John Coltrane's 'Interstellar Space' at 50: Legacy of a Free-Jazz Masterpiece

Saxophonist's groundbreaking duo LP summed up his cosmic quest, influencing generations of jazz and rock seekers – from Nels Cline to Jack DeJohnette

Fifty years ago, when drummer Rashied Ali entered the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for his latest session with John Coltrane, he was surprised to find the rest of the saxophonist's band absent. "I went in there, and I was setting up, and I didn't see Jimmy [Garrison], I didn't see Alice [Coltrane]; I didn't see nobody else," Ali recalled in 2003. "I was like, 'Where's everybody else?' and [John] said, 'It's just going to be you and me.'" 

What resulted was a series of nakedly spiritual, often harshly ecstatic free-form duets between Coltrane's tenor saxophone and Ali's drums, each based only on a brief theme and most bookended by Coltrane's ritualistic ringing of sleigh bells. The session, held on February 22nd, 1967, was among Coltrane's last before his death from liver cancer that July. The tapes sat unreleased until the fall of 1974 when four of the pieces – "Mars," "Venus," "Jupiter" and "Saturn" – came out under the title of Interstellar Space. Reviewing the album for Rolling Stone, Stephen Davis called it "plainly astonishing" and likened the musicians' interplay to "a two-man vulcanism."

The album's unconventional sax/drums format wasn't entirely new for Coltrane. Though he typically favored a full rhythm section of piano, bass and drums, he had often engaged Ali's hard-swinging predecessor, Elvin Jones, in epic live duos within quartet performances; and in 1965, the pair recorded a single studio duet, "Vigil." But thanks to the album-length format and Ali's radical playing style – honed through several years of work both with Coltrane's bands and, according to the drummer, in earlier, undocumented duos with saxophonists such as Archie Shepp – Interstellar Space was something very different. Throughout the LP, Ali largely jettisons traditional timekeeping in favor of an exhilarating abstract propulsion. His approach inspires some of Coltrane's most frenzied yet focused playing on record, full of dizzying runs, piercing cries and breathtaking melodic invention. "I can really choose just about any direction at just about any time in the confidence that it will be compatible with what he's doing," Coltrane once said of playing over Ali's tumbling rhythmic torrent.

Earlier Coltrane efforts such as 1958's hard-bop masterpiece Blue Train, 1960's harmonic breakthrough Giant Steps and 1965's majestic modal prayer A Love Supreme have taken their rightful places in the jazz canon. But in the half-century since it was recorded, Interstellar Space has steadily amassed a following, influencing everyone from jazz elders such as Jack DeJohnette and Peter Brötzmann to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and singer-songwriter Kurt Vile. It's an album that has come to epitomize the genre-transcending profundity of Coltrane's often-controversial late work. Meanwhile, Interstellar Space's saxophone/drums instrumentation – rare at the time the album was recorded, and never before featured on an entire LP – has grown into its own jazz subgenre. Last year alone saw releases in that configuration from Brötzmann and Peeter Uuskyla; Bill McHenry and Andrew Cyrille; Ingrid Laubrock and Tom Rainey; and Paul Flaherty and Randall Colbourne.

Another 2016 album, In Movement, featured a more explicit nod to Interstellar Space, from musicians with a special relationship to the original. The record is jointly credited to veteran drummer DeJohnette, who sat in with Coltrane on several occasions; saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, son of John and his wife/collaborator Alice; and bassist Matthew Garrison, son of John Coltrane's own steadfast bassist Jimmy. The Grammy-nominated release's penultimate track is a lively, sometimes turbulent free-jazz duet between Ravi, playing sopranino saxophone, and DeJohnette titled simply "Rashied," in honor of the late drummer, who died in 2009 following a heart attack.

