The Month In Jazz – October 2021

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Month In Jazz – October 2021

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is one of the most towering works of art of the 20th century. It represents an ideal of jazz composition and performance: its simple four-note bassline anchors some of the most passionate playing of his career, and there’s not a single note out of place from anyone in the band. Each of the piece’s four movements flows seamlessly and logically from the one before, and though it’s less than 33 minutes long, when it reaches its conclusion, you realize there’s nowhere else he and his bandmates could have taken the music. (This is particularly true when one realizes that the final track, “Psalm,” is Coltrane reciting, through his horn, the poem that appears in the liner notes. You can actually read along with the music, syllable by syllable.) It’s a perfect album.

It’s also a deeply personal album. Coltrane holed himself up in the attic of his Long Island home to write it, and some have said he had to argue with his label to get them to release it. His longtime producer, Bob Thiele, reportedly wanted him to continue recording shorter tunes and standards as he’d done on his 1962 and 1963 albums with Duke Ellington and singer Johnny Hartman. Even an album like Crescent, recorded in June 1964 and released just before A Love Supreme, was the product of two different sessions. But A Love Supreme was completely different — Coltrane took the creative reins on every aspect of the album, from writing the liner notes, which included an essay alluding to his struggles with drug addiction, and the aforementioned poem, to choosing the cover photo (the same one used inside Crescent) and the painting of himself that appeared inside the gatefold sleeve.

Whether he liked the music or not, Thiele did an incredible job producing it. The mix is beautifully arranged; pianist McCoy Tyner is dead center, along with bassist Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane is in the left speaker, drummer Elvin Jones the right. The sound is crystal clear, and dry enough that every note leaps out at you, but at the same time, even the most passionate exhortations from the horn are never allowed to stomp all over what the other three are doing. Jones in particular is basically a second lead voice on the opening “Acknowledgement” section.

The album was recorded on December 9, 1964 (with a second, unused session the next day that added saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis to the core lineup of Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones) and released in January 1965. In July of that year, Coltrane and his quartet performed the piece in full at the Festival Mondial du Jazz Antibes. There, it became considerably longer; the “Pursuance” section alone was expanded from almost 11 minutes on the album to nearly 22. It’s still a beautiful performance, but at its most fervid moments — like that “Pursuance,” which becomes a sax-drums duo for much of its running time — it’s easy to forget that what they’re playing started out as A Love Supreme, which on record is a sober, reflective piece of music.

You would think, given the intensely personal nature of the piece, that nobody would dare attempt a cover of A Love Supreme, but it’s been done a few times. The first was by Coltrane’s widow Alice, on her 1972 album World Galaxy. On that album, she played piano, harp, and Wurlitzer organ, and was joined by saxophonist Frank Lowe, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Ben Riley, as well as a large string section, with violinist Leroy Jenkins featured as a soloist. Her version was really just the opening “Acknowledgment” section, and it was centered on her sharp-edged, electronically stabbing organ (and shorter solos from Lowe and Jenkins), with Riley knocking out an almost boom-bap beat and others contributing shakers and percussion, but it opened and closed with a lush bed of strings and a recitation/lecture on the nature of love by her guru at the time, Swami Satchidananda. She made the piece her own, retaining its essential nature but taking it into other realms that only she had the maps to.

Keyboardist Doug Carn also recorded a version of “Acknowledgement” in 1971 on his album Infant Eyes, which was reissued on CD this year. At the time he was recording and performing with his then-wife, Jean Carn, who wrote and sang her own lyrics on the track, with Doug backing her up. Tenor saxophonist George Harper takes an extended and potent solo, as do trumpeter Bob Frazier and trombonist Al Hall, while bassist Henry Franklin and drummer Michael Carvin maintain the pulse. The latter man opts for an almost free jazz approach, rampaging all over the kit in a manner somewhere between Elvin Jones and his successor in Coltrane’s band, Rashied Ali.

