Tag Archives: John Coltrane

Tommy Smith Quartet. Edinburgh Jazz Festival, July 2017.

As opening statements go, it was pretty definitive: a short introduction from Calum Gourlay’s bass and then the whole quartet roared into the Resolution, the second part of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Many people consider A Love Supreme to be one of the most important pieces of music of the twentieth century – me included. It is a work of passion that communicates a deep spirituality. It is a piece that is rarely played by other musicians, despite it being hugely influential: it seems almost sacrilegious to do so.

So for Tommy Smith and his quartet to start their concert celebrating Coltrane with Resolution, full of energy and passion themselves, controlled and forceful, clearly marked the territory.

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On the hottest night of the year, the theatre was full, and sweltering. On stage, the band wore suits and ties, buttoned up, and kept their high energy approach going the whole time. Like many (most?) tenor players, Smith has long been influenced by Coltrane: as a young artist, he recorded Giant Steps on his first album, and he regularly included numbers by Coltrane in his live sets. He directed, and played tenor (together with Courtney Pine) with, the SNJO playing Coltrane a few years ago. He has an affinity with Coltrane’s music.

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Playing with a line up guaranteed to bring to mind Coltrane’s classic quartet, and on this night apparently playing entirely acoustically (no mikes to be seen – though I’d be surprised if the bass wasn’t miked), Tommy Smith made a glorious sound. The band were superb. Peter Johnstone, a relative youngster, must have been channeling McCoy Tyner, laying down thick chords and searing solos. Sebastiaan de Krom was both light and loud, letting rip enough to do Elvin Jones justice; and Calum Gourlay, in the fourth gig I’d seen him play in four days, just gets better and better.

Smith explained that they were playing music from their latest CD, Embodying the Light – and I think they played the whole thing: three compositions by Smith, five by Coltrane, and ‘Trane’s arrangement of Summertime. It was powerful music – pure Smith, but pure Coltrane too. It was hugely exciting – exhilarating, even. It was a full blown experience, a bit of a roller coaster – aside from Naima, it was all pretty full on – and every bit as exciting. Wonderful stuff.

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“Alabama”.

On the back of yesterday’s Radio3 programme on the Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and all the publicity over Selma, I have been listening to Coltrane’s coruscating track Alabama (and the album it is on, Live at Birdland).

It was recorded in October 1963, over a year before A Love Supreme, and it sounds like a sketch for some of the slower passages. Curiously, Ashley Kahn, in his book about the making of A Love Supreme, calls Alabama “dirge-like”, and doesn’t make any connection with A Love Supreme – at least, none that he comments on. (I checked in case I was stealing the idea from him…)

Maybe not dirge-like: maybe a lament. Because Alabama isn’t about Selma, Alabama, but Birmingham, Alabama. Where, in September, 1963 – just a month before Coltrane recorded Alabama – four children were killed when white supremacists fire bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Kahn says that Coltrane took a speech by Martin Luther King about the killing (which may have been the funeral oration) and made his saxophone voice the words – the rhythm and intonation, the phrasing; and the passion.

Trane did the same with his own poem, which became the final movement of A Love Supreme, Psalm.

The 16th Street Baptist Church killings are also referred to by Charles Mingus in his spoken word text to, confusingly, It Was A Lonely Day In Selma, Alabama:

It was a lonely day in Selma Alabama
People gathered there to walk and watch for freedom
Mother with child in arms
I wonder about this freedom
Four little girls in the church
A minister and a longshoreman’s wife

before he goes into the poem, Freedom:

Freedom for your mama
Freedom for your daddy
Freedom for your brothers and sisters
But no freedom for me…

Presumably Mingus is first referring to the famous freedom march in Selma, which features in the film Selma, before he mentions the Birmingham killings.

The Paul Dunmall Quartet play Coltrane. The Vortex, London, June 2014.

Passing through London, I happened to check out my favourite London jazz venue, and it had an interesting gig coming up; and even better I was staying at a friend’s just around the corner.

And so it was in Monday night I sat down to listen to saxophonist Paul Dunmall lead a tribute to John Coltrane. Actually, not so much a tribute as an adoration: they reinterpreted and restructured Coltrane’s album “Sun Ship”, recorded with the classic quartet in 1965 at the same time as “Transition” but not released until after Trane’s untimely death.

I have Wikipedia to thank for those facts because whilst I have – and love – masses of Coltrane, I don’t have “Sun Ship”. Indeed, I’d never heard of it; I didn’t even know of its existence.

Still, I did know of Paul Dunmall, whose playing I like, and listening to an improvising band playing Coltrane in the Vortex – sounds good to me.

