I do not believe anyone would argue the importance of John Coltrane (1926-1967) on 20th Century Black American Music (and beyond). His tenor saxophone playing, built off the advancements of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, and others, created sounds that still ripple through music. And his soprano work laid the path for people such as Wayne Shorter and Dave Liebman. His quartet music, especially the group with McCoy Tyner, Paul Chambers or Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones remains a touchstone for artists such as Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano. Coltrane’s long-form compositions as well as his lengthy performances set the table for experimentalists in the AACM and in Europe. His embrace of spirituality opened doors for artists such as Pharaoh Sanders, Franklin Kirmeyer, Marion Brown, and Archie Shepp not to forget what his widow Alice Coltrane created in the 1970s and 80s.
As this article is about to post, we are four weeks away from the 50th anniversary of his passing (from liver disease). To honor his life and legacy, Resonance Records is releasing “Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane“, a recording from the 40th Anniversary show that BBC3 commissioned from Dave Liebman in 2007. The producer, Robert Abel, asked the saxophonist if he could assemble the Saxophone Summit, a sextet that had been in existence (and still is) for the gig but several key members were not available including Ravi Coltrane, the Coltranes son. The quintet Liebman (tenor/soprano saxophone, wooden recorder, C flute) did assemble included Joe Lovano (tenor sax, aulochrome – a double soprano saxophone – alto clarinet, Scottish flute) plus the splendid rhythm section of Phil Markowitz (piano), Ron McClure (bass) and Billy Hart (drums).
The two saxophonists chose material from the last decade of John Coltrane’s life. Opening with the hard-driving “Locomotion” (from the 1957 Blue Note recording “Blue Train“, the band locks in and the music soars. All the soloists shine, thanks to their dedication to the project as well as the locomotive rhythm section. The one medley on the program, “Central Park West/Dear Lord“, is a feature for the saxophonists. The first tune features Lovano dancing through his solo. A quick shift moves into a sparkling piano introduction leading into Liebman’s expressive soprano sax in the spotlight. Neither saxophonist imitates the “Coltrane sound” which helps both pieces shine.
There’s a splash of humor in the use of recorded and Scottish flute to introduce the delectable “Olé” but, when the rhythm section kicks in, the tenor (Lovano) and soprano (Liebman) lead the way. The piano solo is a delight, goosed forward by Hart’s explosive drumming. Then the saxophonists have their say leading to Liebman’s powerful soprano adventure. Also pay attention to McClure who is a strong “foundational” player.
Every song on the album stands out. From the heartfelt ballad “Dr. King” (clarinet and flute in the lead) to the expressive blues of “Equinox” (tenor/soprano) to the lengthy (17:27) “Compassion” (originally released in 1965 on “Meditations“). A long poly-rhythmical drum solo serves as an introduction for that final track then the two tenors state the theme and the music takes off. Lovano breaks out the aulochrome and creates quite a solo, switching in-and-out of the double reed sound nt unlike many of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s multi-reed adventures. The piano solo starts at a high level and keeps rising. A rapid-fire interaction with Liebman, now on soprano and Lovano on tenor, takes the piece to its conclusion.
“Compassion” is a wonderful tribute as well as a reminder of the vivid trails that John Coltrane blazed during his short but often amazing tenure in our world. This quintet, co-led by Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, never settles for merely replaying the past but illustrates how the music has grown in time and was doing what jazz does best – moving forward on the strength on its innovators.