The next version to appear was recorded by guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, who made the album Love Devotion Surrender in 1973, when they were both devotees of Sri Chinmoy. Naturally, their version — again, just the “Acknowledgement” section — is centered around screaming guitar solos, the two men (Santana in the left speaker, McLaughlin in the right) trading improvised phrases at length. The rest of the band on the album includes Larry Young on organ, Doug Rauch on bass, and multiple drummers: Don Alias, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, and Michael Shrieve, plus Armando Peraza on congas. Rauch’s deep, liquid bass doesn’t anchor the music as well as Garrison’s upright did, but Young’s spacy organ really adds something, and Santana and McLaughlin play with real passion, even if their approach lacks Coltrane’s essential humility.

Branford Marsalis has tackled A Love Supreme three times. The first version is the best. It’s an 18-minute compression of the entire suite, which appeared on the second disc of the 1994 album Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, one of a series of AIDS benefit compilations released by the Red Hot organization. Marsalis is backed by his regular band of the time: pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Robert Hurst, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and there are some really beautiful moments — Watts is swinging hard as hell, and Marsalis is playing with passion and fire. As talented as he is, there’s often something a little slick and distanced about his music, like he can’t really let himself go all the way out without leaving himself a clearly marked pathway back. But here, he absolutely erupts. He’s not playing free; that’s not who he is, and it wouldn’t suit the circumstance. But he’s blowing as hard and as fiercely as you can while still honoring Coltrane’s intentions.

Marsalis recorded A Love Supreme twice more — a studio version on his 2002 album Footsteps Of Our Fathers (on which he also tackled Sonny Rollins’ “The Freedom Suite”), and a live version recorded in Amsterdam a year later. Both are more loyal to the original recording, and are fine, but ultimately unnecessary.

In 2003, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra also recorded A Love Supreme, transforming it into a big band piece. That might sound like a uniquely terrible idea, but it’s actually more of a mixed bag than one might expect. The arrangement (by Marsalis) has some interesting passages, as when Coltrane’s opening solo from “Acknowledgement” is passed in pieces from one section of the ensemble to another. Sometimes, when the flutes and lower horns are playing off each other, it can recall an earlier Coltrane album, 1962’s Africa/Brass. Herlin Riley is a slightly more conventional drummer than Elvin Jones, but he’s got a lot of New Orleans in him, so the piece has a polyrhythmic swing that verges on Afro-Cuban music at times. Like I said, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s worth hearing at least once.

(Side note: In researching this piece, I found several versions of “A Love Supreme” on Spotify performed by Dead & Company. I listened to a minute or so of each. The word “sacrilege” is not too harsh for what I heard. There ought to be a law.)

Until this year, the Antibes performance I mentioned above was thought to be the only instance of John Coltrane playing A Love Supreme live. But this month, a new version has showed up, recorded at the Penthouse in Seattle in October 1965. This was from the same set of shows that Impulse! Records taped for the album Live In Seattle, and like that forbiddingly intense set, this performance features an augmented band: In addition to McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders is present on second tenor sax, Carlos Ward is heard on alto sax, and a second bassist, Donald “Rafael” Garrett, and percussionist Joe Brazil fill out the rhythm section.

It’s thanks to Brazil that this recording exists at all; he taped it on a two-track recorder placed onstage and held onto it for the rest of his life. It was found after his death in 2008.

This live album bears the same resemblance to the studio recording as the nearly hour-long versions of “Crescent” and “My Favorite Things” on the four-CD Live In Japan box do to their studio equivalents. First of all, it’s 75 minutes long, and not only are each of the four movements radically extended (“Acknowledgement” is nearly 22 minutes long all on its own), they’re bridged by solo and duo interludes. Between “Acknowledgement” and “Resolution,” we get a short Garrison-Garrett duo; between “Resolution” and “Pursuance,” Jones takes a solo; and between “Pursuance” and “Psalm,” Garrison returns to the spotlight for a 10-minute bass solo.

