God's Mind in That Music
Theological Explorations through the Music of John Coltrane
Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012.
Pbk, 250pp, £18
Pbk, 250pp, £18
A recent trend in theology has been theology for and through the arts - in the first art is understood in the light of theology, the second asks the question "What can the arts bring to theology?" Howison’s book takes the latter approach but within a narrower scope: the life and music of John Coltrane.
Coltrane is the first, and probably, only jazz musician who has had a church formed in his name: Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church, which is part of the African Orthodox Church. He was bought up in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church orthodox and recognised the spirituality behind his music even if it was a misdirected spirituality. As Edgar has written “All music articulates a two-way relation to spirituality”. Coltrane then provides an excellent case study for a theological appraisal of his work. Howison has done that and he writes as a fan; throughout his passion for Coltrane shines through. Calvin Seerveld sums up the project very well: “You could think about his music as glossolalia, and you are the interpreter now, struggling to see what the tongues are saying …” (p 18)
The first three chapters place Coltrane in context. The first chapter examines theology’s engagement with music, the second a brief personal view of jazz and the third chapter a brief biography of Coltrane. These chapters are helpful especially to those who know little of Coltrane’s background. Chapters 4-10 then examine key pieces by Coltrane. These for me were the best part of the book. Here Howison’s love for, and knowledge of, Coltrane shine through. Music, like any other cultural activity, is not divorced from a context and Howison helpfully places each piece in its historical context. He then exegetes the music. The book then has to be taken with Coltrane’s music to get the best out of it.
Neither Begbie nor Rookmaaker were ill-disposed towards free jazz. They thought that it was “breaching musical norms” and was “more and more anarchistic” (Rookmaaker), and a blind alley, a break from tradition (Begbie). Hence, Howison provides a helpful other-perspective to their views. Howison is at his best describing and looking at the background to Coltrane’s work. The theological explorations are for me the weakest aspect - at worst they tend towards a moralising point, but at best they do offer some important insights. If you love Coltrane you’ll find listening to him more satisfying after reading this book; if you don’t love Coltrane do yourself a favour and listen to him then read this book.
Pieces of music examined/ exegeted by Howison:
- My Favorite Things from My Favorite Things (Atlantic 1961) and Live at the Village vanguard Again (Impulse, 1966)
- Naima from Giant Steps (Atlantic, 1960) and Wise One from Crescent (Impulse 1964)
- Alabama from Live at Birdland (Impulse 1964)
- A Love Supreme (Impulse, 1966)
- Ascension (Impulse 1966)
- The Father, Son and Holy Ghost from Mediations (Impulse, 196)
- Attaining from Sun Ship (Impulse, 1966)
Howison has a blog that develops some of the themes in his book here.