Wednesday, July 26, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 032: John Coltrane Quintet: Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings

There is almost no way to describe this music. It is certainly some of the greatest jazz ever recorded—but that is faint praise. It is certainly some of the greatest American music, some of the greatest improvised music, ever recorded—but that is faint praise. It is certainly some of Coltrane’s own greatest playing—but that is faint praise.

It captures Coltrane teetering on the edge of one more breakthrough: having come up through the cerebral fury of bebop, the gutbucket funk of “big-toned” bar-walking tenor saxophone R&B, and the down-home groove of hard-bop; having helped birth modal jazz with Miles on Kind of Blue; having happily subjected himself to the funhouse-mirror of Monk’s musical world (subject of a future “100 Greats” post); having burned through and annealed himself to chord changes with the harmonic steeplechases of Giant Steps and Countdown; having cured himself of booze and junk; and finally having been fired by Miles (which Miles dig for his own good—Trane was so self-effacing that he probably never would have left), Trane found himself leading a live band for the first time under his own name. It wasn’t yet the “Classic Quintet”—that would have to await the arrival of bassist Jimmy Garrison in ’62—but two permanent members and one special guest, all of whom would boot Trane’s burgeoning genius into the stratosphere, were already on board. McCoy Tyner, a bare 22 years old, had already developed a muscular, athletic, and harmonically-liberating approach to the piano: instead of laying down the complex dominant-7th based “shell voicings” pioneering by beboppers like Bud Powell, Tyner had worked out a rolling, percussive, open-voicing-based piano style which (with the benefit of a lot of hindsight) owed as much to Ellington, gospel, and the blues. The titanic drummer Elvin Jones—certainly one of the two or three greatest drummers jazz ever produced—became the cornerstone of Coltrane’s live bands virtually to the end. An astonishingly powerful, visceral, and creative player, he had developed a “circular” style which eschewed even bebop’s “ching-chinga-ching” ride-cymbal patterns for roiling cycles of polyrhythms, which sounded like nothing so much as West African percussion ensemble music played on drum kit. More than any other player, Elvin had the chops, the guts, and the sheer physical stamina to keep up with Trane, who in this period was sinking deeper and deeper into an obsessive, 12- and 15-hour per day practice regimen. In all of the live gigs, there’d come a point in one of the simple modal tunes they played (really vehicles for virtually free improvisation; tunes like My Favorite Things, Greensleeves, Impressions, or Chasin’ the Trane), 6 or 8 or 10 minutes into the tune, when McCoy and the bassist would drop out, and Trane and Elvin would go at it, playing and playing and playing, pushing each other higher and higher.

Coltrane in this period was a spiritual seeker. He’d hit such depths as a junkie, and had pulled himself out of that limbo, seemingly and primarily with the help of his practice regimen. He never left a Christian cosmology, but he intended in this period that his music should be a tool for spiritual enlightenment, both for himself and his audience (this would culminate in the LP-length prayer of 1964’s A Love Supreme). He was investigating the music of India and Africa, looking at the way each of these polyrhythmic and (more-or-less) modal musical worlds used sound as a sacred tool. And he was practicing 12 hours a day—and between marathon sets on the gig.

The Village Vanguard was comfortable, intimate, and familiar to Trane: he, and hundreds of other jazzmen, had gigged there regularly. It was a place where hipsters went, and could listen to the newest and most challenging music in tight proximity, without management bugging them to buy more than one drink. A strange, dank place to serve as the birthing-ground for a recording of spiritual transcendence, but then, jazz has always of necessity found the sacred in the alley and the whorehouse—that’s part of its greatness.

The guest, who though he was in the band less than a year, had a comprehensive impact on Trane, was Eric Dolphy. A Los Angeles native, and an enormously facile technician on a whole range of reed instruments (including, most notably and significantly, the ungainly bass clarinet), Eric was also extremely knowledgeable about both classical music and alternative/healthy lifestyles, a vegetarian, and had never been part of the New York booze-and-junk lifestyle. He was also an astonishingly unself-conscious improviser, capable of playing competent Charlie Parker-style bebop alto but also of the most angular, challenging, anti-harmonic, and “out” sounds anybody had ever heard (my revered teacher David Baker, who wrote a series of charts featuring Eric in the George Russell band, said to me “I dunno…Eric was a freak. I think he just heard that way”). In all of these ways Eric was profoundly influential—really an inspiring comrade—for Trane. I loved his playing so much, heard as such a clear and forceful extension of Bird, that I transcribed a dozen Eric solos on Bird standards, just so I could compare the lines and find the Bird licks in Eric's style.

Trane was also listening to the legendary Sun Ra tenor player John Gilmore, like McCoy from Philly, and indirectly found himself inspired both by the free playing, the musical collectivism, and the spacy Afro-centrism of Ra’s Arkestra.

All these things coalesce on Village Vanguard. They’re playing tunes they knew as well as they knew each others’ breathing patterns: in addition to those cited above, Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, Spiritual, Naima, and Miles’s Mode—all of them open, wispy forms intended to provide the maximum amount of improvisational freedom. They’re in a comfortable venue they knew well and where they could count on simpatico listeners. They had five nights in a row with a sympathetic recording engineer, Bob Thiele of Impulse!, managing the machine and staying out of the way. And they had each other.

There is no way to describe this music. There is no way to describe the places to which these men together take themselves and their listeners. There is no way to describe the spiritual intensity and the sheer sonic beauty of the music they play. It’s as if, for those five nights in November 1961, all the stars and the planets lined up; all of Coltrane’s musical and spiritual quests coalesced; all the (myriad) personality conflicts washed away; all the power, selflessness and courage of which jazz is capable came to the fore. And in India, a feature for the droning plainchant harmonies of Trane’s soprano, Eric’s bass clarinet, and the buzzing insistence of Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s oud (which I think is misidentified: it sounds like a lauto or buzuq to me), with the rhythm section of McCoy, Reggie Workman, and Elvin’s roiling drums churning underneath them, they truly reach a state of grace, and baraka (the Sufi metaphor of blessedness and spiritual connection) rains down upon them all. This music is in the same transcendent company as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Qawwali, Aaron Neville’s falsetto gospel, the polytonal chants of the Gyuto Tantric Monks, and the Bach B-minor Mass.

It's holy.


RMVela said...

11 years ago (or so), I was living (barely) alone, drunk & high all the time, dejected, sick, destitute, & thinking about death...then 'Trane's A Love Supreme (by some sort of divine intervention) was put into my hands. I may well owe my life to Mr. Coltrane, I know I owe a debt of gratitude to him & his band(s) for helping me to expand my aural horizons. I still stagger w/awe at his abilities, his musicality, and his dedication. Whatever you choose to do with your life, 'Trane's late life example ain't a bad one to follow.

CJS said...

Yeah. There's no question in my mind that some music, played by the right persons for the right reasons, can change (or save) lives. Glad Love Supreme appeared when you needed it.