"It literally came about at a rehearsal," Ravi Coltrane tells Rolling Stone of the piece. "[Jack] said, 'I'm working on this thing, sort of like a thing that Rashied was getting into.' Sort of like this flowing thing. So he started playing that on the snare, and I heard Interstellar Space right when he started going into it. ... I picked up the sopranino and improvised an Interstellar Space–style melody." The resulting track alludes to the surging momentum of the Coltrane and Ali duos without resorting to mimicry.

DeJohnette characterizes his five-night guest stint with John Coltrane at Chicago's Plugged Nickel in March 1966 – when he joined Ali as a second drummer – as "one of the most challenging gigs, physically, mentally and spiritually, that I ever played." The 74-year-old speaks reverently of the connection Coltrane and Ali would achieve at their duo session the following year. "It was a duet record, and it held its own with the two of them," he tells RS of Interstellar Space. "You can hear very clearly how completely [Ali] fills up the space and created motion which John could play over. It's masterful."

Growing up, says Ravi Coltrane – who was weeks shy of his second birthday when his father died – he favored earlier John Coltrane works. "My ears could only make it up to about 1965," he admits, indicating the year when Coltrane's so-called "classic quartet" of the early-to-mid-Sixties began to splinter. Eventually, though, he warmed to later, more outré John Coltrane records, while deepening his personal and professional relationship with Ali, whom he calls a "second father." While attending college at California University of the Arts, Ravi spent summers in New York with the drummer and later joined Ali's band, which sometimes also included Matthew Garrison.

The younger Coltrane came to view Interstellar Space as an album that summed up the literally cosmic scope of his father's late-life musical aspirations. "My father had a very keen and sharp mind; he was drawing from as many of the natural sciences as he could," explains Ravi. "There's a tune on Interstellar Space called 'Leo,' but the real title is 'Leo Minor,' after the constellation. And of course, it's in a minor key, the key of E minor. ... John had sort of devised a 12-tone system based on the planets and various star groupings.

"I feel he was in search of something as universal as he could imagine," he continues, "something rooted in the natural world – and the universe above us." The detailed track subtitles found in the Interstellar Space liner notes – such as "Fourth from the sun: battlefield of the cosmic giants" for "Mars," and "Second from the sun: love" for "Venus" – jibe with this interpretation.

The album plays, Ravi says, "like a ceremony." He envisions the ideal Interstellar Space listening experience as follows: "Sitting on the floor with your legs crossed, closing your eyes and the bells begin to ring – you light the incense, and the sermon starts."

In the early Sixties, the elder Coltrane started edging toward a freer, more expansive sound. He doubled on soprano sax, perplexed reviewers by adding multi-instrumental maverick Eric Dolphy to his core quartet and recorded the career-defining album-length suite A Love Supreme. Coltrane scaled up to an 11-piece group for the raucous 1966 epic Ascension, and by the summer of that year, he and a new working band – featuring Ali, Garrison, Alice Coltrane on piano and formidably abrasive fellow saxist Pharoah Sanders – were expanding staples such as "My Favorite Things" into dense, cathartic hour-long jams. Among Coltrane's other late work, Interstellar Space stands out for its stark, meditative purity. In Ben Ratliff's 2007 book Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, he writes of Interstellar Space, "It's an almost monastic record."

Despite the album's stripped-down format, each piece has a distinct character, from the angular, aggressive "Leo" (one of two outtakes included on Interstellar Space's CD reissue) to the ballad-like "Venus" and the bluesy "Saturn." Coltrane and Ali had played some of these pieces before, but as Ali it remembered it, the Interstellar Space session itself was largely off the cuff. "Everything was completely spontaneous except for at times I would ask [John] to give me some kind of clue as to what was happening," the drummer said. "Like, 'Is this going to be slow like a ballad?' or 'Is this going to be in a certain time, like 3/4 or 4/4?' ... Because, you know, he would just ring the bells, pick up his horn and start playing."

