Sunday, September 01, 2013

CD Review: John Coltrane - Sun Ship: The Complete Session

John Coltrane
Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions

When listening to John Coltrane’s individual albums, each stage of his evolution seems like a quantum leap. It was as if he was doing something different every time he went into the studio. But upon hearing The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse Recordings, which placed all of the studio session from their most innovative period in chronological order, it was easier to pick up on the way their sound made a gradual evolution. It didn’t necessarily take away from the idea that Coltrane was a musical genius. Rather it proved that a genius doesn't earn that distinction without taking the human steps to get there.

Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions develops this idea a little further. It gathers together the entire session that would be released in 1971, four years after Coltrane’s death. Along with alternate takes of Sun Ship’s five tracks, it includes “inserts,” where the band plays from a certain point in the song with the idea that they’d be edited into the master performance after the fact. Four years before Miles Davis and Teo Macero started taking a razor blade to studio performances and editing them, Coltrane was already envisioning something like this for his own work. Sometimes it’s nice to see the human side to a musical deity.

Sun Ship was not one Coltrane’s strongest sessions, though it’s far from lackluster. It shows how the quartet's "tunes" often were, as one of the band members once said, little more than scales that Coltrane put in front of the band. "Dearly Beloved," the first song they recorded, is a flowing minor scale, or mode, that begins with an impassioned cry and finds him building on these ideas. Done in four takes, there are two complete versions, along with a breakdown and a false start.  

"Attaining," which follows, has a similar rubato feel at the beginning but switches to another mode after Elvin Jones' typically exciting drum break. The piece eventually locks into a medium tempo swing with a strong solo from pianist McCoy Tyner. These selections offer some intrigue to Coltrane buffs as the version that appeared on the original album began with the second of the two complete takes, and finished with an insert - which itself was edited for the release. While both of these two pieces are good, it shows running order can elevate the music. ("Attaining" and "Dearly Beloved" were on different sides of the album.)

The rather intense staccato title track had a slightly different execution in the complete alternate take, and the master from the original album restores a loud closing statement from Jones. "Ascent" took a little more work, as Jimmy Garrison wanted to devote more time to his stop-start bass solo, and Coltrane had the group do several inserts that capture him in a pretty intense mood. As it turned out, Take 1 was the best they did, although they left off about 90 seconds of solo bass, which of course gets restored here. 

Two takes of "Amen" were recorded, Take 1 being chosen and released with no edits. The only reason it seems that one was chosen over the other might have to do with the fact that Trane uses a couple licks in Take 2 that he had already used in "Vigil," a fiery drums-and-tenor duet (one of my personal favorite Coltrane tracks) that had been recorded a month earlier. You can't blame a guy for throwing them in (heck, Eric Dolphy did it every time he played alto) and it proves yet again that this music did not spring from the horn of its own accord but was the result of careful preparation.

Though they're brief, Coltrane fans will probably get a rise out of the studio talk between tracks and during breakdowns. Known for his seriousness, we hear Coltrane laughing a bit with producer Bob Thiele, who references the title "Ascension" when the saxophonist announces "Ascent." Before "Sun Ship" had a title, they jokingly refer to it as "Yeah," after Coltrane says as much. Interesting also that he refers to Garrison as "James" rather than "Jimmy" as all the albums listed him.

Besides Charlie Parker, John Coltrane is probably one of the few jazz musicians that people love to analyze closely. This two-disc set (or three records if you splurge for the $90 Mosaic set) will definitely satiate those fans. The casual listener, who doesn't feel the need to own everything he ever did, can probably live without it. But it's still pretty enjoyable.

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