Jazz “A.C.” : After Coltrane

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The recordings John Coltrane made in the 1960s with his “classic quartet” (Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison) were a major landmark in the history of jazz.  Jazz was not the same before or after and all jazz players felt an obligation to respond to Coltrane’s music.  Some chose to pay homage and created their own music much in the same vein; others, mainly saxophonists, had to grapple with playing their instrument in the wake of John Coltrane’s evolution.  But as the ’60s progressed, Coltrane’s music became more and more detached from the tradition of jazz.  The classic quartet broke apart from the stress Coltrane put on it due to his demands for a freer and more dissonant music.  Adding a second bassist, or second drummer, or second sax, all changed the delicate balance of the classic quartet to the point that Elvin Jones, then McCoy Tyner felt they no longer had a place in the group..

Coltrane’s final bands would often include Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, Archie Shepp, and his wife Alice Coltrane.  The last recording, The Olatunji Concert on April 23, 1967, occurred just three months before his death from liver cancer.olatunji

The band was made up of drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax and Algie Dewitt on bata drum (a Yoruba instrument). Coltrane spent the last years of his life engaged in a mission that few could understand. As witnessed on A Love Supreme and other recordings during those later years, his ultimate objective was that of a continued spiritual awakening. Whereas the objective itself was not that difficult to grasp, Coltrane’s means of attaining it were far from conventional. Abandoning the preconceived notions of tonality, and immersed within a musical state of dissonance, Coltrane’s music became a communicative attempt at reaching a higher plane.  (Pitchfork, John Coltrane: The Olatuni Concert: the Last Live Recording. Luke Buckman, October, 15, 2001.)

The band plays only two songs, “Ogunde” and “My Favorite Things”, but Coltrane’s relentless solos leave no stone unturned and become an anguished cry for release or spiritual reunion with his source.  This is demanding music but your perseverance is rewarded by a transcendent experience.

After his death these sidemen would go on to further develop his legacy.  Alice Coltrane began immediately to release records under her own name, but it would take a few years before she created a cohesive sound and band with the release of three recordings from 1970-1972.

220px-Ptah,_the_El_Daoud_(Alice_Coltrane)Ptah, the El Daoud featured horns for the first time since she began making records as a leader in her own right.  Her band included Joe Henderson (tenor, alto flute), Pharoah Sanders (tenor, alto flute), Ron Carter (bass) and Ben Riley (drums). while she played harp and piano.  All the compositions were written by Coltrane. The title track is named for the Egyptian god Ptah, “the El Daoud” meaning “the beloved”. “Turiya”, according to the liner notes, “was defined by Alice as ‘a state of consciousness — the high state of Nirvana, the goal of human life”, while “Ramakrishna” is named after the 19th-century Bengali religious figure; this track omits the horns. The origin of the title of “Blue Nile” is self-explanatory and, in it, Coltrane switches from piano to harp, and Sanders and Henderson from tenor saxophones to alto flutes. “Mantra” returns to piano and saxes. (Wikipedia)

220px-Journey_in_Satchidananda_(Alice_Coltrane)Journey in Satchidananda was released in 1970 and featured a band with some regular sidemen as well as African and Indian instruments: Pharoah Sanders (soprano saxophone, percussion), Vishnu Wood (oud, track 5), Charlie Haden (bass, track 5), Cecil McBee (bass, tracks 1-4), Tulsi (tambura, tracks 1-4), Rashied Ali (drums), Majid Shabazz (bells, tambourine).  Its title (and title track) reflects Coltrane’s inspiration by Swami Satchidananda, to whom she had become close, and whose disciple she was.  Paul Weller has often cited this album as a favorite, including it in a “12 Albums You Must Hear Right Now!” list he compiled for Mojo magazine in 2005.  The Allmusic review by Thom Jurek awarded the album 4½ stars stating “this is a remarkable album, and necessary for anyone interested in the development of modal and experimental jazz. It’s also remarkably accessible.” (Wikipedia)

alice03Finally, Alice Coltrane culminated this period of her career with Universal Consciousness.

