy Tyner’s fingers sounding a tremulous minor chord, hovering at the lower end of the piano’s register. It’s an ominous chord, horror movie shit; hearing it you can’t help but see still water suddenly disturbed by something moving beneath it, threatening to surface. Then the sound of John Coltrane’s saxophone writhes on top: mournful, melismatic, menacing. Serpentine. It winds its way toward a theme but always stops just short, repeatedly approaching something like coherence only to turn away at the last moment. It’s a maddening pattern. Coltrane’s playing assumes the qualities of the human voice, sounding almost like a wail or moan, mourning violence that is looming, that is past, that is atmospheric, that will happen again and again and again.

What are we hearing?