John Coltrane’s Sheets of Sound

Never content to sit still, groundbreaking saxophonist John Coltrane changed the course of jazz history more than once. In this article, we take a closer look at his late-1950s playing which made use of a style described as ‘sheets of sound’…

In the world of jazz, few phrases capture the imagination quite like ‘sheets of sound’.

This term, synonymous with the innovative saxophone technique developed by saxophonist John Coltrane, remains one of the defining moments in modern jazz.

But what exactly are “sheets of sound,” and how have they influenced the jazz genre? Let’s dive into this fascinating concept, quoting two reputable sources, to better understand its significance and impact.

What are “Sheets of Sound”?

The term “sheets of sound” was first coined by jazz critic Ira Gitler in the liner notes of Coltrane’s 1958 album “Soultrane”.

He used this term to describe Coltrane’s unique style of soloing which is characterised by rapid runs and arpeggios that create a dense, cascading effect, almost like a musical waterfall.

This style marked a departure from the more linear and melodic solos typical of hard bop at the time, offering instead a more complex, textured, and harmonically rich sound.

This iconic recording of of the John Coltrane song Giant Steps is a great example; just listen to that solo!

The Influence of John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s development of this technique wasn’t just a personal evolution, but a revolution in jazz saxophone playing.

According to Lewis Porter, author of “John Coltrane: His Life and Music“, Coltrane’s approach involved playing lots of notes at a fast pace, not merely for the sake of speed, but to explore complex chord changes more thoroughly.

Dave Brinkman / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This approach allowed for more emotional expression and a deeper exploration of musical ideas.

Impact on Jazz Music

The development of “sheets of sound” had a profound impact on the jazz scene both then and for the future.

It pushed the boundaries of improvisation, challenging both musicians and listeners to think about the music – and in particular the harmony – in new ways.

This technique influenced countless saxophonists and jazz musicians, leading to more experimentation and innovation within the genre. It also paved the way for the avant-garde and free jazz movements of the 1960s.

Legacy and Continuing Influence

Decades later, the influence of “sheets of sound” is still felt in jazz.

Modern saxophonists, while perhaps not directly imitating Coltrane’s style, have absorbed and adapted its essence, using it to develop their own unique voices. It remains a touchstone for understanding the evolution of jazz improvisation.

Sheets of Sound

The idea of a “Sheet of sound” is more than a technical term; it’s a symbol of innovation and artistic exploration in jazz.

John Coltrane’s legacy, encapsulated in this phrase, continues to inspire and challenge musicians.

It reminds us, essentially, that jazz is a living, evolving art form, always pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

Looking for more?

Check out our round up of iconic John Coltrane albums, or our broader look at the most famous saxophone players in jazz history…

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