Taking Coltrane’s Music and Making It Their Own

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

by Nate Chinen
Source: New York Times

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  1. Chinen’s last paragraph is meant, I guess, to emphasize Walter’s and Ali’s playing during “Africa” as being more consistent with expressing Coltrane’s actual sound in playing rather than the JLCO’s interpretation of Coltrane. A more literal rendition of Coltrane by the final song, “Africa.” And, yes, I can see his point. Walter was “way out there” straining and struggling on his sax; his battle to “tame” his instrument laid bare before the audience. Walter is a worthy soldier on his horn and succeeded in reconciling in sound the depths of his personal struggle to know his instrument. It was intense playing and Ali was right along with him. I love Ali’s playing and hope to be around to see him evolve.

    Erica sat in for Ted all week and so was also recorded live for Saturday night’s concert.

    If I can attend the talk with Porter on Wednesday, 9/20, I will surely ask him the question you posed glo. Will have to get a feeling for him to get a sense of whether or not he’d be open to such pestering. I hope he is. Our best educators are those who engage learners, actively not just through their published works.

    I’ll also be attending the Hot Fives concert on 9/28 and will surely post some thoughts.


    Jurzy Girl on Sep 17th, 2006 at 10:19am

  2. As always Jurzy, your firsthand account indulges those who are unable to attend these shows. Who played in place of Ted Nash? How close were the orchestral arrangements to Coltrane’s original material? As a former flutist (who once played Coltrane’s “Naima” as part of a solo competition)I was pleased to read one was included. I’ve only read of Erica vonKleist and visited her website. I too would like to hear her work. Thanks for sharing Jurzy and looking forward to discussing Lewis Porter.

    Sonalii on Sep 16th, 2006 at 6:04pm

  3. Thanks Jurzy! We couldn’t make it this time, but it sounds like the jazz orchestra played a variety of Coltrane’s music using imaginative, modern instrumentations and in keeping with the composer’s intent.

    Couldn’t comprehend the last paragraph of NYT review, which left a Big Question Mark…

    Could you ask Porter how many years he researched our book and if he’s made any new discoveries fo add to it? Best, Glo.

    gloria on Sep 16th, 2006 at 1:54pm

  4. Chinen’s is definitely a fair assessment of the Coltrane concert. I was thrilled to see/hear Erica VonKleist but sorry Ted Nash was not present. Erica played more than choruses; she played an extended solo (cannot recall the song…senior moment) that was energetic and spirited though not emotionally wrenching nor an example of virtuosity. I enjoyed her and hope to hear her more.

    The bass clarinets, featured on “Naima” arranged by Victor Goines, were a novel feature on stage. These are such curious instruments and their sound is attention grabbing, so deeply mellow and haunting; perfect for enhancing the mood of this song whose title means “sleep” in Arabic. “Harmonique”, also arranged by Goines, was a sonically complex with its multi-note approach to rendering sound on sax. I enjoyed hearing the differences in notational expression. I don’t know how to express this clearly, the sax players played what sounded like a few notes at once on one horn in harmony on an individual sax. Yes, Coltrane is amazing.

    Sherman Irby’s featured solo was brilliant and moving. Walter Blanding is always a joy to hear. Frederique once described his sound as “velvety” and indeed, it is. Joe Temperly was outstanding.

    The concert hall was packed, I believe all the shows were sold out. I am well pleased. Lewis Porter will be discussing Coltrane at an Educational Talk at Jazz. I will try to attend as I like his writing style and his Coltrane book is our next reading thrill.


    Jurzy Girl on Sep 16th, 2006 at 9:55am