Will Layman, Pop Matters

2017 marks a half-century since we lost the brilliant musician John Coltrane. And while the notion of another Coltrane tribute recording strikes me as excess, the truth is that there will—and should—be Coltrane tributes forever. His legacy was a big (and can withstand as many reinterpretations) as any in American music. But more importantly, Compassion: The Music of John Coltranefeatures two of brilliant—and different—saxophonists whose knowledge of Trane is superb: Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano. Supported by a sharp rhythm section.

And finally, this is one of the most thoughtful and interesting Trane look-backs in a long time because it covers seven less-heard tunes that span Coltrane’s whole career. No “Giant Steps” or “Impressions” or “A Love Supreme”. This one opens your ears. This one is as new as a retrospective session gets.

The recording date, from 2007 (the 40th anniversary of Coltrane’s passing), was organized by the BBC for its Jazz on 3 radio show. The intent was to get the group Saxophone Summit, first organized by Liebman in 1998. Originally featuring a front line of Liebman, Lovano, and Michael Brecker, the group came to include Coltrane’s son Ravi Coltrane as well as a versatile rhythm section: pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart on drums. With Ravi and McBee unavailable, Ron McClure filled in on bass, and the date was set.

Lovano and Liebman, face to face, work just fine. Whether you are a jazz aficionado or novice, the contrast between these two different voices is plain and pleasurable. There is something magical in hearing such distinct tones and attacks. The opening track is “Locomotion” from Coltrane’s celebrated Blue Note album, Blue Trane, a cooking blues with a bridge that finds both horn players on tenor. From the start, you can hear Liebman, with his bright and muscular approach, demanding that the band follow along. Lovano solos second with his more quizzical attack and the slightly gauzy tone. Lovano takes the band down into a quieter place, gets a little weirder lodging a serious of musical questions, then hands the keys to Markowitz.

The Liebman/Lovano contrast is also pleasingly presented in a ballad medley combining “Central Park West” and “Dear Lord”. Lovano mans the former tune in a stroll that features his flow, from languid to quick and cat-like. Lovano is a tenor player whose roots seem particularly un-Coltrane-ian for the most part—he rarely plays a shimmering “sheet of sound” or engages in a modal rave-up. In fact, it is his “more Rollins than Trane” quality that makes this ballad work so well. We hear him phrase every lick and idea with a Sonny Rollins-esque sense of motivic development, yet we are reminded of Coltrane still. Markowitz connects the two ballads, and Liebman’s soprano saxophone is tender and perfectly in tune for “Dear Lord”. His care in playing the melody involves restraint and moderation, but then as he colors his playing with subtle tonal change. We feel it that much more. He and Markowitz radiate together throughout.

The pianist is the least well-known member of the quintet, perhaps. His role, however, is critical. The range of music covered here was made, historically, with different three pianists who articulated in different styles, and Markowitz has to be adaptable and wise. His approach on “Locomotion” is very different than how he attacks “Compassion”, a part of Coltrane’s “Meditations Suite” from the year before he died. Markowitz, along with his better-known mates in the rhythm section, rolls across styles like all-terrain musicians.

The most intriguing piece on Compassion is “Revered King”, a tune released after Coltrane’s death on Cosmic Music, credited to John and Alice Coltrane. Liebman plays flute and Lovano plays alto clarinet, and they harmonize in pastel tones as Billy Hart works majestically across his toms and shimmers in the upper range with Markowitz’s right hand. The melodic line is long but exceptionally diatonic, which gives the performance a meditative quality. The piano wanders harmonically “out” as the two horns perform a gracious collective solo. Sonically, this is reminiscent of the more pastoral tracks on Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds from the 1970s. And it is masterful.

Wooden recorder and flute come out on the introduction to “Ole”, Coltrane’s Iberian vehicle. Modern jazz fans will note that the melody and harmonic motion here (expressed on tenor and soprano) was an inspiration for Chick Corea’s “Spain”. Again, Lovano and Liebman are often most effective when they play loosely together, rubbing against each other with those varying tones. Liebman’s soprano solo is the highlight, as he dirties up his tone and rips through a series of adventurous harmonic variations. “Equinox” also uses the soprano/tenor combination and is the funkiest thing here.

The set closer is the long title track, beginning with a four-minute drum feature for Billy Hart. This is the most ecstatic of the tracks, and the two horn players move like shadows of each other just this once, slightly out of phase as they play the theme. Liebman solos first on tenor, channeling Trane more directly this time, and then Lovano breaks out his strange aulochrome, a double-sided horn that allows him to play two lines at once in an eerie manner that creates slight dissonances (a quarter-tone or less out of tune?) and odd harmonies. For me, this is the coolest playing I’ve ever heard Lovano play on the instrument. After a strong piano solo, the horn players switch back to their soprano/tenor pairing and work across the material again, this time in greater conversation with each other and Markowitz.

The only disappointment, I would say, is that they feel compelled to return to the theme of “Compassion” in a “traditional” style. Maybe I’ve been listening to so much New Jazz that this kind of head-solos-head form seems unnecessary. No doubt Trane came home to the theme, but in the new century—with the freedom that these two masters bring to what is clearly much more than a re-creation—I’d have been just as happy had they taken more liberties. That is, after all, part of what Coltrane’s music seemed to be teaching.

That quibble put aside, Compassion is the best John Coltrane tribute of the last ten or twenty years. Time to go back to the original—and to keep listening to Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano too.

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