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Supreme in Seattle

When John Coltrane died in the summer of 1967, aged 40, he left us engaged in a discussion that will go on for as long as people are still listening to his music. “Late Coltrane”, as the music of his last two years is known, provides an endless source of speculation over its intention and argument over its value.

With the original studio version of A Love Supreme, recorded in December 1964 and released a month later, he reached a pinnacle that marked the end of his middle period and signalled the beginning of something new. Formally, the album retained the by-then familiar and much admired approach of his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums). But its explicitly devotional message hinted at the direction he was about to take, towards a music in which the individual notes were less important than the feelings they expressed and the spiritual release they sought.

His subsequent music, often featuring expanded versions of the line-up, with more horn players and percussionists, tended to stir up trouble among those who didn’t appreciate his engagement with the newer forms of expression that freed him from the last vestiges of Western song-form. From Ascension, released in January 1966, to the benefit concert at the Olatunji Center of African Culture in New York in 1967, this last music inspired some and infuriated others, and continues to do so.

For those still searching for a key to unlock the apparent mstery of Late Coltrane, the release of a hitherto unknown live version of A Love Supreme, recorded in October 1965 on the last night of a week-long run at the Penthouse in Seattle, provides a perfect portal to his changed universe. The quartet had played the four-section masterwork at the Antibes jazz festival in the summer of 1965, sticking close to the studio blueprint. The Seattle version, although following the same scheme, is very different in approach. With the quartet augmented by Carlos Ward on alto, Pharoah Sanders on tenor and Donald Garrett on bass, the approach is far looser, with solo space for the guests and the individual movements separated (or linked) by interludes featuring solo passages by the bassists and the drummer.

Well over twice as long, at 75 minutes, as the original, this version allows the listener to hear the new initiatives in the context of a familiar, albeit flexible, structure, which may help some to make “sense” of it. Exalted moments abound. Following Coltrane’s opening solo, Sanders’ soft-edged buzzsaw lifts “Acknowledgment” to another level of energy, driven by Jones’s Latin-inflected barrage. In the first interlude, Garrett and Garrett play together, entwining their pizzicato lines. (In the third and fourth, they play consecutively.) Ward has a beautiful solo on “Resolution”, the Panamanian saxophonist — later a valued partner of Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim — displaying his personal approach to Eric Dolphy’s angular phrasing. Jones’s interlude is a six-minute solo tour de force that sets up the bravura performance of “Pursuance”, on which Tyner plays what might be one of his mightiest solos, ideas flooding from the keyboard at a blistering 80 bars (or 320 beats, if you prefer) per minute. As for Coltrane himself, the beautifully controlled winding-down on the concluding “Psalm”, arco basses echoing the tenor, is as nakedly affecting as anything he ever played.

By comparison with the unsuccessful sextet versions of two of the movements Coltrane recorded on the day after the original studio session, when he experimented with adding the tenor of Archie Shepp and the bass of Art Davis to the quartet, this is fully realised music, all its elements held in perfect balance. Not surprisingly, given the sustained intensity and unbroken beauty of what the Penthouse audience has been hearing, there’s a lengthy silence at the end before the applause begins.

The audio quality, restored from the original recording made at the club by the flautist Joe Brazil on a reel-to-reel machine, is far better than adequate. What little it might lack in perfect balance is outweighed by a clarity and an immediacy that bring us very close indeed to the first-hand experience of an historic occasion. For anyone who has ever been touched by Coltrane’s music, and perhaps wants to understand it better, this is essential listening.

* John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Live in Seattle is released on October 22 on the Impulse! label. The photograph of Coltrane in 1965 was taken by Chuck Stewart.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m still “stuck” in the first and middle periods, which I can listen to more or less anytime, while I only rarely venture to the beyond of the late period, though what I’ve heard can be exhilarating if I’m in the mood (mode?). This sounds like an ideal bridge between middle and late periods.
    PS: it would be nice if the first Meditations could be re-released at an affordable price!

    October 8, 2021
  2. Paul Crowe #

    What a brilliant and tantalising review ! I have the original on vinyl and cd but roll on October 22….

    October 9, 2021
  3. Ronald McNeil #

    I’m very keen to hear this. My favourite late period recording is the double LP set, Concert in Japan, from 1966.

    October 9, 2021
    • John Evans #

      If you like the double LP you will absolutely love the 4-CD set ‘John Coltrane Live in Japan’ (GRP 41022) comprising full recordings of the relevant material (whereof the LP version is just a sampler). According to the patronising and deeply judgmental review in the 4th edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, ‘Live in Japan’ contains “three and a half hours of humourless, god-bothering music, stripped of most of the humanity that had always been with Trane”. I say trust your ears!

      October 9, 2021
  4. You have to get a bit used to the „stage presentation“ of the instruments here: the saxes „leftfield“, and the biggest space reserved for Elvin and McCoy (center and right) – somehow funny, because the two did leave soon, being not too happy with Coltrane‘s quite radical departure! After a while it all works – the saxophones never buried in the mix!

    In the world of John Coltrane, even „A Love Supreme“ was not carved in stone. To experience, how the whole band is opening all gates, leaving no stone unturned, is such a delight. Young Pharoah didn‘t need long to find the right chemistry.

    Here i have to smile a little bit: it is Mr. Sanders‘s second appearance in 2021: in Seattle, being part of a crew that set „A Love Supreme“ on fire (without doubt one of the most thrilling archival discoveries of the year), and as a master of less-is more, on Floating Points‘ fantastic album „Promises“ (not so much loved by the readers of this blog – so I had to add my praise in the comment section of Richard‘s review earlier this year).

    P.S. I always found „Live At The Village Vanguard Again“ being the best entrance to Coltrane‘s last years. But „Coltrane in Japan“ is gorgeous, too, though only in ancient mono!

    October 10, 2021
  5. Andrew Linden #

    Oh well . . . I will have to try again to connect with what so many others find compelling.

    P.S. finger trouble in para 5: should be “Garrison and Garrett play together”.

    October 18, 2021

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