The last eight years of John Coltrane’s life were a period of astonishing creativity. In 1960, he was leaving Miles Davis’ group after a stint during which it was widely understood to be among the greatest jazz units of all time. In 1967, he was at the leading edge of free jazz, creating abstract and unbelievably intense music that left the mainstream far behind. In between he recorded impossibly dense music with a big band (Ascension), ballads and standards albums with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman, extended suites (A Love Supreme and Meditations), and had generally pushed jazz as far as it could go. And then, in July 1967, he was gone.
During his brilliant run between 1964 and 1967, Albert Ayler, a fellow tenor saxophonist whom Coltrane admired tremendously, seemed like he’d finally found the music he was meant to make. Coltrane was always searching. His music was never content with where it was but was always looking toward what it might be. This would be less interesting if not for the fact that this search is embodied in the sound itself. There’s always something left hanging in Coltrane’s later work—when it ends you feel not just everything that happened but also what might have happened but didn’t. And you sense that he felt same way. He famously told Miles Davis that he played so long because he didn’t know how to end his solos, and Miles famously told him back, “Take the horn out of your mouth.”
Eight months before he died, Coltrane played a gig at Temple University. It was recorded by the radio station but has only been heard in partial, poor-quality bootlegs until this year, when it was polished up and issued for this set. The music on Offering shifts between standard ideas of jazz and noise music, regularly tipping over from chords and melody and harmony into the realm of pure sound. So I tend to experience music like this as a visceral thing, something to be played loudly that can be both beautiful and frightening.
The last two years of Coltrane’s life found him experimenting relentlessly, perhaps aware, on some level, that he only had so much time to get it all in. He used extra bassists, extra drummers, new kinds of percussionists, expanded ensembles. On this night in Philadelphia, he had some of all these things: a couple of extra saxophone players he knew from the area as well as Umar Ali, Algie DeWitt, and Robert Kenyatta on percussion. I’m obligated to point them out because they are in the credits and they were an important part of this gig as the people in the room experienced it. But the truth is, this recording, all done through one microphone without much thought for posterity, misses a great deal of sound from those extra drummers and percussionists and, indeed, from the pianist, Alice Coltrane, as well as the bassist, Sonny Johnson. This set puts the focus squarely on the leader, who was nearest the microphone, and those playing—and vocalizing—made this a special night indeed.
In 1966, electric jazz was just around the corner; the music would later get denser and more intense, it would mix with rock or go way over into the realm of abstraction. Coltrane himself seemed to be returning from the edge of chaos. Live in Japan, recorded in July 1966 but not released in full until 1991, was about as far “out” as he got, stretching tunes that once lasted for eight or nine minutes to nearly 60, and filling them with explosive atonal blowing. But by the time this set was recorded, he was returning to Earth as if after an armageddon, seeing what was left. He starts here with “Naima”, a pretty tune written in 1959 that later became a standard. The harmonic structure is difficult to puzzle out, but Coltrane plays with force and clarity, in a melodic mode even as the tune differs from the familiar lines. It does, however, have Alice Coltrane’s longest solo, an intense banging thing that reveals the nature of her genius. (She could be a superb soloist on two instruments as a leader, but her distinctive voice never quite emerged in her husband’s band.) You have to use some imagination to hear the song inside of it.
“Crescent” is almost unbearably intense, the brittle shrieking egged on by someone yelling “Hey!” in the background. Melody and harmony are sacrificed at the altar of texture and feeling, anger and joy bleed into sadness. Once in a while you can hear a cowbell in the background, and you get a glimpse of what it might have been like to be here on this night. “Leo”, one studio version of which was found on the Coltrane/Rashied Ali duo album Interstellar Space, was another staple of Coltrane’s sets during this period, and its hyper-bouncing opening theme sets the stage for a long and intense blowing session. This is Ali’s turn to solo, and he does so beautifully, the articulation of every hit coalescing into a blur of feeling, his drums showing greater clarity when other instruments drop out.
It’s during “Crescent” that something unusual happens, a moment that has been mentioned extensively in the marketing of this release: Coltrane sets aside his horn, and starts to vocalize, singing phrases while beating on his chest to give his vocals an effect something like vibrato. The first thing that comes to mind with this gesture is that perhaps Coltrane had reached a point where his instrument couldn’t convey the feelings he had locked inside; it spilled out beyond the realm of technique, and there should be no object between the expression and the reception. This is what I think of when considering a piece of music recorded eight months later, by Albert Ayler, at John Coltrane’s funeral, when he gives over the last few minutes of his performance to ecstatic and tortured screams. But Coltrane was never quite as unhinged as Ayler, he always tempered emotion with his intellect, and his music, even at its wooliest, always had a sense of control. So Coltrane’s vocals are best heard as an extension in texture, a musical expression as opposed to just an emotional one. And they do add much here—every time his voice comes in, it’s disarming.
By the time the record gets to the iconic “My Favorite Things”, we’re reminded that Coltrane was doing some strange things with the tune by this point, most notably starting it with a bass solo that lasted several minutes. You’re in a certain headspace as a music listeners when you’re sitting through bass solos that go on for that long, but when the tune finally kicks in, it’s still fascinating to follow where Coltrane was taking this song. At points, his soprano saxophone trills away on repetitions that suggest Steve Reich-like minimalist, elsewhere the music leans toward noisy drone. “My Favorite Things” was a center of gravity that Coltrane would move around, sometimes examining it from a distance, taking in the beauty of the whole, and sometimes veering so close to it he threatened to burn up. And while I wouldn’t put this version in the top 10 of ones I’ve heard, it’ll never get old for me.
Considering his stature in American music, every note of John Coltrane’s music deserves release. That’s a given. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every note has something for the broader music listening public. Offering passes that test, it’s both an “important” jazz release and one that’s actually enjoyable to listen to.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/12XQ2VN