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Coltrane in the Temple

John Coltrane : Temple UThe final period of John Coltrane’s career is the great unresolved topic of jazz, and the arguments over its meaning and value will probably never cease. How could someone who in 1964 had reached the plateau of apparent artistic perfection represented by Crescent and A Love Supreme then make such a radical transition into the area of turbulence and uncertainty that he occupied in the period until his death in 1967, and which is embodied in a new two-CD set titled Offering: Live at Temple University?

I suppose the answer is that Crescent and A Love Supreme did not represent a plateau at all. That was just an illusion created by the fact that Coltrane went into a recording studio on those particular days, laid down the music on which he had been working, and then saw the results released by his record company, subsequently to be reviewed by critics, bought by his fans, and slotted neatly into a narrative of one man’s artistic evolution. The jazz public, particularly in Europe, has always seen the history of jazz as a progression from one recorded artefact to another; that is not, in general, how the musicians experience it. Whereas we think of A Love Supreme as one of the great music’s pillars, to Coltrane it may have been nothing more than a milestone that had already disappeared from his rear-view mirror by the time of its appearance in the record stores.

Offering is a complete and official release of a 1966 concert previously available only in partial and bootleg form. The combined production staff of Impulse Records, Coltrane’s label at the time, and Resonance Records, who specialise in unearthing previously hidden gems, have restored the tapes originally made by WRTI-FM, the radio station at Temple University in Philadelphia, during an event that was by all accounts poorly attended and received a mixed response from those who did turn up. Ashley Kahn tells the fascinating story in his sensitive and erudite sleeve note, piecing together the details of an evening on which three members of Coltrane’s regular band — Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali — were joined by Sonny Johnson, depping for Jimmy Garrison. More significantly, the leader was happy to welcome a platoon of auxiliary percussionists (Robert Kenyatta, Algie DeWitt, Umar Ali and perhaps others) and to give space to solos by a couple of spirited young alto saxophonists, Steve Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner, whose impromptu appearances that evening represent the only mark they made on jazz history. 

Indistinct as the sound of the rhythm section might still be on the restored recording, the acoustic effect is probably very much as the audience experienced it that night. More important, the solo voices come through with great clarity, and none to better effect than that of Coltrane, whose tenor improvisations on the long, free-associative versions of “Naima” and “Crescent”, which constitute the first of the two discs, are strong in tone, wonderfully poised and — as Kahn points out — dense with closely argued motivic development. The title track is one of his lovely prayer-ballads. But during “Leo”, on which he is heard on soprano, tenor and flute, and on the closing “My Favourite Things”, he also uses his voice, chanting and apparently thumping his chest in an attempt to produce the sound he was after: trying to get closer, it seems, to speaking in tongues.

We know that he was strongly influenced by the music of Albert Ayler, who used his saxophone as a tool with which to attain spiritual transcendence. It has often been said, too, that the use of LSD was a factor in the creative decisions underlying Coltrane’s final years. Had he lived beyond his 41st year, he might one day have sat down and explained his thinking in detail. Since that won’t happen, we’re left to work it out for ourselves. Offering can’t answer all the questions, but it’s a big chunk of priceless evidence. And it contains some incontestably majestic saxophone-playing.

* The photograph is a cropped version of one that appears in the booklet with Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse/Resonance), where it appears by courtesy of the University of California’s Special Collections and Archives and the Frank Kofsky Archives.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Interesting/perplexed comments from two guys who fronted the broadcast from WRTI. (David Wilds Website).

    BOB – “The whole spectacle was something else to see. John Coltrane stood up at the microphone with his tenor sax most of the time, and behind him on
    and off off stage everytime they stopped for one
    second another conga drum player would come
    on, and they had about five of them going at one
    time, many saxophone players, identified and
    otherwise, and a drummer, with his wife on piano,
    who got up in the middle of the concert, left,
    came back, got up, left. It was the strangest
    thing I’ve ever seen in my entire days of listening,
    watching, appreciating jazz.

    DAVE : Right now, Bob, we can see here in the
    auditorium that John is standing at the edge of
    the stage bending over to a throng of about 30 to
    40 people, signing autographs and talking with
    them. And some of the other musicians who
    appeared tonight are just standing on the stage
    milling around and not doing much of anything.
    There’s still some people left in the auditorium
    and probably have the same expression on their
    faces as we do, and that is sort of a blank,
    because the way the concert ended, it just–there
    really wasn’t an end, the music just ceased…”

    August 24, 2014
  2. Nick Steyn # , 8/24/2014 6:36 PM: Richard Williams posted: “The final period of John Coltrane’s career is the great unresolved topic of jazz, and the arguments over its meaning and value will probably never cease. How could someone who in 1964 had reached the plateau of apparent artistic perfection represented by “

    August 24, 2014
  3. Super post; and of how many musicians, Dylan, Van Morrison can it be argued that their great music/album/track/ badly attended gig was a milestone already receding in their rear-view mirror by the time we heard it. Hendrix, bored out of his mind with the guitar.

    August 24, 2014
  4. John Evans #

    It wasn’t ‘by all accounts’ poorly attended — according to Francis Davis (Village Voice, Feb. 18, 1992) there was an overflow crowd. Davis’s piece is reprinted in Carl Woideck’s John Coltrane Companion.

    August 25, 2014

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