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Red Planet

by Steve Day




Red Planet Mars


Doubt about who wrote a particular melody tends to provide an air of mystery.  Enter Red Planet.  Years ago a highly respected British saxophone player told me John Coltrane wrote Red Planet but called it Miles’ Mode for copyright reasons.  It’s the only time I’ve heard this explanation but hey, it’s a scenario that happens.  There’s also a more established theory that Eric Dolphy wrote the tune. 

Red Planet’s main theme is a twelve-tone tone-row; the basis for a lot of serial music.  Dolphy was interested in such ideas; he certainly experimented with the piece.  There’s also some suggestion he may have ‘contributed’ it to Coltrane’s own development of Miles’ Mode when they played the piece together at the Village Vanguard sessions in 1961.  Of added interest is that the following year the great Bb clarinet maestro, Pee Wee Russell, decided to re-translate Red Planet for his own groundbreaking album New Groove, giving the composer’s credit to Trane. Take a listen to Pee Wee’s short Planet solos on New Groove - the ears truly hear something extraordinary.  Writing about it at the time in Downbeat magazine’s review Don DeMichael called it “triumphant”.




In my Red Planet poem I’m attempting to tap into this triumphant ‘mystery’:

The poem ends with the Shabaka Hutchings title, The Comet Is Coming, like Red Planet, referencing outer space.  All improv is based to some degree on the notion of call and response, the impact of one phrase upon another.  If the comet is coming my poem offers a personal response.  One thing global pandemic and climate crisis points to is how we respond to what is ‘out there’ is crucial to our lives.  In my view music, poetry, all the arts, reflect a central message; what happens to one of us induces a response from all, what feels like a mystery is actually our own humanity.  That is the underlying beauty found in the work of great musicians like Trane, Dolphy, Pee Wee and Shabaka.


Red Planet

They had been playing Red Planet,
taking the sonic trip up and outta
space to where few people want to go on
a Saturday night when the world collapses
around the end of the evening.
Midnight soaked in neon gets no one near
the surface of Mars
never mind a miracle of music.
For sure Coltrane had always treated
the twelve tone like a mode; fact, he sometimes
named it as that but Pee Wee’s Bb licorice clarinet
would have none of it; already leapt the line
like jumping gravity when a rainy night
suddenly warms up.
Heaven knows who hears
the God of War as the God of Good and Evil
but by 1962 when Pee Wee Russell touched
down with the tune no ears were arguing
with what they could hear
coming out of the ancient New Groove.

There are only so many bars in the
City of Soho as Ronnie pertinently
pointed out to no particular person other
than those of us who already knew how to
steal a scene. See a mind’s eye
that is what the Great Observatory has
hit upon, more red,
less grey, blue to green and a
colony of music as ancestral as Africa.
So you blow dry wood through reeds like over
wide plains and across this Serengeti of chorus
and who is to translate what-when-how-but
Pee Wee understood about Red Planet.
What we still believe
when catching a phantom
haunting the horns of Shabaka Hutchings
knowing it to be a real new thing orbiting
what we came here to do. Forget no one
least of all Pee Wee Russell
who saw the comet coming before us.

© Steve Day



Listen to Shabaka Hutchings The Comet Is Coming.



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Jazz As Art

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