John Coltrane & Don Cherry: Bemsha Swing
The Avant-Garde (Atlantic SD 1451)
Composed by Thelonious Monk.
Recorded: New York, July 8, 1960
Rating: 92/100 (learn more)
John Coltrane never cared much for what other people thought. He must have had doubts, at least occasionally—he was human, after all—but ultimately he let his instinct for exploration guide him. A prime example is The Avant-Garde, where he joined forces with several of Ornette Coleman's sidemen at a time when Coltrane was the most influential musician in jazz and they were insurgent up-and-comers. Whereas most of the album consisted of interpretations of Coleman tunes (and one by co-leader Don Cherry), the band took a stab at a prior era's avant-garde with the recording of Monk's "Bemsha Swing." Monk's melody is not technically demanding, yet the empathy shared by Coltrane and Cherry in playing the unison theme is still notable. They phrase and blend like a single instrument.
Cherry's biggest fault as a player was the ever-present "splat" that characterized his attack and sound in general when he used an open horn. That's a factor here, yet it fades in significance next to his gift for unfettered melodic invention. Cherry was the ideal companion for Coleman, in that he served as a natural bridge between Ornette's downhome concept and mainstream bop. Cherry's skill at reconciling related if contrasting approaches is put to good use here, as he plays totally free while maintaining the integrity of Monk's construct.
In contrast, Trane seems tentative, perhaps because his natural inclination is to deal with the chords more directly. After Cherry's comparatively free improvisation, Coltrane's method of navigating the changes—ingenious though it may be—sounds nearly archaic. As a result, the track isn't the complete success one might expect. That said, the very existence of this recorded meeting between the avant-garde's greatest trumpeter and its premier tenor saxophonist is something to be treasured.
Reviewer: Chris Kelsey