Recorded between April and June of 1971, this recording is arguably her classic statement. While many regard Universal Consciousness as a “jazz” album, it transcends even free jazz by its reliance on deeply thematic harmonic material and the closely controlled sonic dynamics in its richly hued chromatic palette. The group she assembled included herself on harp and organ, Jimmy Garrison, bass (1, 3, 4, 5); Jack DeJohnette, drums (1, 3, 4); Clifford Jarvis, drums (4, 5), percussion (4); Rashied Ali, drums (2, 6), wind chimes (6); Tulsi, tamboura (4, 5); John Blair, Julius Brand, Leroy Jenkins, Joan Kalisch, violins (1, 3, 4). The string arrangements on tracks 1, 3 and 4 were by Alice Coltrane with transcriptions by Ornette Coleman.

“Dynamic, improvisational logic and tonal exploration become elemental figures in an intimate yet universal conversation that has the search itself and the uncertain nature of arrival, either musically or spiritually, at its root. This ambiguity is the only way a recording like this could possibly end, with spiritual questioning and yearning in such a musically sophisticated and unpretentious way. The answers to those questions can perhaps be found in the heart of the music itself, but more than likely they can, just as they are articulated here, only be found in the recesses of the human heart. This is art of the highest order, conceived by a brilliant mind, poetically presented in exquisite collaboration by divinely inspired musicians and humbly offered as a gift to listeners. It is a true masterpiece.” (Thom Jurek, Allmusic)

If one musician more than others can be credited with carrying forward the banner of John Coltrane’s music it would have to be Pharaoh Sanders.  A master of the tenor saxophone, described by Ornette Coleman as “probably the best tenor player in the world”,  Sanders’ records in the 1970s represent the logical continuation after Coltrane.

sanders01Karma, released in 1969, emerged in the wake of racial unrest and a growing movement among African Americans celebrating an ethnic identity based on African dress, instruments and folkways.  Coltrane had begun the trend with his incorporation of elements of Indian and African music: as early as 1961, he recorded the song “India” at the Village Vanguard with Ahmed Abdoul-Malik on tampura, and, in 1965, he recorded “Kulu se Mama” with narration in Entobes by Juno Lewis.

The influence of African music was seen as a link to the heritage of the many black musicians involved in jazz, and with some, such as Archie Shepp, it became associated with a defiant expression of black identity, in the fight for freedom and equal rights. Though the ideological strain was much more obvious in Shepp’s music than Sanders’, the musical influence was just as pronounced: virtually all of his recordings as a leader from this late 1960s – early 1970s period contain some kind of African percussion, and other non-western features such as Leon Thomas‘ distinctive yodelling, apparently learnt from African pygmies. In addition, his song titles, like Coltrane’s, often have religious significance.

Karma is Sanders’ third recording as a leader, perhaps the most famous of a number of spiritually-themed albums released on the Impulse record label in the late 1960s, early 1970s, which have ensured his reputation today.  It features Sanders on tenor sax, along with two of his most important collaborators, the aforementioned Leon Thomas and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith, as well as a supporting cast of musicians who were major musicians in their own right: flautist James Spaulding; French-horn player Julius Watkins; bassist Reggie Workman, who had played with Coltrane earlier in the 1960s; second bassist Richard Davis; drummer Billy Hart, and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis. (Wikipedia)

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In many ways Archie Shepp represents an independent stream, parallel to John Coltrane. Shepp was an established saxophonist prior to Coltrane’s emergence as the leader of his generation but Shepp always had more of a political edge and many of his recordings carry the Afrocentric message of Black liberation from social injustice.

Shepp, recorded the Four for Trane sessions in 1964, then cut Ascension with Coltrane in 1965, and his place alongside Coltrane at the forefront of the avant-garde jazz scene was epitomized when the pair split a record (the first side a Coltrane set, the second a Shepp set) entitled New Thing at Newport released in late 1965.  Shepp’s 1967 The Magic of Ju-Ju also took its name from African musical traditions, and the music was strongly rooted in African music, featuring an African percussion ensemble. At this time, many African-American jazzmen were increasingly influenced by various continental African cultural and musical traditions; along with Pharoah Sanders, Shepp was at the forefront of this movement. The Magic of Ju-Ju defined Shepp’s sound for the next few years: freeform avant-garde saxophone lines coupled with rhythms and cultural concepts from Africa. (Wikipedia)

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Trane’s legacy continues to inspire jazz musicians as each new generation of players carry it forward adding their individual contributions.  John Coltrane’s music represents one of the greatest musical achievements , not only in the realm of jazz, but across all stylistic expressions and genres.

I urge you to listen to this music, you will be better because of it.

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