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Posts tagged ‘Pharoah Sanders’

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.

Upper and lower Pharoah

In 1962, when the editors of Down Beat magazine received copies of John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, the first recorded evidence of the extended improvisational methods being explored by the saxophonist’s extraordinary quartet in front of jazz-club audiences, they broke from the standard practice by inviting not one but two reviewers to give their judgments. This was a recognition of the significance and the controversial nature of an album whose centrepiece was the track titled “Chasin’ the Trane”, a 16-minute manifesto for the new freedoms. Those editors must have been gratified by the response: one critic welcomed the sense of opening up fresh territory, while the other threw up his arms in horror.

Confronted by the latest recording to feature the distinctive tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane’s former colleague, I feel like slipping into both roles. Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra provokes two entirely different responses, perhaps of equal validity.

Floating Points is the name adopted by the DJ and electronic musician Sam Shepherd. The album consists of one Shepherd composition, 47 minutes long, divided into nine movements and created in collaboration with his featured soloist. It is, in effect, a concerto grosso for tenor saxophone, with Sanders drifting and out of the instrumental passages, and also — as has been his wont in the past — adding a brief wordless vocal to one passage.

The LSO’s equal billing is a little misleading. Their resources are used sparingly; nowhere is there the sense of an orchestral tutti, although the brief final movement, which feels like an epilogue, is for the string section alone. Shepherd’s various keyboards — synths, B3, celeste, piano, harpsichord — provide the basic palette, stating a basic seven-note motif that runs, with slight variations, through the first eight movements. If I were to reach for an easy description of the mostly subdued, mostly slow-moving sound he creates, I might say that it resembles like the result of an imaginary collaboration between Nils Frahm and Brian Eno’s generative music app, with the spirits of Terry Riley and Arvo Pärt smiling down on the proceedings. There’s a bit of Necks in there, too, particularly when the B3 takes over in the eighth movement.

And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Perhaps even more than fine. The sounds are carefully chosen and artfully deployed — I’m tempted to say “curated” — in order to fashion something a little more active than ambient music: the colours and densities shift regularly enough to retain the interest. Sanders adds the necessary individual voice, as Wayne Shorter did to Gil Evans’s “The Barbara Song”. Yet his unmistakeable tone arrives almost more like a benediction than as a full participant.

Which is the problem (if there is one, of course). Sanders comes from a musical idiom that emphasises collective interplay and creativity in the moment. There’s none of that here. He plays quite beautifully through the first two movements, filling the spaces between the keyboard leitmotif with finely grained and graded phrases, but even on the fifth and seventh movements, where he stretches out a little, he’s applying his figurations on to an essentially passive undercoat. It couldn’t really be further than the stuff he got up to on Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard Again! in 1966, when the point was to shock the listener into a heightened awareness rather than lull him or her into a beatific trance.

The younger man in me revolts against this. Of course I’m 50-odd years older now, and so is Sanders, who turned 80 last year, and the times are different. But stimulating new settings can be devised for even the freest improvisers of Sanders’s vintage. In 2004 Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack invited the saxophonist John Tchicai to respond to a series of electronic pieces and were rewarded with John Tchicai with Strings, a real classic. Alexander Hawkins drew a similar reaction from another distinguished saxophonist, Evan Parker, on the recent Togetherness Music.

On the other hand… Sanders was always looking for different trajectories to transcendence. Tauhid, the first of his recordings for the Impulse label, remains one of my favourite albums of the Sixties, not least for the gentle, blissful “Upper and Lower Egypt”, although it was created in real time with improvisers of the calibre of Sonny Sharrock, Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes, Roger Blank and Nat Bettis, all of whom were rising to meet a challenge. There’s no such challenge in Promises, if challenges are what you’re looking for in music. What is it, then? Is it a lower form of the art? As I discovered at the weekend, it’s perfect Sunday-morning music. And thus I remain divided, content to have bought it because I know I’ll play it again, with enjoyment. But I also know that while it’s on, I’ll be feeling that probably I ought to be listening to something that makes a few more demands.

* Promises is out on the Luaka Bop label.