(Editor's note: A musical and spiritual journey completed on a single December day, A Love Supreme is the apex of instrumental storytelling in jazz. Note the classic tension-building use of block chords at the conclusion of Tyner’s solo that lead to Coltrane’s sublime re-arrival. E.N.)
There are no words to describe this milestone in art, except for John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.
Though often considered – in the '60s – as one of the most politically oriented intellectuals of the free jazz movement, Archie Shepp has always advocated and maintained a link with the popular roots of African- American music. This tune is a good example of a marching band-type song, played in a purposely relaxed and unsophisticated way, far from the shrieks and howls one might expect. In fact, Shepp’s tenor solo, towards the end of the song, is the only one that expresses anger and revolt. And indeed, it makes the band sound a bit as if it danced to keep from crying.
This tune is definitely not
one of the most often played, and this trio was definitely not
Shelly Manne’s usual working band. Yet, with two highly compatible and inspired musicians, the master drummer has recorded a little marvel. Costa’s highly personal and percussive approach to the piano (he was also a great vibist) and Duvivier’s deep sound and utter mastery of the bass combine with Manne’s sparkling, precise drumming to make the most of this lesser known song by deconstructing and rebuilding its melody. The three virtuosos obviously have a lot of fun shifting styles and tempos at breathtaking speed, so that the listener’s ears feel like they are being carried on a fascinating sonic and rhythmic ride. Hasn’t jazz been called “the sound of surprise”?
Early 1963 marked a tumultuous time in the U.S., especially in Alabama. First, new Governor George Wallace seized the moral low ground, vowing: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" Then sit-ins began in Birmingham, culminating in Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and Sheriff Bull Connor siccing police dogs on demonstrators. Amidst this turbulence, Coltrane & Hartman's 5-minute ballad of "sweet surrender" became an island of sanity in a deranged sea. It was a refuge that Coltrane himself would soon abandon, but for one brief moment the stillness, "like an April breeze on the wings of spring," was a welcome respite. So it remains.
Coltrane’s jukebox-friendly interpretation of the show tune “My Favorite Things
” has always overshadowed his overhaul of the English folk song “Greensleeves” – also known as the Christmas song “What Child Is This?” – but this is the superior performance. This wasn’t the first time he recorded it, but he really nailed it here. The first few notes out of Coltrane’s sax come crashing down more than an octave as he states the melody once and then sends it caroming all over the place, augmenting its simple beauty with squeals and phrases that seem gorgeously out of place.
Who knew? Turns out the Cockney Cinderella who morphs into a duchess for a musical set in Mayfair actually hailed from Missouri. Or so suggests this waltz from Broadway's My Fair Lady
(1956). Lorez Alexandria's "Show Me" halves the tempo of Eliza Doolittle's stop-beating-about-the-bush-you-limey- blighters grievance, yet doubles its temperature. Whereas Eliza was girlishly impatient, Lorez is womanly seductive, proving there's more than one way to skin a stubborn Missouri mule. When Bill Marx's arrange- ment does break a sweat, it's only to exult Lorez's triumph, after which order is restored for a bluesy finale. Show me the way to Alexandria, Missouri.
Sometimes the finger-snapping is figurative; here it's literal, but quiet enough to not awaken a sleepin' bee. At little more than two minutes, this track might seem miserly, except it's really all Johnny Hartman needs to convince us that despite their tinsel tackiness, Ring-a-Dings
are at heart romantics. Hartman's hushed but torrid baritone, abetted by soundman Rudy Van Gelder's twist of reverb, could melt frozen daiquiris still in the freezer. Hell, it'll curdle your cream at 50 feet. Toast your muffins. Simmer your soup. Sizzle your steak. Warm your cockles. Heat your hearth. Scorch your earth. You get the idea.
There are precious few recordings where a musician's opening notes bypass our eardrums and strike directly at the soul. This is one of those tracks. After Tyner's intro, Coltrane's entrance doesn't merely tingle the spine, it galvanizes the central nervous system. People long remember exactly where they were upon learning of some signal event (usually a national tragedy). Other, more personal experiences are momentous in a different way. They make us forget where we are. Like the instant when we realize that someone we love, loves us, too. John Coltrane's "I Wish I Knew" is such an epiphany.
