Saturday, July 19, 2008

John Coltrane - The Major Works of John Coltrane (Impulse, 1992)

This two CD set brings together some very intense and transitional music recorded by John Coltrane in 1965. This was a fascinating period in his career, as his longtime quartet with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums was in the process of dissolving, and his role as a mentor to the younger "New Thing" musicians led him to seek out new collaborators like Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali. On the recordings collected here, the quartet is joined by a rotating cast of additional musicians which allow for a larger palette to be used in the ambitious music Coltrane was working toward. The two takes of Coltrane's monumental "Ascension" dominate this collection. As a big band free jazz performance it was unique in the jazz canon at the time, akin to Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" but separate in its ambition and execution. Spiritual concerns were paramount to the final period of Coltrane's career, and it is possible to see "Ascension" as his musical impressions of a man's journey to the afterlife. But much like William Blake's spiritual poetry, it is a harrowing journey. Both versions of the epic begin with a statement by the group followed by group and solo sections signaled by hand gestures from the leader. The soloists were allowed as much room as they needed and the overall effect was devastating. "Ascension" is either revered or vilified by critics, but I think this really misses the point. This is a transitory, experimental work and should be viewed as such. Allowing the music to wash over you with the ebbs and flows of the soloists and groups is one of the most intense experiences in jazz, and broke new ground for the likes of Peter Brotzmann and the ROVA Saxophone Quartet (who have recorded two of their own interpretations of "Ascension") to continue the exploration. "Om" is one of the most daunting performances in Coltrane's music for listeners to comprehend. Beginning with an ominous sounding recitation and chanting, it gives way to some of the most cacophonous free jazz ever recorded. It's brutal stuff, but it was not meant to be deliberately ugly or confrontational. John Coltrane was interested in all aspects of spirituality, and the Om of the eastern culture was part of it. The chanting and screaming may come off as a little campy, but there's no reason to believe that it is anything less than sincere. "Kulu Se Mama" and "Selflessness" round out the collection and deserve attention because they take in elements of African and Caribbean music. Vocals, chanting and a very interesting groove make for an arresting performance. This collection could more appropriately be called The Spiritual Works of John Coltrane, as Coltrane's spiritual quest informs all of the music found here. This is the sound of John Coltrane leaving Earth bound chordal jazz behind and lifting off to explore the cosmos of free jazz.

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