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Posts tagged ‘John Coltrane’

John Coltrane 17 July, 1967

John Coltrane by Roy DeCaravaJohn Coltrane died in a Long Island hospital 50 years ago today. The singularly beautiful photograph above is by the great Roy DeCarava and was included in his wonderful book, The Sound I Saw. It was taken in 1960, and the figure dimly visible in the background is Elvin Jones.

My first encounter with Coltrane came through Miles Davis’s “Milestones”, in which he followed Cannonball Adderley and Miles with a solo that lifted an already elevated piece of music onto a different emotional plane. Then, because I’d bought a second-hand EP from a market stall, it was a quartet version of “You Leave Me Breathless” from his Prestige sessions. And then “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. Then Giant Steps, My Favourite Things, Olé, “Chasin’ the Trane” and “Impressions” from the Village Vanguard, Africa/Brass, and, most of all, “Alabama”, his meditation on the racist murder of four schoolgirls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Followed, of course, by A Love Supreme, CrescentAscension and the rest of the stages on his journey, all the way to its untimely conclusion.

No one had sounded like Coltrane before. No one had exerted that effect. The product of intense contemplation and rigorous preparation, his music expressed a constantly evolving spirituality with a transfixing directness that went beyond specific belief-systems and deep into the essence of human feelings. His legacy is immeasurable.

* Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was published by Phaidon Press in 2003.

Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’ in the time of Trump

ravi-coltrane1Probably I’m not supposed to write about the music at a festival I curate, but something happened in Berlin on Saturday night that made me want to ignore the rules of etiquette. It occurred during the hour-long set by the trio of Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, when they slipped into the theme written by John Coltrane as a response to the deaths of four schoolgirls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, all aged between 11 and 14 — in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by white supremacists on September 15, 1963.

John Coltrane called his piece “Alabama”, and included a studio version on the album titled Live at Birdland in 1964, released as he was approaching the height of his fame. Sombre and stately in its lamentation, with moments that hint at violence and others in which a great healing serenity breaks through, the piece is one of his finest creations: an artist protesting against against intolerance in the best way he knows how. It’s like a great war poem or painting, a “Guernica” in miniature.

DeJohnette played with John Coltrane. Ravi is John’s son. Matthew Garrison is the son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist with the great Coltrane quartet. DeJohnette has known the two younger men since they were children. Together they took “Alabama”, stretched and turned it gently, made allusions to and abstractions of the theme, and turned it into a hymn for the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. When DeJohnette swapped his sticks for mallets, you knew he was thinking of the way Elvin Jones played on the original. And when Ravi hinted at the theme, the echo of his father’s voice filtered through the son’s own tenor saxophone sound was enough to make the scalp tingle.

In this of all weeks, when the future seems to depend on whether a man who symbolises intolerance can succeed in lying and bullying his way into power, the music took on an almost unbearable weight of feeling.

* The photograph of Ravi Coltrane at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele during Jazzfest Berlin was taken by Camille Blake.

Visions of A Love Supreme

A Love Supreme 1“Welcome to the London branch of the Church of St John Coltrane,” the writer, editor and concert promoter Paul Bradshaw said, introducing last night’s event at the Union Chapel, the loveliest of the city’s performance spaces, featuring Rowland Sutherland’s Enlightenment, a large-scale “re-envisioning” of A Love Supreme.

It was 50 years to the day since Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones settled into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, to record their masterpiece in a single session. Sutherland’s 90-minute version involved himself and 14 other musicians working their way through an unbroken sequence of episodes that sometimes took direct inspiration from the work in question and at others explored underlying or suggested tendencies, taking in and finding ways to use the implications of Coltrane’s music both before December 9, 1965 and in the further year and a half preceding his death.

To give an idea of the richness of the resources at band, here’s the personnel: Sutherland (flute, alto flute), Cleveland Watkiss and Juwon Ogungbe (voices), Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone), Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet), Kadialy Kouyate (kora), Ansuman Biswas (tamboura, santoor, conch, tablas, miscellaneous small percussion), Orphy Robinson (xylosynth), Pat Thomas (keyboard, electronics), Nikki Yeoh (piano), Yaron Stavi (double bass), Mark Mondesir (drums), Crispin Ade Egun Robinson, Dave Pattman, and Ronald Thomas (bata drums, voices).