This important marker in Space Age Jazz traces Coltrane's trajectory following his 1959 "Countdown
." Unfortunately, his flights became 14-minute marathons of monotony, inaugurated with "My Favorite Things
" (1960). Despite periodic modulations, "Out Of This World" is essentially a 2-chord vamp at a single dynamic—loud. Throughout, Elvin Jones is busier than a lone cashier at Toys 'R' Us on the day before Christmas. As always, Coltrane glows red hot. But everything is grossly overweight, as if a mad scientist at Cape Canaveral had launched an antique steam locomotive destined for Jupiter. The marvel is that the damn thing even gets off the ground.
Coltrane began researching various world music sources around the time of his first leader dates, and culling certain melodies for his own exploration. His own philosophical ties brought him closely in touch with a rich musical heritage from the East. Inside the basement club set in Greenwich Village, the band journeys through sun-parched lands to an even more sacred place within themselves. The soprano sax-bass clarinet duet creates sensual pictures of a humid and dusty Indian landscape. The ascetic Coltrane moans and squeals his raw and blissfully un-manicured phrases with his characteristic depth.
Those first bass notes, those first pleas from the saxophone – so begins Coltrane’s love letter to God. He offered up A Love Supreme
as a gift to his Creator, as words of praise and as a confession. His playing is the embodiment of a quest; you can hear him searching for something, seeking guidance, as the chords move up and up, and the horn lines keep reaching higher. On musical merits, A Love Supreme
– particularly the first movement, “Acknowledgement,” where Coltrane chants “a love supreme” with his vocal cords when he had said it enough with his horn – stands as a singular achievement in the history of music, an album that belongs in every collection of American music. But Coltrane was also seeking spiritual fulfillment when he recorded A Love Supreme
. For the rest of us, it is itself spiritually fulfilling.
Coltrane was definitely listening to Albert Ayler – the evidence is not only in the title but in the folk-like theme that opens and closes “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” which was recorded the year after Ayler made his big splash. No matter who did what first, this is a glorious, original piece of art. Coltrane added a second tenor and a second drummer to his quartet for this overtly religious work. Meditations is hardly descriptive of this outing – “Bombasts” would be more like it. Yet, like A Love Supreme and Ascension before it, this is not caterwauling for caterwauling’s sake. A search and a conversation unfold before us, and it is perhaps no stretch to suggest that the tune is a metaphor for the manner in which Coltrane thinks we ought to live – with reverence for a higher power that can guide us and help us find our path through the chaos of the everyday.
, photo by Herb Snitzer
“I Want to Talk About You” is a pretty little Billy Eckstine ballad through which Coltrane weaves an increasingly daring solo, splashing a torrent of notes onto the backdrop provided by his nonpareil rhythm section, which was particularly hot on this night at the club Birdland. The real magic, though, begins five minutes into the tune, when the rhythm section drops out and Coltrane is left to blow unaccompanied. His lines are so fluid, so majestic, that it is easy to forget that a quartet was ever there. The drums and bass are gone, but the beat remains. The piano is gone, but the melody is right there behind Coltrane’s harmonizing. These three jaw-dropping minutes rank among the most blissful of Coltrane’s career.
It’s difficult (and maybe pointless) to choose between the two 40-minute versions of “Ascension” that are included on the CD release, so let’s go with the Edition II, which for some reason appears first. In any case, we recommend you listen to only one version per sitting, because this is difficult, trying music. Some would call it chaotic. “Ascension” can go into the same category as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz
and Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun
. Yes, there is structure beneath all this, but it is impossible to ascertain exactly how much direction Coltrane gave the cast of musicians he assembled here. The seven saxophonists and trumpeters seem to blare away without much regard for what they’re hearing, if they’re even listening. So why the 89 rating? Because these moments of zaniness are mere bridges that link the high points of this performance – namely, the intensely focused improvisation that occurs when most of the ensemble sits back to let the individuals solo with the rhythm section.
Photo by Herb Snitzer
Coltrane stripped his musical ideas to the bone with his final great album, Interstellar Space. A series of duets with the free drummer Rashied Ali, the record would become the sacred text for all other sax-drums pairings. Nothing resembling melody or rhythm exists here – just pure sound and thoughts, free of structure and constraints. Pure emotion, pure energy, pure reactions. For the open-minded, a song – song? – like “Mars” can be an enlightening experience. When he’s not honking away, Coltrane blows circular, repetitive phrases while Ali strikes skins and cymbals with little regard for their intended uses – a ride cymbal becomes a snare drum, a snare becomes a hi-hat. What was going through Coltrane’s mind when he came up with this? We’ll never know.
November 06, 2007 · 1 comment
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