Saturday, May 03, 2008

John Coltrane - Live in Japan (Impulse, 1966, 1991)

John Coltrane only toured Japan once, but the music he played there left a lasting impression. This massive four disc set contains the entirety of two concerts the group played in Tokyo in June 1966. Coltrane leads on tenor, soprano and alto (!) saxophones, accompanied by Pharaoh Sanders on tenor and alto saxophone, Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Rasheid Ali on drums. The music stretches out to extraordinary lengths and is quite fascinating to listen to with its combination of melody and freedom. Disc one begins with an epic near forty minute exploration of Mongo Santamaria's theme "Afro-Blue" with John Coltrane taking the lead solo and sounding larger than life. Pharaoh follows coming off as a bit spastic with his use of honks and squeals not fully yet under control. Alice Coltrane follows with some majestic piano, and then there is a feverish and lengthy duet between Ali and Coltrane, now on soprano saxophone. This is very exciting and stunning in the two musician's stamina and dexterity. "Peace on Earth" follows, with a slow and melodic tenor opening. Coltrane uses fractured and refracted tenor saxophone to set a moody theme, followed by Sanders who promptly shatters the mood with a swirling, gushing solo. Alice Coltrane is the eye of the hurricane, playing the whole piano with classical flourishes. She picks up the pace when prompted by Ali's shifting the tempo to a higher gear, and then John renters for some fairly intense quartet improvisation, followed by Pharaoh's return and the conclusion of the piece. Disc two is a nearly hour long version of the Coltrane composition "Crescent" which begins with an epic bass solo by Jimmy Garrison, before John Coltrane enters, setting the majestic theme and taking the first solo. Although Coltrane is playing free at times, it is fascinating to hear how in control he is throughout the music, as opposed to Sanders, who loses the plot at times with directionless wails during his solo. Disc three begins with a relatively mild quartet improvisation of a second version of "Peace on Earth" where the group is playing with great restraint, but seemingly even stronger for holding that great power they have available in check. Coltrane's saxophone playing is beefy but never out of control. En epic forty-five minute improvisation on "Leo" concludes the set. Very strong and virile improvisation gradually becomes more wild and woolly. Ali sounds like he has four arms and six legs, and the piano and bass pump pneumatically under the din. Sanders takes off for the stratosphere with a powerful and heavy solo, before giving way to Ali who performs a fast paced eight minute drum solo that is light on the beat, and as agile as a dancer. Alice Coltrane takes the helm at this point, playing a swirling piano which sounds like the harp she would play on subsequent solo albums. To conclude this epic, Coltrane and Sanders lead the band by playing alto saxophones that they were given as gifts by the Yamaha company, swirling and sweeping to a feverish conclusion. Disc four has an epic version of the Coltrane standard "My Favorite Things", begun like "Crescent" with a very long Garrison bass solo, before Coltrane enters to on alto sax, giving the familiar song a fascinating new spin. He switches to the familiar soprano saxophone in the middle and then gives way to Alice whose impressionistic piano solo ebbs and flows like the tide, before both saxophonists come back for a lengthy full quintet improvisation to conclude the proceedings. Taken as a whole, this is an extraordinary document of a band exploring the outer reaches of jazz with great energy and endurance. The liner notes have an essay from re-issuing engineer Michael Cuscuna and the transcript of an interview Coltrane conducted in Tokyo during the tour. While the music can be exhausting to listen to, it is a very important part of the Coltrane legacy and demands to be heard, especially by fans of free form jazz.

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