Coltrane recorded constantly near the end of his life, and his label, Impulse!, couldn't keep up. At the time of his death, many sessions, including the one that would eventually see release as Interstellar Space, remained unissued. Enter Ed Michel, Impulse's head of A&R in the early Seventies. A serious Coltrane fan, he would often look through the vault at ABC, the label's parent company, for unreleased sessions by the saxophonist, and one day, he came across the Coltrane/Ali duos. "They were obviously brilliant performances," Michel tells RS, "and it was new-to-the-world Coltrane material that was quite astonishing. I saw no reason not to put them out."

Though the album's title seems to perfectly reflect Coltrane's aesthetic of the time, it wasn't Coltrane who chose it. To the best of Michel's recollection, he was the one who decided to call the posthumous release Interstellar Space, playing off the planetary-themed track titles listed on the tape box. As for the album cover, a serene scene of the sun above clouds that, unlike the majority of Coltrane's Impulse! titles, did not feature a photo or portrait of the saxophonist, Michel says simply that "whoever was running the art department at the time made the decision."

When the Coltrane/Ali duos finally came out in September 1974 – just over seven years after Coltrane's death – they were a revelation for many Coltrane devotees. One was Nels Cline, who along with drummer Gregg Bendian would go on to cover the entirety of the LP on their 1999 live album Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane.

Cline was already immersed in Coltrane's classic early-to-mid-Sixties work, but Interstellar Space came as a shock. "A lot of posthumous [Coltrane] recordings were emerging," the guitarist recalls of the period. "Transition and Sun Ship – fantastic records. Interstellar Space came out, and my twin brother, Alex, and I were completely amazed that this turned out to be basically a free-jazz record with just Rashied and Trane playing this amazing, layered, dense music that spoke volumes about both of their styles and explained, to me, anyway, why Rashied was an attractive drummer to Coltrane.

"It had a certain kind of power," Cline continues, "but also it was amazingly focused, because it didn't have a lot of what was an increasing amount of instrumentation in Coltrane's later work. Hearing this starkness was powerful and exciting."

Bendian, who has played with everyone from jazz radical Cecil Taylor to pop eccentric Todd Rundgren, also developed an appreciation for late-period Coltrane. In the mid-Nineties, he and Cline were collaborating in Bendian's prog-inspired Interzone group. Bendian played vibraphone in the project, and one day during a rehearsal break, the two started jamming as a duo, Bendian recalls, playing "super high-energy stuff."

"My quip at one point was something to the effect of, 'Man, if you and I were ever together and you were playing drums, maybe we should just cover Interstellar Space,'" Cline says.

"I didn't laugh," recalls Bendian, "and I said, 'What if we did?'"

The joke turned into a serious scholarly project for the two free-jazz heads, with Cline transcribing Coltrane lines from the record and Bendian doing the same for Ali's parts. "I made timelines to highlight various events and various things that Coltrane investigates at certain times in the piece: his range, his melodic ideas," says Cline.

Their work also took on a dimension of activism. "Nels and I were noticing that nobody was performing the later Coltrane material," the drummer tells RS. "People aren't really taking that stuff that seriously. It became a little bit of our mission: We're going to choose what our repertoire is, what our heritage is, instead of just doing 'My Favorite Things' and the five Coltrane songs everybody plays."

"It seemed like it was going to be written out of music history," Cline says of this era of Coltrane's work and of free jazz in general. "This was the Ken Burns Jazz [period]. ... When you see the history and you never hear a mention of Sun Ra or Albert Ayler, you have to start wondering what's happening. We just wanted to put our two cents in.

"And also," he adds, assuming a tone of dudely relish, "late-period Coltrane rules."

On one hand, Interstellar Space Revisited is deeply faithful to the original, down to the order of the compositions, the overall respect paid to Coltrane and Ali's improvisational languages, and even the use of sleigh bells on some tracks. On the other, it adds an element of pure psych-gone-noise maximalism.

"Coltrane's screaming his lungs out," Cline says of the original album. "Being somebody coming out of Hendrix, and having paid a lot of attention to Sonic Youth, and all kinds of distortion, basically it's sort of my version of that. There's a certain amount of abandon to it."