And it did sound good. It was an exhilarating experience. Two tenors – Dunmall joined by Howard Cottle – with Olie Brice on bass and Tony Bianco on drums. No one taking the piano role, then – an interesting diversion from the structure, leaving Bruce and Bianco holding it together whilst the two saxes, together or solo, roared away a multitude of directions.

The one constant was Bianco: Brice would sometimes drop out, leaving Dunmall or Cottle – or both – blowing away backed by drums alone. Bianco thundered on, full of energy throughout the evening (he must have been exhausted).

Dunmall introduced one number as a ballad, but it seemed as fast the others. There was little to differentiate one piece from another – each distinctly Coltrane, despite being completely of the moment, too.

Dunmall announced the last number, Ascension – a coruscating piece from the album of same name which features Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp alongside Coltrane on tenor (and John Tchai on alto, with others on brass). I thought Dunmall was joking: the idea of tackling Ascension after the drive and energy that preceded it seemed crazy. But the familiar, mantra like riff opened, and they were off again.

This was an evening full of powerful, driving music, a tribute to one of jazz’s greats through music that is fifty years old and completely contemporary.

SNJO and Courtney Pine Play Coltrane. Edinburgh, March 2014.

There’s been a bit of a stushie after a critic criticised the Cure for playing three hour long sets. Well the SNJO and Courtney Pine would have given them a run for their money, playing for well over three hours in this tribute to John Coltrane.

There has been a bit of criticism about that too, suggesting that Pine was somewhat overindulgent. Quite possibly. But then so was Coltrane – he famously didn’t know how to stop once he got going (to which Miles Davis is supposed to have said “try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth“…)

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In the past I have sometimes tired of Pine’s pyrotechnics, but here the stream of consciousness flow of notes, together with an extreme display of circular breathing seemed fitting. Some critics described Coltrane as trying to play every note at once, which gave rise to the description of his playing as creating “sheets of sound“, and Pine did the same. His playing was fast and intense, and the audience loved it.

True, I think the audience would have loved it whatever: a combination of SNJO, who always get a good crowd at her Queen’s Hall, and Coltrane, who still seems to inspire devotion amongst his fans, nearly fifty years since his untimely death, seemed a guaranteed winner.

It was interesting to hear how such loved music translated from Coltrane’s small groups into a big band setting. Extremely well, I felt. With the band taking on much of the work done by McCoy Tyner, pianist Steve Hamilton was less to the fore and a bit lost in the mix, but Alyn Cosker more than held his own on drums in inevitable comparisons with Elvin Jones. He was in cracking form, especially when the band dropped out leaving Cosker and Pine to duet – or battle it out.

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Of the ten pieces, only one didn’t work for me, Joe Locke’s reimagining of the almost cliched ballad Naima – and even then Locke should be applauded for doing something different with his material.

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The rest of the material was faster – sometimes much faster. They started off with a ripping Impressions, with Pine blowing furiously from the start, and kept going. And going. And going! The arrangements generally stuck close to the originals, the band providing the support to allow Pine and the other soloists to blow. It was of course a night for the saxes, with Tommy Smith and Konrad Wizsniewski contributing on tenor, and Martin Kershaw and Paul Towndrow soloing on alto. Pine alternated between tenor and soprano. There were also a couple of trumpet solos from Tom McNiven and Lorne Cowieson, and a trombone solo by Chris Grieve. My one quibble from the evening was that with so many great soloists the band, it is a shame they got little opportunity to show their chops.

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I think my favourite piece of the night was a storming version of Afro Blue – but then it’s one of my favourite Coltrane numbers. The only piece in the evening not penned by Coltrane (though the programme didn’t credit Mongo Santamaria), hearing the full band play the central riff for several choruses was exhilarating.

They bravely honoured Acknowledgement and Resolution from A Love Supreme, music which is so loved that it is rarely tackled by other artists. Resolution was arranged by Towndrow, and also featured his alto solo; Impressions was also arranged by an SNJO member, Ryan Quigley, though he wasn’t in the band on this occasion. Tommy Smith contributed The Father, The Son And The Holy Ghost, which closed the show. It is very pleasing to see the SNJO using home grown talent as well as their roster of international arrangers.

Smith and Pine battled on the closer, sometimes with just Cosker powering along behind them. A more free piece which I didn’t know, and apparently minimal arrangement – Smith taking a break from his soloing to direct the band – this worked really well, building up to climax after climax. I think it had to be the last number: after three hours, I don’t know how they could have kept going!

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All in all, an evening of wonderful music, and it was great to hear Pine playing the music of one of his major influences so fluently. Marvellous.