Friday, October 03, 2014

CD/LP Review: John Coltrane - Offering: Live at Temple University

John Coltrane
Offering - Live at Temple University
(Impulse! - Resonance)

It's all Allen Ginsburg's fault.

If the beat poet hadn't been performing on the campus of Temple University on November 11, 1966, more people might have gone to the concert at the university's Mitten Hall that night, where John Coltrane performed to a relatively small crowd, many of whom didn't dig what he was doing and left before it was over. If it weren't for Ginsberg, maybe an audience of more appreciative people could have gotten into the music and the show would have been a success, artistically and financially. Then there'd be more free jazz fans in the world. Maybe.

But you can't unring a bell. And now, finally, after nearly 48 years, the rest of can hear the results of this performance.

Offering - Live at Temple University delivers the full concert from that night, which was recorded for broadcast by WRTI, the school's radio station. Coltrane - who would succumb to liver cancer in July of 1967 - was turning yet another corner in a career marked by forward motion, taking his music further away from conventional jazz. In fact, prior to the  performance, Coltrane apparently said that the event was shouldn't be considered a jazz concert.

So what was it? Coltrane brought a quintet of his wife/pianist Alice Coltrane, drummer Rashied Ali, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and, subbing for regular bassist Jimmy Garrison, Sonny Johnson to Temple. In addition, he invited four percussionists to join the music. On top of that, he invited a free-thinking alto saxophonist to take a solo and another one took the liberty to jump onstage and join them. Maybe it should be considered a mind-expanding event because that's what it sounds like.

To anyone who's heard Coltrane's music leading up to that period, the expectation, after reading several preview articles over the past month, is that this music might burn your skin off, in low fidelity to boot. (Memories of the original LP release of Concert in Japan bring to mind extended, blistering solos that weren't recorded very well, and therefore hard to really wrap the head around.) But don't you believe it.

For starters, the sound on the recording might not be stellar, but it's a far cry from the lo-fi sound on The Olatunji Concert,a 2001 release that was recorded in April 1967. One mike was set up onstage to record the show. When Coltrane or Sanders are soloing, they're the predominant instrument in the mix. When they step away, the rhythm section comes into greater relief. Not ideal, but not too shabby.

Yes, things get wild. But not on the level of something like Frank Lowe's Black Beings or other such sounds that were emanating out of Lower East Side New York at the time. In fact, Sanders doesn't even appear on opener "Naima," one of Coltrane's best-known ballads. The rhythm is loose and Coltrane's tenor sax is much more aggressive, shaping and re-shaping little phrases (what Ravi Coltrane refers to as "cells"). Alice contributes a piano solo full of cascading runs and lines. Maybe it jarred some in the audience, but they probably still thought they were getting their money's worth ($2.50 per ticket). Anyone who might have picked up Live at the Village Vanguard Again that year might feel this performance was in keeping with the "Naima" that appeared on it.

"Crescent" picks up the intensity a bit more. Coltrane gets a little more aggressive, barking and wailing at times. Sanders growls and shrieks in his typical manner, but he also sounds on top of his game, pushing himself to create more musical nuances out of his personal approach to the tenor. It must have worked, because he gets shouts of encouragement from someone, probably onstage.

At some point during this tune, four percussionist join the group, at Coltrane's behest. From here until the end of the set, their groove is steady, something that might not seem to jibe with the rubato feel of the music, or with Ali's loose-limbed approach to the kit. But the addition works, adding to a trance-like feeling to the music and keeping it grounded. Also during this the piece, alto saxophonist Arnold Joyner decided to leap onstage and join the group after Alice's solo. Despite his audacity, he holds his own, unleashing a free solo that's frenetic but directed. It's not all reed biting and wide vibrato.

Then things get crazy. "Leo" was a newer piece, similar to "Sun Ship" if only because its theme was short and staccato. This is the piece that must have started driving the audience away. This is also the piece that gets talked about first when the concert is discussed. Because Coltrane starts beating his chest and singing in the middle of it. Usually, free jazz and vocals are not good bedfellows. Albert Ayler's ululating on "Oh Love of Life" offers the perfect example. It doesn't matter if he was trying to sing in a manner similar to his sax player. It sounds amateurish.

Coltrane's voice had been heard on record before. Aside from him speaking the title of A Love Supreme during that album's first section, he began wailing on Live in Seattle, in a way that almost sounded painful and definitely a bit eerie.

"Leo" doesn't sound like either of those. Here, Coltrane proves yet again that he was in total command of his musical vision and if he wanted to vocalize, he would do it and do it... pretty well. He has a strong baritone voice and his wordless chanting adds to the urgency of the music. The concert kicks into full-blown frenzy by now, but the group maintains it for all 21 minutes of this track.

After all that tumult, it seems almost appropriate that "Leo" ends cold, due to the tape machine running out.  "Offering," which he would later record in the studio, acts as sort of a come-down, a rubato ballad that begins with a wave of vibrato. He goes on to explore more cells, sounding stunning the way he adapts them slightly but effectively. At four minutes, it's significantly shorter than everything else the band played that night.

A bass solo by Sonny Jackson leads into "My Favorite Things," which had arguably become one of Coltrane's signature tunes by then. Even so, the blissful version he recorded for Atlantic has been replaced by waves of wild solos. During Alice's rolling and tumbling, Coltrane asked Steve Knoblauch, another alto saxophonist who he met earlier in the evening, to take his place in front of the mike. Like Joyner, Knoblauch blows wild and free, in a manner that doesn't seem out of place or primitive in comparison to the seasoned pros onstage. When Coltrane takes his own solo on soprano sax, the singing and chest-beating resume, the whole thing sounding more like a celebration of joie de vivre, to ensure that the evening ends at a high level.

Offering is an important document of this period of Coltrane's life, made all that more significant in part due to Ashley Kahn's extensive liner notes, which describe the scene of the performance, the music itself and the effects that it had on those who witnessed it. (Among them were then teenage saxophonist Michael Brecker and Temple student and future jazz writer Francis Davis.)

Books have been written about how Coltrane wanted to perform with several percussionists. At least one column was written that disparaged late period Coltrane shows where he beat his chest and wailed. Now is the chance to experience all of this and put the speculation to rest. The former idea wasn't overly ambitious and the latter wasn't just some flaky idea, comparable to many experimental performances from that period. John Coltrane was determined to do something new each time he played and this album proves that.

While the CD edition of the album looks exquisite, with a 24-page book full of pictures, the vinyl version is really a treat. Not only does it include the classic orange and black Impulse! spine and the record label with the exploding "i", it has a gatefold sleeve and a four-panel booklet with Kahn's notes, as well as the article from Temple's college newspaper about the money that was lost on the show. A series of photos by Frank Kofsky are reproduced on postcards too. If you're going to buy it, go all the way and get the records.

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