On the joys of late John Coltrane
A new recording of Coltrane at his most joyously unhinged is set to be released. Rejoice!
Every now and then, some fool who thinks you know what you are talking about will ask you where you should start with some film-maker, writer or musician. This is a dangerous question. One tends to recommend the early funny stuff as a “way in” to whichever artist is under consideration. You know the sort of thing. Suggest Smiles of a Summer Night rather than Persona. Argue for Dubliners over Ulysses. Push John Coltrane’s Blue Train instead of the same musician’s Ascension. We discussed this in our pondering of the Dickens centenary two years ago. I don’t buy it. Skip the amuse bouche and go straight for the raw pickled offal (or whatever the vegetarian option might be). Blast out Ascension at your friend and then offer him a soothing icepack. John Coltrane did what those suspicious of the avant garde prefer artists to do: he began by making perfect sense, before moving into extreme abstraction. Joyce did the same thing. Jean-Luc Godard did something a little like this (though he was always odd). Scott Walker certainly followed the pattern. Nobody can reasonably claim those guys produced this weird art because they couldn’t do anything else. “Just look at our early funny stuff,” they would then have bellowed.
This pondering is triggered by the enormously welcome news that Impulse! Records are set to release a full version of a Coltrane recording from late 1966. Titled Offering, the concert from Temple University dates from the point at which, having lost touch with two members of the “classic” quartet, Coltrane really began the shift into metallic, desperate, unfettered wailing, You can here this band in action on the great album Live at the Village Vanguard Again. At that stage, Jimmy Garrison was still on bass. But McCoy Tyner had been replaced by Alice Coltrane, John’s wife, and Rashied Ali had come in for cacophonous drummer Elvin Jones. Pharaoh Sanders added supplemental reeds. The upcoming record has Sonny Jones standing in for Garrison, who would return for more stunning dates before Coltrane’s death in July, 1967.
One can’t quite identify the point at which Coltrane leapt off the cliff. After all, he had always been regarded as strange and angular by many critics. “I regret Coltrane’s death,” Philip Larkin, a conservative on jazz as on so many other things, wrote. “As I regret the death of any man, but I can’t conceal the fact that it leaves in jazz a vast, blessed silence.” The great quartet did not make a sound like any other jazz group. There was a pounding insistency to them that immediately chimed with a rock generation who (disgracefully for purists) hadn’t done their time with Ellington, Armstrong and Bechet. But something definitely happened with and after the immortal A Love Supreme record from 1964. Brazilia from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays…, recorded a year later, has a restlessness that is barely contained by the band.
A few months later, he recorded Ascension, one of the most extraordinary jazz LPs ever made. A large group recording, featuring the core band augmented by geniuses such as Archie Shepp and Freddie Hubbard, the record began with a fanfare and then escalated (or descended, if you were on Larkin’s side) into a morass of furious competing improvisations that took time to wind themselves towards something a little like a resolution. Meditations, the next record, had a more conventional structure, but the solos were even angrier. This was the 1960s, remember. “Mmmm, turbulent!” as Homer Simpson famously said. After that things got odder and more alienating. Coltrane’s most famous band eventually broke up and, by the end of his recording career, the saxophonist was recording with Ali alone on material that turned up on posthumous releases such as Intersellar Space. Heaven knows what he would have done had he lived.
The later Coltrane recordings remain a delight for the brave adventurer. Few other musicians embracing the New Thing (as this strain of free jazz was clumsily called) combined quite these levels of lyricism and anger. A consideration of later versions of My Favourite Things — long his standard — demonstrate just what we mean. The version released a decade ago on The Olatunji Recording is just about the noisiest, craziest thing you could ever fear to hear. One wonders what Julie Andrews would have thought. At any rate, we look forward to the release of Offering with great enthusiasm.