Friday, December 28, 2012

The Major Works of John Coltrane

Admittedly a strange title considering the great tenor saxophonist had so many other "major works," the two-disc The Major Works of John Coltrane was issued by GRP Records in 1992 with a fascinating selection of recordings made between late June and mid October 1965, when Trane pushed beyond the modal framework that yielded such classic records as A Love Supreme and Crescent and took his music into a freer, more experimental direction.

The epitome of this was the mindblowing Ascension, which was recorded in two takes on 28 June with his classic quartet of McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums) and added seven other musicians, including tenor sax players Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, altoists John Tchicai and Marion Brown, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson and bassist Art Davis.  The first, slightly shorter at 38 1/2 minutes, version, called Edition I, was released first, before Coltrane, insisting that the other take, marked as Edition II and lasting two minutes longer, was the master and so a reissue had to be undertaken.

Clearly influenced by Ornette Coleman's 1960 epic, Free Jazz, Coltrane presented his musicians with very little in the form of a head arrangement or instruction, preferring those assembled to work together to develop the piece, although there was a preestablished order of soloists that varied between the two editions.  As Brown expressed it in a quote in the liners: "Spontaneity was the thing.  Trane had obviously thought a lot about what he wanted to do, but he wrote most of it out in the studio."  Shepp commented that "the emphasis was on textures rather than the making of an organizational unity" or, rather, that there was unity, but of the texture and sound, not the structure.

The musicians were an interesting mix, with some like Shepp, Tchicai (an Afro-Dane who was relatively new in America, but had honed his craft in his native Denmark) and Sanders representing the so-called "New Thing" of experimenting musicians working in the "free" realm, while Hubbard and Davis had a more mainstream background.  Brown and Johnson were largely unknown.  And, of course, there were the three stalwarts that had performed with Coltrane for some three years with it being notable that there was not a second drummer brought in because of Jones' remarkable polyrhythmic abilities.

Ascension proved to be an apt title as the music rose in power and intensity throughout the piece, not just for the listener, but also for the musicians, as Brown remarked that "they both [the editions] had that kind of thing in them that makes people scream.  The people who were in the studio were screaming.  I don't know how the engineers kept the screams out of the record."  Now, for some listeners not attuned to freer music, the cacophony is likely enough to send them screaming out of the room or scrambling to hit "stop" on their player.

But, for those who enjoy experimental "free jazz," this can be a profoundly moving record, both in the dense ensemble sound, but the soloing, as well.  Shepp has the coruscating earthy tone, Sanders the screaming upper-register blasting, the leader playing in all manner of sound and texture, Tyner keeping things grounded as much as possible with his somewhat out-of-place piano, Hubbard hitting the high notes with a clear-toned trumpet, and Davis and Garrison using the different bowed and plucked aspects of the double bass, while Jones tries mightily to employ all the rhythmic wizardry he can with the intensity and variety in the room.

As was noted in an earlier post about Albert Ayler's music, the best way to listen to this music may be to follow the sounds and textures Shepp emphasized, rather than to intellectualize the structure.  In this sense, Ascension can be a powerful experience.

Probably the same listening advice can be given to the 29-minute Om, although that recording, done in suburban Seattle on 1 October, and released in 1967, has been accorded far less attention than Ascension.  It is far stranger and denser than the other and was put to tape while Coltrane and his quartet were on the road with two other musicians, including Donald Garrett on the bass clarinet, although on the recording he plays the bass, and Sanders on tenor.  For the recording of Om, flutist Joe Brazil was added. 

There was a more pronounced and experiemental nod to India here than the perhaps superficial use of scalar patterns used in India in the recordings at the Village Vanguard in late 1961.   Then again, Coltrane's music was delving deeper into broad religious contexts from A Love Supreme to Meditations, which was recorded almost two months after Om.  Indeed, a vocalization appears here, as well, as the leader and others (Sanders, perhaps) recite the phrase "Om mani padme hum," a Buddhist mantra with many meanings, although the liners choose, "Om, the jewel, is in the lotus, amen." 

It should be pointed out that the term "Om" has significance to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, so that it is a mystical sound in each and is used before and after reciting Hindu texts.  In the Jain religion, the term refers to the five-fold hierarchy of beings, including teachers, awakened beings, and liberated souls.

Regardless of the esoteric doctrinal applications of the phrase, the music in Om is primal, with animal sounds frequently issuing forth from the instruments, powerful with an even denser, cacophonous and intense wall of sound than that found in Ascension, though some of this is attributable to the studio and engineering, as the latter was recorded in the Rudy Van Gelder studio where the epitome of engineering expertise was to be found as opposed to the more pedestrian Camelot Studio in Lynwood, Washington, where Om was recorded.

Much has also been made of the possible (or likely?) influence of LSD at the Om session and it would certainly be easy to listen to the noises pouring forth from the speaker and conclude that the use of the drug was a guide to its otherwordly sound.  There is likely no way to know whether the stories are true and it may not matter.  Om, even with Ascension as an immediate precedent, has been a source of puzzlement and even derision unlike anything else in Coltrane's catalog, but this listener finds it fascinating.

The same applies to Kulu Se Mama, which was recorded in Los Angeles just about two weeks after Om.  There, while the Coltrane band was playing at the famed It Club, the leader met Juno Lewis, who hailed from New Orleans and who composed this piece which had vocals based on a poem Lewis said was in an Afro-Creole dialect called "Entobes."  Whatever validity there is in Lewis' stated associations, his voice and playing of various African derived percussion instruments, and Garrett's more prominent use of bass clarinet add new dimensions to Coltrane's evolving sound.  Kulu Se Mama has, over its 19 minute length, moments of exoticism that make for an interesting comparison to the earlier example of Africa from Trane's first Impulse! album in 1961.

In contrast to the other recordings on this set, Selflessness has more of the "traditional" compositional elements from Coltrane's earlier work, suffused, though, with the heavier textures brought in by the additional musicians and, most notably, by Sanders' intensely personal explorations of the upper reaches of the tenor's higher register, something he would bring to the fore in Meditations and the Live in Japan recordings later.  The 15-minute piece was released originally with tracks from a 1963 Newport Jazz Festival recording and probably seemed more in-place with that live performance than with the wild, restive recordings of a far more experimental Coltrane in mid-to-late 1965.

In any case, The Major Works of John Coltrane is a title that would raise the hackles of those who can argue, with some reason, that this term applies more to A Love Supreme, Crescent, Giant Steps, Blue Trane or My Favorite Things.  But, with the powerful and transportive Ascension at the helm and some curious, but compelling, works in Om and Kulu Se Mama, it is a very interesting set, using the CD technology to advantage for its long-form works, that has been played often in the twenty years since YHB picked it up.

The Major Works of John Coltrane (Impulse! GRP, 1992)

Disc One:

1.  Ascension (Edition I)  38:37
2.  Om  28:49

Disc Two:

1.  Ascension (Edition II)  40:31
2.  Kulu Se Mama  18:57
3.  Selflessnes  15:09

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