To listen to John Coltrane is to accept uncertainty. His was a music of astute improvisation, sporadic gestures into some unknown territory. To enjoy Coltrane might require a retuning of one’s ears, then: listeners ought to accept that what they listen to might surprise them, confuse them or even alter them permanently. Such was the shattering power of this man with a saxophone.
Coltrane’s legacy, therefore, exists as if under some mythic sheen—innovator, teacher, transcendent learner, a human hallmark of jazz’s most brilliant contributions to society. But he was also just a man, a complicated cat, who struggled with drug abuse throughout his youth. And while he finally came up clean, he would still die at the young age of 40, leaving behind a legacy far too soon.
A year before his death on July 17, 1967, Coltrane was touring with his quintet for the very last time. This 1966 concert at the Newport Jazz Festival is in fact his last-ever full performance and a bombastic one at that. The 24-minute set-closer “Leo,” thunders over endless polyrhytmic runs, with Coltrane blowing and bursting as if compelled by some mighty power. It’s a level of intensity that makes sense only for him, and the kind that leaves us all desperately searching for it again, all these years later.