Interstellar Space Revisited was warmly received, not least by Rashied Ali himself. "These guys really did their homework," the drummer told The Wire's Howard Mandel in 2000 after the writer played him Cline and Bendian's recording. "I'm very impressed."

At the time, Ali was also doing his part to keep the album's legacy alive. Since Coltrane's death, he had stayed busy as a sideman (working frequently with Alice Coltrane, among many others) and bandleader, while carrying the torch for John Coltrane in general and Interstellar Space in particular. His intense Duo Exchange LP with saxist Frank Lowe, issued on Ali's own Survival label in 1973, actually beat Interstellar Space to the market. The drummer would later perform duets with saxophonists Arthur Rhames and Sonny Fortune, and in the Nineties, Ali formed a fruitful partnership with saxophonist Louie Belogenis, honed in the Coltrane-and-beyond repertory project Prima Materia. In 1999, just weeks prior to the release of Cline and Bendian's album, Ali and Belogenis issued their own duet disc, Rings of Saturn. The musicians made their inspiration clear via a version of Interstellar Space's "Saturn" but established their own gritty, beautifully intimate sound.

Like Cline, Belogenis remembers the 1974 release of Interstellar Space as a major event. "I had it immediately," he tells RS of the LP. "It was astounding and confounding at the same time."

Yet the saxophonist stresses that the record struck him as a natural progression from Coltrane's earlier work. "I didn't hear [Interstellar Space] as some wild statement," he says. "There was that element of shock, but when you listen to Coltrane's recorded output, you just see it's a step-by-step evolution."

Belogenis also praises the calmness that underlies the album's obvious intensity. "There's a beautiful peacefulness and silence in Interstellar Space," he notes. "No matter how furiously he's playing, it's coming from a centered man. ... There really is a core of peace there."

The psych-influenced singer-songwriter Kurt Vile, who cites "heavy phases" of Coltrane in his listening diet, perceives a similar duality in Interstellar Space. "They're both wailing in their own hypnotic chaos," the 37-year-old tells RS of Coltrane and Ali's playing on the album, but he stops to clarify. "Actually, chaos is not the right word because it's harmonious too. ... There's moments where it's just Rashied playing, and it just comes together so good. It does some kind of therapeutic rubbing on the brain – some kind of chaotic cleanse."

From the Seventies through the early Aughts, sax/drums duos continued to proliferate. Participants included bebop elders such as Max Roach (who released duo LPs with saxophonists Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton), Ali contemporaries like drummer Sunny Murray (who duetted with saxophonists including Arthur Doyle and Sabir Mateen) and fringe avant-gardists such as Japanese altoist Kaoru Abe (whose scorching 1971 duets with drummer Hiroshi Yamazaki saw release on 1995's Jazz Bed).

In recent years, the configuration has become even more common, with tandems ranging from John Zorn and Milford Graves to Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love forming longstanding partnerships and honing their own distinctive takes on the format. Saxist Paul Flaherty and drummer Chris Corsano began infiltrating the American DIY scene in the early 2000s, connecting the dots between old-school free jazz and the modern experimental underground. ("It was awesome to see noise kids at shows freak the fuck out when they heard Flaherty," Corsano told BOMB in 2004.) Newer sax/drums partnerships like Italy's Jooklo Duo and the Netherlands' Dead Neanderthals flaunt their psychedelic and grindcore roots, respectively. And while the duo of avant-metal guitarist Mick Barr – who has called Interstellar Space his favorite jazz record – and veteran free-jazz drummer Marc Edwards haven't paid direct homage to Coltrane and Ali the way Cline and Bendian did, their performances push post-Interstellar improv to punishing new extremes.

Nilssen-Love, a Norwegian drummer whose discography includes duo sessions with free-jazz sax luminaries such as Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann and Frode Gjerstad, in addition to Vandermark, sees a clear connection between Interstellar Space and more extreme forms of rock. "I think if you put on Interstellar Space for some Norwegian black-metal drummer or guitarist, he will for sure find the similar energy," he tells RS. (His point echoes one made by Mika Vainio, formerly of Finnish techno-meets-noise act Pan Sonic, who once described Interstellar Space as "kind of grindcore jazz, the constant attack.")

