Robbie Gerson, Audiophile Audition

There are many reasons for the enduring influences of John Coltrane. His short career (mostly 1955-1967) included being part of the first Miles Davis Quintet. His stint as a sideman was brief, mostly with Davis, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. But as a band leader Trane soared with highly elaborate compositions and a unique tenor saxophone style. His early training on alto and clarinet made Coltrane comfortable with upper register tenor play, unlike his contemporaries. He also popularized the utilization of soprano sax. Exemplary recordings for Blue Note (Blue Trane), Prestige (Coltrane), Atlantic (Giant StepsMy Favorite Things) and Impulse (Live At The Village Vanguard, A Love Supreme) rewrote the annals of jazz history. Coltrane’s penchant for exotic composition and playing led him on a quest that started in bebop and hard bop, then made a wildly creative turn to modal, free form and avant-garde, exploring global musical context and eventually spirituality.

In 2007, BBC Jazz on 3 commissioned a tribute to John Coltrane with venerable saxophonists Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano. Honoring the 40th anniversary of Trane’s passing, Liebman and Lovano rounded out their stellar quintet with Phil Markowitz (piano), Ron McClure (double bass) and Billy Hart (drums). Ten years later, Resonance Records has released this album, and and it is reason for jazz fans to rejoice. The opening track, “Locomotion” (from Blue Trane) is nothing short of fierce bop swing. Liebman and Lovano  start in unison, then alternate solos, prodding each other to instrumental heights. Markowitz takes his turn at 3:40 with percolating notation and well-placed chords. It is interesting to note that the players didn’t take on the most recognizable Coltrane standards, but chose songs that reflect the compositional intricacy. The style juxtaposition of the two reed men pervades the “Central Park West/Dear Lord” ballad medley. Lovano is soulfully fluid on tenor throughout “Central Park West” (from 1964 Coltrane’s Sound). Rather than imitate Trane’s ballad aesthetics, Lovano glides through the number with some vibrato and subtle phrasing. Liebman (with graceful shading from Markowitz) offers a glowing soprano sax on “Dear Lord” (Transition 1965). Two outstanding interpretations, nuanced and melodic.

Showing off instrumental versatility, “Ole” (Ole Coltrane 1961) is intriguing. The opening is a combination of wooden recorder and flute. The Spanish-tinged themes are explored with a tandem of tenor (Lovano) and soprano (Liebman) in solos and counterpoint. Markowitz joins in with a punctuated, expressive solo. McClure finishes the jam with a concise riff. A “posthumous” selection, “Reverend King” ( Cosmic Music 1968) is also unexpected. Here Liebman and Lovano embrace the deliberate melody in unison on flute and alto clarinet respectively. Then some improvisational and harmonic runs highlight this contemplative piece. “Equinox” (Coltrane’s Sound 1964) reverts to the vamp-driven bluesy edginess of Sixties jazz. Liebman is up first on dynamic soprano and is followed by Markowitz. Then Lovano contributes a muscular tenor solo. The quintet open and close in cohesive bliss. The finale “Compassion”, (Meditation) is an extended (17:27) boundary-stretching free-form jam that gets underway with an elaborate four-minute Hart drum solo. There is nothing predictable about this cut.

Liebman and Lovano have captured the diverse musicality and artistry of Coltrane with daring instrumental prowess and artistic vision. It’s been half a century since the death of the saxophone icon. His legacy will be eternal!

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