by Phil Freeman, Burning Ambulance
Saxophonist Dave Liebman might be best known for his tenure with Miles Davis, which lasted from 1972 to 1974. He first played on Davis’s alienating, futuristic On the Corner; his is the first solo on the album, and he played it without headphones, totally unaware of what the rest of the ensemble was doing behind him. (He once told me there were so many keyboardists clacking away behind him, it sounded like he was in a room full of typists.) He’s worked continuously since the 1970s, recording dozens of albums.
Joe Lovano also has an extremely deep discography; he’s made close to two dozen albums for Blue Note alone since signing with them in 1990. In the late 1990s, he, Liebman, and Michael Brecker formed the group Saxophone Summit, which made its first album in 2004, backed by pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart. One of the pieces they recorded was a version of John Coltrane‘s “India.” When Brecker died in 2007, Ravi Coltrane took his place, and on the group’s second album, Seraphic Light, they recorded three of his father’s later compositions, “Cosmos,” “Seraphic Light,” and “Expression.”
In summer 2007, Liebman, Lovano, Markowitz, and Hart, joined by Ron McClure—who had previously succeeded McBee in Charles Lloyd‘s 1960s quartet—on bass, recorded a BBC radio session for the show Jazz on 3 in tribute to Coltrane, marking the 40th anniversary of his passing (he died in July 1967). That session has now been released on CD by the Resonance label, as Compassion: The Music of John Coltrane. (Get it from Amazon.)
The album’s six tracks offer a concise summary of Coltrane’s artistic journey, while avoiding obvious picks. It begins with “Locomotion,” from 1957’s Blue Train. Next, “Central Park West,” from Coltrane’s Sound (recorded in 1960, released in 1964), is combined with “Dear Lord,” from 1965’s Transition. The third piece performed is “Olé,” from the 1961 album of the same name. That’s followed by “Reverend King,” from 1968’s posthumous Cosmic Music; “Equinox,” also from Coltrane’s Sound; and “Compassion,” the concluding segment of 1966’s Meditations.
“Locomotion” is a fast, rocking blues, delivered in a hard-charging manner that could just as easily be paying tribute to the Johnny Griffin/Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis Quintet. The slow, meditative melody of “Central Park West” flows seamlessly into the emotional, but somewhat free ballad form of “Dear Lord,” on which Markowitz’s piano takes a dominant role, shimmering in a manner unsurprisingly indebted to McCoy Tyner. The original version of “Olé” was a modal vamp that took up an entire album side; here, it begins with Liebman and Lovano, on flutes, whistling past each other like jungle birds as Markowitz strums the piano’s strings like a harp. It takes nearly 90 seconds for McClure and Hart to jump in and begin the churning groove that’s maintained for the rest of the piece’s 8:47 running time.
The final track, “Compassion,” is the most explosive and ambitious, and the longest, running a daunting 17:28. Hart kicks it off with a tension-building drum solo before the saxophonists enter. Meditations was the last Coltrane album to feature Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums, and the first to feature Pharoah Sanders as second saxophonist. Liebman and Lovano solo separately, but also embark on fierce unison lines (calling them “melodies” would be a stretch; their horns warp conventional harmony the way Sonic Youth‘s detuned guitars used to) and duo interplay, blowing past each other in flurries of notes. It’s the perfect sendoff, ending the performance as close as possible to the this-universe-cannot-contain-my-music eruptions Coltrane himself was engaged in during the last three years of his life.
Tribute albums usually suck. And I’ve never had much interest in exploring Liebman’s or Lovano’s vast discographies. But this record somehow overcomes all of that; it’s vibrantly alive, and well worth hearing whether you’re a fan of the players, or of Coltrane, or just want to hear some great tunes (and some fascinating ideas) explored with palpable love and passion.