Coltrane himself is playing much more freely than in the studio. That was always true, but at this point in his career, he was deep into his embrace of the avant-garde, helping Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Albert Ayler get signed to his label, and exchanging the high-speed, harmonically complex lines of his earlier work for a more unfettered, emotional style full of shrieks and mantralike repetition of small melodic phrases. At times, it’s difficult to discern his playing from Sanders’. Still, when all the horns fall away and it’s down to the core trio of Tyner, Garrison, and Jones, they’re capable of locking into a swinging groove and re-anchoring the music in conventionally beautiful post-bop.

In the chronology of Coltrane’s studio recordings, A Love Supreme is a period at the end of a sentence, or at the very least a semicolon. Afterward, he’d dive headlong into free playing on albums like Ascension and Sun Ship and Meditations, all of which were brilliant in their own way but had to be approached on their own terms. A Love Supreme was the last time Coltrane made a studio album that you could play for basically anyone, and this new live version documents the struggle between deeply spiritual composition and unfettered emotional expression in an extraordinarily vivid way. If you’ve ever found late-period Coltrane impenetrable, this album may unlock it for you.

And now, new music!

10

Victor Gould - "Dear Ralph"

I’ve been a fan of pianist Victor Gould since his debut, 2016’s amazing Clockwork. This is his fourth album as a leader, and he’s gone back and forth between lushly arranged works for expanded ensembles (he particularly likes working with strings) and more pared-down small group discs. In Our Time is mostly the latter, featuring just a trio with bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Anwar Marshall. Saxophonist Dayna Stephens guests on two tracks, and three string players appear on the album’s final track. But other than that, the album is a showcase for Gould the pianist and composer. “Dear Ralph” is a tribute to the late drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., with whom Gould worked, and it swings hard, as he always did. Marshall attacks the snare and toms in thunderous fashion, and Gould bangs out the melody with all his strength as Shmerling (who gets a brief solo) glues it all together. (From In Our Time, out now via Blue Room Music.)

09

Ben Marc - "Breathe Suite B"

UK multi-instrumentalist/producer Ben Marc (real name: Neil Charles) makes his debut with the four-track Breathe Suite, a 20-minute EP. It features two thoroughly composed and arranged tracks that blend a broad range of instruments including piano, harp, and strings with chanted vocals, and two improvised pieces. “Breathe Suite B” features Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet, and rapper Rarelyalways. The music swirls and floats past like a multicolored cloud, but there’s a hard, driving beat underneath, and a group of children’s voices chant “breathe, breathe” as the track winds down… eventually, Hutchings’ squawking, Eric Dolphy-esque clarinet is replaced by wailing police sirens. (From Breathe Suite, out now via Innovative Leisure.)

08

Juanma Trujillo -"2RS"

Guitarist Juanma Trujillo was born in Venezuela, and this album is a tribute to his maternal and paternal grandfathers, both of whom died recently. Born in the 1920s, they saw their country transformed during their lifetime, and their will to carve out space for themselves amid that upheaval and change is what inspired Trujillo. (“Ímpetu” is the Spanish word for “impetus”.) He’s joined by Hery Paz on saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute; Santiago Liebson on piano and Wurlitzer organ; and Robin Baytas on drums. There are some gentle, acoustic soundscape pieces on the album named for his grandfathers’ respective hometowns, but there are also some pieces where he plugs in and gets loud. “2RS” is one of the latter. It starts off gentle, with Paz and Liebson duetting in a free-ish manner. After 90 seconds or so, the guitar and drums come in and structure is imposed, sort of; everybody’s still kind of wandering around, but they’re at least all headed in the same direction. Around the halfway mark, guitar and piano begin performing in unison, and that’s when the piece really snaps into place. Trujillo’s guitar has a sharp bite, and in the piece’s second half, when he’s overdubbing against himself as Leibson switches to organ and Paz comes floating back in on a cloud, it’s kinda Bill Frisell-ish, in a good way. (From Ímpetu, out now via Falcon Gumba.)

