Sunday, January 18, 2015

John Coltrane: Crescent

It's hard to argue with the oft-stated view that the pinnacle of the amazing John Coltrane's recorded work came with two classic albums recorded in 1964.  At the end of the year was the masterpiece A Love Supreme, covered here previously.  Earlier was the majestic Crescent, recorded on 27 April and 1 June, and reflecting the telepathic relationship of the leader with his remarkable band members, including pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

The record is built around three pieces showing a highly reflecting, ruminative and meditative side to Coltrane that had been heard before but reached its apex on this album.  Trane's solos are phenomenal, as are those of Tyner, and the rhythm section of Garrison and Jones hold everything together for the soloists to build from.

The title piece is driven by the leader's keening and emotive statement of the gorgeous melody with Tyner accompanying simply but beautifully, while Jones employs long rolls and uses splashes of cymbals to great effect.  After about a minute and a half, a steady rhythm ensues and Coltrane soloes with economy and emotion, though there are moments where he employs overtones and cycles of repetitive notes that hint at the freer forms he moved into the next year.

"Wise One" starts with a gorgeous opening by Tyner before Coltrane comes in with a mournful and memorable melody accompanied by Jones' exclusive and excellent use of cymbal patterns.  At about three minutes in, a Latin-like rhythmic pattern comes in and Tyner soloes sensationally by keeping things simple and subdued.  At 4:45 or so, Coltrane comes in with perfect timing and keeps the mood Tyner had established--for a while.  He builds up gradually and increases the speed and intensity over his solo, while Jones focuses mainly on the cymbals for his rhythm, rather than the bass drum or snare.  Garrison, all the while, holds down the bottom end solidly and basically.

"Bessie's Blues" can be heard as an aberration, being a playful midtempo blues with a sparkling Tyner solo being the highlight and Coltrane using some overtones on his solo while Tyner lays out, but it might also be thought of as a nice break between the subdued, but substantial and sublime tracks that form the core of the album.

The third piece of that core is the lengthier and pretty "Lonnie's Lament," where Coltrane states the theme to Tyner's impressive filigreed backing and more of Jones' fine cymbal touches before the band comes in to a steady rhythm, highlighted by Garrison's stronger presence here than on portions of the album.

Tyner soloes first and is wonderfully restrained with his notes cascading sometimes like raindrops (you can almost imagine a scene in which it is raining while the song is playing) and other times his trademark block chords drive his work.  It is really a spectacular piece of work from one of the great pianists in jazz and who was truly coming into his own at age 26 as a leader as well as Coltrane's sideman.

A little after six minutes, Garrison comes in for his only solo of the record.  It's become commonplace for people to groan whenever a jazz bassist soloes, which is really a shame, because Garrison was one of the best.  His playing is always of interest in terms of dynamics, tone, strength and melodic statement.  This performance is a reminder of his immense talent.

Towards the end, Trane comes in to restate the theme and take the piece out--a generous display by the leader to allow two of his compatriots the opportunity to show the best of their art.

Which leads to the showcase for the third of his band members:  the closer is a Jones highlight called, naturally, "The Drum Thing,"  Notably, though, this track isn't just a centerpiece of the speed and power for which Jones was justly famed, but because his polyrhythmic skills are displayed fully here.

Jones starts off with a muted rumble of his drums and Garrison playing a simple twice-repeated riff of the same note while Trane plays a simple melody that is attractive on its own terms.  Then, the masterful drummer launches into his staggering solo, thundering, rumbling, pounding with total discipline and yet sounding like several percussionists at the same time.  It's not that there aren't plenty of other masterful solos in Jones' recorded catalog, but this one has a sense of restraint even amongst the power, speed and intensity that sets it apart.  This is a great close to a fantastic album.

Amazingly, the Coltrane quartet came back at the end of 1964 with something even better.  The fact that A Love Supreme was released not long after Crescent has, perhaps, overshadowed the latter.  However, Crescent is a landmark album and was something of an encapsulation and summation of what made the Quartet such a special band.  This was perfected on A Love Supreme but that shouldn't diminish the achievement of its predecessor.

The photo of Coltrane is from the 8-disc The Classic Quartet—Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings set issued in 1998.

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