Saturday, January 11, 2014

John Coltrane: Live at Birdland

The death of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) a few days back was a good time to reflect on the remarkable and controversial ferment that erupted in the 1960s over black militancy, so-called free jazz, battles between jazz critics and writers, and a host of other issues.

Just last year, this blogger read Jones' ground-breaking and provocative work, Blues People, which was the first work by a black person to look at the history of jazz music, but also seeking to place that in the context of the history of black Americans as oppressed peoples expressing themselves through a music they created, despite all of the obstacles in their way.  This isn't a place to discuss the book, necessarily, certainly not to review it--there's plenty of material out there to search out for that.

But, whatever one thinks of the man who made a strikingly radical transformation from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka in 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X and of Medger Evers and other events, and continued to provoke and be the subject of controversy for decades afterward, this seemed a good time to commemorate the man via his contribution to the liner notes of John Coltrane's 1963 album Live at Birdland.

Which album is many things, actually, not always consistently expressed.  For example, while the first half of the record is comprised of three pieces from a performance at the famed New York club on 8 October 1963, the second portion is from three works recorded in the studio in March and November of that year.  The performance at Birdland also captured the return to the classic Coltrane quartet of drummer Elvin Jones, who had spent time in prison on a drug charge.  Finally, the album closed a chapter in Coltrane's career that was marked by critical tumult and a carefully crafted program by Coltrane's savvy producer, Bob Thiele, to blunt the criticism with a trio of recordings.

In essence, the problem was the jazz was changing from years of hard-bop orthodoxy to a freer conception as embodied in the work of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Coltrane and others.  Those critics who were aghast at the move (some of whom, in fact, championed bop when it was new in the late 1940s versus the so-called "moldy figs" who had promoted big band and swing) came out forcefully against the "free jazz" musicians. 

In Coltrane's case, he was labeled as promoting "anti-jazz" because the work he was performing in 1961 with Dolphy was a sea change from the hard bop sound that predominated before and which was featured on the Live at the Village Vanguard album and, in particular, the leader's showcase, "Chasin' the Trane," which didn't even feature Dolphy (yet, this sadly underappreciated multi-instrumentalist was put through the wringer nonetheless.)

While Coltrane claimed that the abrupt change in direction that followed 1962's excellent Coltrane recording was due to a faulty reed on his sax and teeth problems, Thiele revealed that he deliberately drew Coltrane towards ballads and more melodic music to counter the raging critics and give the saxophonist a forum for demonstrating his amazing gifts in those settings. 

What followed were collaborations with the legendary Duke Ellington, the smooth, silky singer Johnny Hartman, and an album of standards, simply called Ballads.  These albums are usually bypassed when people talk about Coltrane's body of work, but there is much to recommend them.  This is especially true when hearing how Coltrane accompanies and complements Ellington and Hartman and to hear how truly integrated that classic quartet of Jones, bassist Jimmy Garrison and pianist McCoy Tyner were.  They all proved to be tremendous with ballads and contemplative material, not just with the up-tempo and powerhouse works that the band had been singled out for by those contentious critics.

In any case, Live at Birdland marked the end of that phase, yet provided examples (as really, all Coltrane records had to date, anyway, despite the critical carping) of how the band could really cook and sizzle and then settle into beautiful melodies and mellow moods on a dime.

The record also captured the obvious joy with which Jones expressed himself after leaving federal prison and releasing his pent-up energies (energy never being a problem with the protean percussionist anyway!)  The opener, "Afro-Blue," a concert favorite for Coltrane, but never recorded in the studio, has excellent playing by the leader as well as Tyner and Garrison, but Jones is front and center here, by a country mile.  He thunders, crashes, rolls and roars through this tune like a veritable force of nature. 

While this blogger was flabbergasted by the performance and can vividly remember hearing Jones blasting through the piece when first hearing this tune on vinyl, circa 1990, and, in fact, smiling and appreciatively calling out the drummer's name through virtually the whole thing, it can be readily understood if the playing was too propulsive, too powerful and so overwhelming that it sacrificed the ensemble for the sheer joy and relief of Jones being free to play after months behind bars.

Which is all the reason to be understanding of where Jones was (which, certainly, the band and the audience were) at that moment and appreciate that the performance was, indeed, a reflection of joy and relief.  In any case, it's a wild ride, still raising hair on the back of the neck and bumps on the skin after many listens and almost a quarter century after first hearing.

