Taking Coltrane’s Music and Making It Their Own

Posted on September 16th, 2006 in Review | Tags: jazz at lincoln center, jazz at lincoln center orchestra, john coltrane, new york times

Jazz at Lincoln Center began its new season on Thursday with the first of three nights devoted to the music of John Coltrane. The occasion doubled as an early celebration of what would have been Coltrane’s 80th birthday (Sept. 23) — cake was served during intermission — and an opening salvo for the organization’s third year of programming in Frederick P. Rose Hall at Columbus Circle. It was a success on both counts.

Wynton Marsalis played host, and horn, in “Coltrane,” a concert at the Rose Theater featuring his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. (“Coltrane and Hartman,” with the saxophonist Todd Williams and the singer Kevin Mahogany, was scheduled for last night and tonight in the Allen Room.) The program featured a dozen of Coltrane’s compositions, mostly in arrangements for the full orchestra.

Some were conventional enlargements: essentially vehicles for improvisation. The saxophone interludes and brass accents on “Giant Steps,” for instance, were less interesting than the brisk solo fashioned by its arranger, Mr. Marsalis. “Big Nick,” in a big-band chart by Richard DeRosa, mainly served as a bluesy showcase for the saxophonist Sherman Irby. “Like Sonny,” as arranged by Vincent Gardner, was a screeching thrill ride; still, its most memorable feature was a passage featuring some excellent choruses by Erica vonKleist on flute.

The promise of an orchestral interrogation of Coltrane’s themes was fulfilled in several other arrangements, which took liberties with dynamics and timbre. The melody of “Naima,” in an arrangement by Victor Goines, was harmonized for five bass clarinets; the bridge fell to a single muted trombone. Ted Nash imbued “Grand Central” with some intricate cross-voicings, while his arrangement of “My Favorite Things,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein bonbon that Coltrane turned epic, assigned the melody in unison to five soprano saxophones.

Mr. Marsalis’s version of “Alabama” was another highlight, both gorgeous and unsettling. The baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley played its haunting line with quiet intensity over an eerie trill of brass and reeds. Mr. Marsalis prefaced the piece with some background: it was Coltrane’s response to the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham that killed four girls. So the weight of the piece was lost on no one.

Two things were missing from the concert. One was any reference to Coltrane’s squalling late period, which Jazz at Lincoln Center will acknowledge on Wednesday with a discussion called “Did Coltrane Lose His Way?” (The panelists, including Coltrane’s drummer from those years, Rashied Ali, seem predisposed to dismiss that question.)

More conspicuously absent was the immersive thrust of Coltrane’s rhythm section, which could make a vamp feel like a voyage. The pianist Dan Nimmer sounded unconvinced about the hammering modal style of McCoy Tyner, his counterpart in the Coltrane quartet. Dennis Irwin, a veteran bassist, and Ali Jackson, the orchestra’s drummer, threw themselves into the music, but they had few opportunities to lift it off the ground.

One came in the concert’s final moments, during a solo on “Africa” that had Walter Blanding straining and surging on tenor saxophone, while Mr. Jackson thrashed powerfully beneath him. It was the only moment in the evening that summoned the sound of Coltrane more than the idea. But that’s partly why the concert worked so well: it played to the orchestra’s strengths, and bypassed mimicry to signal a deeper respect.

The Coltrane Festival repeats tonight at Frederick P. Rose Hall,60th Street and Broadway; (212) 721-6500 orjalc.org.

by Nate Chinen
Source: New York Times