BEBOP AND BEYOND
by Armand Lewis~
In what turned out to be the last years before John Coltrane’s untimely death in 1967, the tenor saxophonist discarded the bebop and modal styles that defined such classic albums such as Blue Train, Ballads and A Love Supreme. He then became one of the chief proponents of what was called “The New Thing” or “Free-Jazz.”
Pioneered by fellow saxophonist Ornette Coleman, this extremely radical, dissonant and often confusing music broke with musical convention in a quest for spiritual enlightenment and new rhythmic and harmonic forms that more or less completely dis-carded the idea of melody and recognizable song structures.
Coltrane’s move to this new style would lead to albums such as Ascension and Kulu Se Mama, which would break the boundaries of melody, harmony and even conventional chord progressions. How far Coltrane would have gone with this approach cannot be known, as his death from liver cancer in July of 1967 forever silenced his quest.
Since that time, dozens of previously unheard recordings, either made for his record label, Impulse, which were not issued in the 1960s, or privately made concert recordings have given fans and Coltrane scholars clues as to the direction he was headed.
John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse / Resonance B0019632) gives us a glimpse of where Coltrane would have gone in the later 1960s. This legendary concert, presented here complete for the first time, was recorded just seven months before his death.
Having recently replaced his longtime rhythm section of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones with his wife Alice Coltrane, Sonny Johnson and Rashied Ali, he also added fellow tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders to the group. Moving into a more expansive phase of development, he also included additional percussionists, which altered his phrasing to fit in with the altered time/rhythm that that change entailed.
Starting off with his classic composition “Naima”, Coltrane begins in ballad mode, but builds in intensity until it sounds like his saxophone is about to burst — building phrases in an almost frenzy that must be heard to be believed. Alice Coltrane’s extended piano solo explores the tune with flourishes that mix her approach to harp with that of her predecessor McCoy Tyner’s gliding piano support.
“Crescent” begins with Coltrane’s statement of the theme, reminiscent of the classic rendition on his album of the same name. Building in intensity and experimentation, the tune then morphs into one of Coltrane’s more avant-garde performances as the tune is handed over to Pharoah Sanders. The tune showcases Sanders’ “New Thing” technique, complete with saxophone screams and cries. This is extremely in-tense music and fans of the orig-
inal Coltrane version of this tune should be aware that this is an entirely different rendition here.
“Leo” continues in this vein, with Sanders reaching for greater and greater intensity as Coltrane himself can be hear almost chanting in the background before returning to his tenor sax and then switching to flute in support of another Sanders solo. Drummer Rashied Ali delivers a six-minute polyrhythmic solo that includes Coltrane actually singing before returning to his tenor sax.
The tune “Offering” is just that — a musical offering. Perhaps coming after so much intensity, it may be the most spiritual perfor-mance of the evening. The first three minutes comprise a medita-tive tenor solo with minimal support from the band. Coltrane never got the chance to do an album made up entirely of solo saxophone, but if he had, this is a bit of what may have resulted.
Finishing the concert with “My Favorite Things” on soprano, Coltrane starts slow and builds in intensity and speed, with Alice Coltrane’s piano providing an appropriately ethereal mood, which (along with Coltrane’s soprano sax) builds to an avant-garde abstraction of the original rendition on the 1961 album of the same name.
Whether one will like this album or not depends entirely on one’s feelings toward Coltrane’s late avant-garde / free jazz period. Taking listeners to places beyond what the Ascension or Cosmic Music albums could achieve, this is extremely intense music and not for those with more mainstream tastes. Yet, Offering: Live at Temple University does leave an indelible impression. As a historical document, it should be experienced as one of the final steps in Coltrane’s musical journey — a journey that continues to provide new musical revelations to this day.
Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org