The piece began quietly with the strings of the tamboura and the kora, evoking the cultural wellsprings — India, West Africa — from Coltrane drew as he drove his music forward through the ferment of the early 1960s. Ogunbe and Watkiss recited devotional verses, starting with words from the Hindu mystic Swami Satchidananda and later using lines adapted from the 69-line poem that Coltrane included on the sleeve of the original album (“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord…”). Watkiss scatted inventively and Ogunbe, alongside him in the chapel’s high pulpit, sang powerfully in Yoruba. Occasionally they were joined by the chants of the three bata drummers, lined up on the extreme right of the stage.

Even those who don’t get on with late Coltrane would have conceded that this ensemble brought not just passion but clarity to the methods the saxophonist used in the last months of his life, when he invited additional musicians to join the basic group (something he had been doing, in fact, since the celebrated 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard) in order to explore the possibilities of the musical equivalent of “speaking in tongues”. This was the development of a new (to the western world) language of ecstasy and catharsis, and it continues to divide opinion.

There were strikingly effective solos last night from a poised Yeoh, a ferocious Williamson, a wild Hutchings, a volcanic Mondesir, an entrancing Robinson and a cunning Thomas (who, as my friend Jody Gillett pointed out, “likes to keep the rest of them on their toes”), from Biswas on santoor (a small Indian cimbalom), and from Stavi, who produced an improvisation that fused Garrison’s suppleness with Charlie Haden’s spiritual power, provoking an ovation from the large and attentive audience.

Waves of energy surged back and forth across the stage, separated by passages of luminous serenity. A judicious pruning of 10 minutes or so might have done no harm, but even the most hardened atheist (that’s me) would have found it difficult to remain unmoved by the depth and intensity of these musicians’ creative response to one of jazz’s great cornerstones, sharing with us its undiminished power to inspire and uplift.

Still chasin’ the Trane

Coltrane iconThere’s something about John Coltrane that makes obsessives of us all, from the people who set up a religion in his name 40 years ago (still flourishing as the St John Will.I.Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, and here is one of their icons) to fellow musicians: I remember visiting the great saxophonist Evan Parker’s house many years ago and looking enviously at the shelf containing what appeared to be the complete works, including a row of immaculate orange Impulse album spines.

Forty five years after his death, every time I walk into a record shop I still head to the Coltrane section in the hope that I’ll discover he’s done something new — and if that’s too much to ask, then maybe someone will have unearthed a previously unknown session or concert tape, like the fascinating 1960 audience recording from the Jazz Gallery in New York which made its appearance a couple of years ago. It featured a hitherto unheard (at least by me) prototype version of what would become Coltrane’s classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass and Pete LaRoca on drums, the last two eventually to be replaced by Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones.

One day the well will run dry, and every note Coltrane played during his two decades of professional activity will be available in some form or other. But that may take a while, to judge from the entries in The John Coltrane Reference, an 800-page large-format soft back volume just published by Routledge in the UK. It will set you back around £40, but the depth of scholarship exhibited by the four authors — Chris DeVito, Yasuhiro Fujioka, Wolf Schmaler and David Wild — and their editor, Lewis Porter, makes the outlay seem a bit of a bargain.

A sort of catalogue raisonee of his career, the book is divided into two halves. The first is a chronology, listing all known public appearances, with as many details of location and personnel as possible, sometimes enhanced by extracts from relevant newspaper and magazine articles. The second is a discography, which appears to list every known reissue: a formidable undertaking. The first section begins with his stint with the band of the trumpeter King Kolax in 1947 and ends with his final concert, at Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom for the Left Bank Jazz Society in May 1967, two months before his death. The second opens in 1946, when Coltrane was still in the services, with an informal session recorded by a US Navy band on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and ends with an unreleased session for Impulse at Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio 10 days after the Baltimore date.

There is a section of photographs, some of them previously unknown to me, along with reproductions of early record labels (including 78s under the leadership of Dizzy Gillespie, Gay Crosse, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges) and concert and club advertisements. There is also a page of his original contract with Prestige Records, containing a reminder that musicians were once paid their royalties on only 90 per cent of the records sent out from the pressing plants, because it was assumed, in the days of brittle shellac, that one in 10 would be broken before the shipment reached the stores (an arrangement that, to the industry’s great discredit, was maintained well into the 1970s).

All this might seem like a version of stamp-collecting, were Coltrane’s legacy not so rich in meaning and beauty. What this apparently dry work of reference does is send the listener back to the music, hungry for more.