Listen to this track by saxophone immortal John Coltrane and his classic quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano). It’s the perennial holiday favourite “What Child Is This”, or as it is credited: “Greensleeves”, with those two pieces having the same melody, with lyrics added by hymn writer William Chatterton Dix in 1865.

This song was recorded during a specific and very celebrated phase in Coltrane’s career, when things were really gelling with his band, many of whom believe was the greatest collection of musicians in jazz over a long-term recording period between 1961 and 1965. This period corresponded with Coltrane’s work on the Impulse! label, with whom he’d stay until his untimely death from liver cancer in 1967.

The song itself has an even older pedigree than Coltrane’s classic period of course. It has been connected with King Henry VIII, he who provided a number of creative ways to get out of being married during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the meantime, evidently, he was a songwriter. I’m not so sure about  the facts on that one. It seems kind of unlikely to me.

But, whatever.

It’s a melancholic, beautiful little tune no matter who wrote it. “Greensleeves” is about being rejected by a true love, which is a pretty solid theme no matter what era it comes out of. And in a Christmas context as “What Child Is This?”, it’s used to tell the story of the birth of Jesus; not just about the joy of that event, but also through its minor key suggests the shadow of human brokeness, too. So what makes Coltrane’s take on that so compelling?

This tune is a traditional folk song, a cultural inheritance that was certainly being celebrated in the folk boom of that early ’60s period. Its tune is indelible. Coltrane, and the jazz world in general was not entirely unaware of that fact.The great thing about Coltrane’s version is that the melancholic quality of the piece comes through quite handily just because it is so suited to his approach to interpretation, which was about capturing the impressions of a song, rather than defining it in sharp contrast.

He’d record a couple of versions of this song in the early ’60s, not to mention a few rounds in live performances, one important one being a part of his performances at the Village Vanguard, also recorded for posterity. The one you’re listening to now was with the classic quartet and actually released as a 45 single on Impulse!. Another version of “Greensleeves” appeared on the Africa/Brass album, which included a moody, slower, big band arrangement (worked out by McCoy Tyner, and by fellow sax savant Eric Dolphy).

The soprano saxophone is the instrument you’re hearing on this track. John Coltrane began to supplement his tenor sax playing with the soprano saxophone by the early 1960s, possibly most famously on his take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things”. Later in his career, he would also play flute. Years later, Kenny G would ruin the soprano saxophone for everyone by making it a cloying, simpering texture to be utterly avoided.

In each case, that melancholic quality is coupled perfectly with Coltrane’s signature sound; that elemental turbulence that lay at the centre of everything he laid down. This was  in the years before he embraced “the New Thing”, with that new thing being avante garde; double quartets, and dual saxophone assaults with Pharaoh Sanders. This would be a phase in Coltrane’s approach that broke the tension a bit between lyrical playing and the out and out effusion of that sonic darkness which had been seething under the surface in the Atlantic and early Impulse! period.

With the “Greensleeves” connection or not, for me this song is all about “What Child Is This?”, which is one of my favourite Christmas pieces of all time. That deep sense of melancholy balanced against the crystalline beauty of the melody is about the celebration of hope in a world that would quash any hope at all, with the Herods of the world seeking to kill any visions  of it that differ from their own.

What better musician to bring out the subtlties in the mood of this piece than Coltrane, a man wholly dedicated to his art even as he struggled with addiction, and with spiritual longing? And while we’re at it, what’s a better metaphor for humanity’s struggle as a whole, fighting our way to the light through the darkness, even at Christmas time?

For more information about the Coltrane classic quartet, check out this article that talks about the complete studio recordings on the Impulse! label, perhaps a worthy addition to last minute Christmas shopping for that jazz lover in your life.

Enjoy!

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