For Nilssen-Love, working in the sax/drums duo format never feels limiting. "Saxophone and drums sound bloody good together – just the instruments, by themselves," he says. "The way I've worked a lot with Ken [Vandermark] is that we both think both instruments can be accompanying instruments and solo instruments. There's a lot of challenges within that context, and it's sort of endless what you can do."

Ingrid Laubrock also relishes the challenges of the format. The German-born, New York–based saxophonist performs frequently in a duo with drummer Tom Rainey, a partnership documented most recently on 2016's Buoyancy. "It's liberating, but it can be daunting too," she says of working in this setting. "It's stripped-down, so if you don't have any ideas or if it's not going well ... there's just one person to rescue you."

While Laubrock finds Interstellar Space inspiring – "I love the way he's just exploring motifs and fragments and spirals of notes," she says of Coltrane's playing on the album – she stresses that copying the sound of this historic LP in her own duo work is "the one thing I clearly do not want to do." Accordingly, as heard on Buoyancy, her improvisations with Rainey focus more on slow-building structure than ecstatic exploration. "I think we both have a pretty compositional approach, even when we improvise," she says. "It doesn't mean we create forms or play off harmony or even time, necessarily, but it means we keep an overall shape in mind."

Brötzmann, the 75-year-old German saxophonist, was already well on his way to developing a personal sound at the time Interstellar Space was recorded. (His debut LP, For Adolphe Sax, would come out in 1967.) Brötzmann had seen Coltrane's classic quartet play in the Belgian countryside in the mid-Sixties – "one of the best concerts I can remember in my long life" – and would go on to help found a European school of free jazz with Machine Gun, an album that put a harsh, almost proto-industrial spin on the multi-saxophone approach of Coltrane's Ascension.

Brötzmann remembers duetting with drummers prior to Interstellar Space's release, and during the ensuing decades, he has performed and recorded in the duo format with countless heavyweights of the instrument, including Han Bennink, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves, Hamid Drake and Walter Perkins. In 1991, he recorded a trio disc with Ali.

The saxophonist recalls that American jazz records would often reach him and his friends a couple of years after they came out. When Interstellar Space finally showed up, it made a serious impression. "I was the only guy living alone, at my studio for music and painting, so my place was a kind of meeting place," Brötzmann reminisces to RS. "During the nighttime, we always listened to music, and when one of us got our hands on this one, it was, for all of us, quite a sensational thing. ... It was a kind of kick in the ass to go on with our own stuff as strong as possible."

Brötzmann, still touring the world incessantly more than four decades after Interstellar Space's release, clearly took that message to heart. Returning to the album in January, he found it still packed a wallop. "I listened to it just last night or the night before, and compared to the work with the quartet, which is without any doubt great music ... this duo music is really what I would call, even here from Europe – it has such a strong message. And of course, if you remember what was happening in the late Sixties in Europe and in your part of the world – you had the riots in Detroit, you had Martin Luther King, you had Vietnam coming – it was really a heavy time. And so the music was like this too."

Brötzmann is perhaps the most unsentimental musician in jazz – a man who titled early albums Nipples and Balls, and who once named a band Die Like a Dog in reference to Albert Ayler's tragic apparent suicide – but even he can't help but hear Interstellar Space as a kind of spiritual plea. "For me, the pure beauty of the music and what is happening in the daily life, in the world, in the politics, you can't separate that," he says. "When I did my Machine Gun piece in '68, I couldn't have done it in '76 or so; it was the right moment with the right music. And when I listened [to Interstellar Space] the other night, I think it was a message for all of us as human beings as believing in freedom and humanity.

"It was really a crying for some – it sounds very pathetic now – but for some better world."

Special thanks to Michael Cuscuna and Ben Young for their feedback and assistance.