07

Nick Mazzarella Trio - "Latter Day Protest Song"

This is the second recording by alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Avreeayl Ra. Håker Flaten, who’s also a member of the long-running skronky jazz-rock trio the Thing, lives in Austin, Texas, while the other two are from Chicago, so it’s unsurprising that this is not a full-time project for anybody. They first played together in September 2014, on a gig that was recorded and released a year later as Azimuth. At that time, they were feeling each other out, so the approach involved long-form improvisation; the first track alone lasted a half hour. Now, they’ve developed something of a collective language, and things are a little more concise. “Latter Day Protest Song” is the album closer, running eight and a half minutes, and it has a loft jazz feel — it could have been included on the legendary Wildflowers compilation recorded at Sam Rivers’ Rivbea Studios in 1976. His tone is hoarse and wailing, and the bassist and drummer keep things swingin’ and rockin’ behind him. (From What You Seek Is Seeking You, out now via Astral Spirits.)

06

Ember - "Reanimation (Zombie Tune)"

Ember are a collective trio formed by alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis, bassist Noah Garabedian, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. They didn’t adopt the band name until this album; their 2018 debut, New Year, was released under their three names. “Reanimation (Zombie Tune)” kicks off their second album No One Is Any One calmly and gently; when Sperrazza’s brushed drums and Garabedian’s grooving bass line kick in, you may be surprised that you didn’t get the five seconds of digital silence that open ECM releases. Curtis’s playing is spiky, jumping suddenly from the alto’s midrange to its upper register, pausing between phrases, and letting some notes dissolve into hiss and crackle. Eventually he speeds up, moving into a sort of Balkan bebop territory as the rhythm team gets a little more intense, without ever going over the top. Honestly, it reminds me a little of John Zorn’s Masada quartet, minus the trumpet. (Note: pianist Orrin Evans contributes piano to four tracks in this album’s second half.) (From No One Is Any One, out 10/29 via Sunnyside.)

05

Artifacts - "Pleasure Palace"

Artifacts are an all-star project featuring flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed, three of the most important members of the AACM after the generation that founded the organization. They first came together in 2015 for a self-titled album on 482 Records that featured their versions of pieces by their forebears: They recorded compositions by Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Amina Claudine Myers, Steve McCall, Fred Anderson, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Edward Wilkerson. This follow-up is almost exactly the opposite of that. Instead of focusing on others’ music, they have laid down seven of their own compositions, in the process establishing their own collective voice, while still maintaining a link to the past by interpreting one piece each by Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams. The album kicks off with “Pleasure Palace,” a Reed composition built around a hard-driving beat, percussive bass-like playing from Reid, and fierce flute from Mitchell. It’s easy to forget how forceful an instrument the flute can be, until you hear her play it. (From …And Then There’s This, out 10/29 via Astral Spirits.)

04

Johnathan Blake - "Shakin' The Biscuits"

Drummer Johnathan Blake has just signed with Blue Note after releasing albums on Sunnyside, Criss Cross, and independently; his debut features a new band called Pentad, featuring alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, keyboardist David Virelles, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and bassist Dezron Douglas. “Shakin’ The Biscuits” starts off abstract, with just alto and drums; then Virelles creeps in, followed by Douglas, like they’re late for the session. At the one-minute mark, Ross strikes the vibes for the first time, and everyone locks into a soul-jazz melody that could have been on a Blue Note album from the mid ’60s. Wilkins is a smart, somewhat intellectual player a lot of the time, but here he’s letting his inner Lou Donaldson out, and it’s marvelous to hear. Virelles has an array of keyboards at his disposal and leaps back and forth from electric piano to squiggly synths to a powerful acoustic piano, as Blake and Ross chop the rhythm up into chunks that they scatter around like glitter. And every time the band brings the hook back in, you’re guaranteed to find yourself nodding your head. (From Homeward Bound, out 10/29 via Blue Note.)