Then comes "I Want to Talk About You," beautifully played by the ensemble and with Jones sensitively accompanying and not at all playing too hard.  The piece is played almost as per usual (it was another popular repertoire piece for the band) until Coltrane goes off into a phenomenal unaccompanied solo.  This solo, to this listener, is on a par with "Chasin' the Trane," but didn't have the impact and drama of having something like this done the first time, as was the case of the other work.  Still, the performance is terrific, with Coltrane exploring variation and variation and demonstrated masterful technique, invention, and soulfulness.

After these two pieces, "The Promise," another 8-minute tune, doesn't get as much attention, but the theme is excellent and there is a strong swinging accompaniment by the band behind Trane's tenor.  Tyner performs a stellar lengthy solo, anchored by his trademark strong block chords with the left hand, and Jones percolates, keeps strong time with the cymbals, and hums along enthusiastically, while increasing his intensity towards the end to drive things along.  Garrison is steady, as always, holding down the bottom with his usual aplomb.  Then, Trane comes swooping in with his top-flight solo that is thrilling with its higher-end note flourishes and runs (one can hear on this song why the soprano wound up becoming so important to Trane in terms of finding higher notes to play) and, after restating the theme, the band goes out with a flourish.

Of the two studio pieces, "Alabama" is flat-out one of Coltrane's masterpieces.  A solemn remembrance of the horrific Montgomery church bombing the claimed the lives of several young black girls who should have been safe in the sanctuary of a holy place, the piece has a rich and powerful theme, evocative of the thoughtlessness of the terrorist act performed by white supremacists, played over Tyner's simple repetitive phrase and what may be Garrison's bowing on the bass. 

Then, about 1:45 in, the piece transitions to a mid-tempo blues, almost as if suggesting the resilience that the blues has always symbolized in the lives of black Americans.  After another minute, the theme returns and Jones' mallets add weight and dignity to the sound as the tune comes to a close with the tenor taking the ending to higher scales on his instrument and ending the piece beautifully.   Coltrane would further develop the structure of "Alabama" in classic pieces in the great Crescent album and on the masterpiece A Love Supreme during 1964.  But, "Alabama" stands on its own as one of the great pieces in music, period.

"Your Lady" comes in with a nice Garrison line and Jones' always present swinging and "polyrhythms" before Trane's lyrical theme comes in, much like other, somewhat like "The Inch Worm" from the Coltrane album, at least to this listener.  The keening, soaring sound of the tenor is another excellent example of the leader's peerless playing, especially some great runs about 4 minutes in.  And, as always, Jones is there to propel the piece with his driving and penetrating style.

Finally, there is a bonus track on the CD version called "Vilia," a reworking of a standard that seems a little out of place, like "Bessie's Blues" on the otherwise meditative and somber Crescent.  It's bright and it swings, especially during Tyner's fine solo when Garrison and Jones are in a beautiful groove.  After Coltrane solos, the song seems to come to an abrupt end, for which there may have been a reason.  In any case, it's a bonus and that Tyner solo part is quite good.

As for LeRoi Jones, he starts his notes provocatively with, "One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here."  Jones, as many have done, equates the nightclub as a microcosm of vileness and the playing of a master as the beauty.  And, then Jones offers that "his music is one of the reasons suicide seems so boring!"

It is cool to read Jones describing Elvin's playing as a "mad ritual drama" that taunts the other musicians, as it is that LeRoi "got up and danced while writing these notes, screaming at Elvin to cool it," a sentiment shared to some degree by this blogger, except that asking Elvin to hold back was not among the thoughts.

Jones also utters an unexpected paean to the name of the state of Alabama, observing that "I didn't realize what a beautiful word Alabama is."  Continuing that Thiele asked Coltrane if the title "had any significance to today's problems," the leader didn't address the bombings (which might, perhaps, have opened up to further critical commentary?) with directness, stating that "it represents, musically, something that I saw down there translated into music from inside me."

Finally, Jones does not that, actually, "all the music on this album is Live, whether it was recorded above drinking and talk at Birdland, [or] in the studio," which is true, except, perhaps, that the atmosphere in each are entirely different and the results could be accordingly.  But, the essayist concludes in another cool evocation:  "this music will make you think of a lot of weird and wonderful things.  You might even become one of them."

Amen to that and may LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, for all of the controversy and the directness and the penetration and the evocation, rest in peace.  Whatever one thinks of him and this blogger is ambivalent, for sure, he encouraged honest and critical thinking and the fact that he dug Coltrane and the quartet and this album as much as he did is worth celebrating on its own terms.

John Coltrane:  Live at Birdland (Impulse Records, 1963, 1996)

1.  Afro-Blue  10:53
2.  I Want to Talk About You  8:11
3.  The Promise  8:06
4.  Alabama  5:08
5.  Your Lady  6:39
6.  Vilia  4:36

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