03

The Cookers - "The Mystery Of Monifa Brown"

The Cookers are one of my favorite groups, period. Formed by trumpeter David Weiss, the lineup includes trumpeter Eddie Henderson, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, tenor saxophonist Billy Harper, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart. All these men came up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, playing serious, high-level hard bop (and occasionally dipping into fusion and other sounds; Henderson released a string of excellent jazz-funk albums in the mid ’70s, and both he and Hart were members of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band). Cookers albums tend to feature a mix of new tunes and reworkings of pieces from these guys’ back catalogs. “The Mystery Of Monifa Brown,” which opens this, the group’s sixth album, is a new one, a dedication to a beloved DJ from New Jersey radio station WBGO. The great thing about having four horns is, you can set up some really lush and beautiful melodies and explore complex counterpoint and harmony, and these guys do all of that as the rhythm section surges and crashes behind them. (From Look Out!, out now via Gearbox.)

02

Whit Dickey/William Parker/Matthew Shipp - "Whirling In The Void"

The trio of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Whit Dickey were hugely important to me and many others in the mid ’90s. They first recorded together on Shipp’s 1990 studio album Points, a quartet album also featuring alto saxophonist Rob Brown. But they really came together as a trio on 1992’s Circular Temple, which became one of the signal documents of the free jazz revival when it was reissued two years later by Infinite Zero, the short-lived label run by Henry Rollins and Rick Rubin. In 1993, Shipp, Parker and Dickey also recorded a live album, Prism, composed of two nearly half-hour pieces. That was released in 1996, and was the first thing I heard from him. They were also, of course, the engine room of the David S. Ware Quartet on the albums Third Ear Recitation, Oblations And Blessings, Cryptology, Earthquation, and Dao. This is their first studio encounter as a trio since 1992, though. (Self-promotional aside: my label Burning Ambulance Music has just released a Shipp/Dickey duo CD, Reels.) This album is made up of six freely improvised pieces, which makes it obvious how deep their musical connections run even after so long apart. “Whirling In The Void” lives up to its title as Dickey’s extremely free drumming and Parker’s thick, emphatic bass allow Shipp to take off in the circular musical patterns, with the occasional ornate flourish, that are his musical signature. (From Village Mothership, out now via Tao Forms.)

01

James Brandon Lewis Quartet - "Resonance"

Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is undeniably one of the most important players of his generation. Deeply thoughtful and musically omnivorous, his catalog spans spiritual free jazz, collaborations with poets, jazz-funk tributes to early ’90s conscious hip-hop, a long-running jazz-punk trio that sometimes expands to a quartet or even a quintet, and this group, which might be his most traditionally minded ensemble. The James Brandon Lewis Quartet includes pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Brad Jones, and drummer Chad Taylor (with whom Lewis has also recorded two duo albums). This is their second album, recorded in May of this year in Switzerland. Like its predecessor Molecular — recorded in January 2020, just before the pandemic shut the world down — it’s a meditative, almost John Coltrane-ish suite of compositions written using a system of his own design that he calls Molecular Systematic Music. In a series of articles, he explains that this system is “a twofold approach to music, braiding together the fundamentals of music theory with the ideas of molecular biology.” Ultimately, he seems to be arguing that, in order to become a fully realized composer and musician, it’s necessary to understand one’s own “musical DNA” — what you’ve heard and experienced that has shaped your sonic preferences and predilections. Not just what sounds good to you, but what you tend to play when you’re “just playing.” If, as an improviser, you tend to return to certain types of phrases over and over, why is that? (To hear a great example of this, check out the work of the late Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, whose entire discography could seem to be fragments of one extended solo.) To my ear, Lewis is a kind of riff-based saxophonist, steeped in old-school blues and R&B values but also capable of extended exploration based on sound alone. It’s that balance — shooting for the sky, but always keeping at least one foot on the ground — that gives his music such a fascinating tension. “Resonance,” the first track from this new album, begins with a soft but anchored trio motif, and when Lewis enters, he seems to amble in from the side, playing a romantic melody almost to himself. After 90 seconds or so, the music shifts gears, speeding up slightly and gaining intensity, but Jones and Taylor keep everything rolling steadily forward, allowing Lewis to head into an almost David Murray-esque solo, like a kite tied to a tank. (From Code Of Being, out now via Intakt.)

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