EST – Three Falling Three

EST

Just months before Esbjörn Svensson died aged just 44 in 2008, EST – the groundbreaking and hugely influential piano trio that Svensson formed with Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström – recorded a great deal of material in a Sydney studio. Speaking to Stuart Nicholson, Berglund and Öström relive the course of that momentous marathon recording session that yielded some truly remarkable music, included on their stunning album, 301

Jazz albums like EST’s 301 don’t come around every day. Or every month, or even every year. In fact, rather like the Beast of Bodmin Moor, ocelots or the Abominable Snowman, albums as gob-smackingly good as this are a decided rarity. Suddenly, out of the blue (and appropriately the album cover art is strikingly blue), comes this session by pianist Esbjörn Svensson, bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström from January 2007. Recorded in Sydney’s Studio 301 in their down-time during a tour of Australia, they amassed a total of nine hours of material, some of which was previously released as the album Leucocyte in 2008. Yet 301 sounds as if it was recorded on a different planet in a different universe – it roars where Leucocyte simmers, it powers where Leucocyte is polite and it packs a powerful emotional punch where Leucocyte gives you a peck on the cheek.

Since Esbjörn Svensson’s tragic death in June 2008, the tapes of these sessions had been in storage, the thought of revisiting the material too painful. The idea had been to release a double CD, or two consecutive albums, from their marathon Australian date, but Svensson’s untimely passing put an end to these plans and in the event, only Leucocyte was released. It was not until the summer of 2011 that Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström felt able to revisit the material, and they were delighted at what they discovered. “It had been sitting there all that time,” says Öström. “Esbjorn did most of the editing on Leucocyte, so where we listened to all that material before, I was not that careful, maybe. So when we came to listen to it again I was really surprised that it was on such a level. It sounded so fresh, so I was really happy about it, that we had some good quality material for release.” Berglund agrees, adding, “We were supposed to have released a double CD, but in the end we released a single but although we knew we had some more material I was surprised that there was so much that I really liked.”

Together with EST’s former sound engineer Åke Linton, who sat behind the mixing desk at over 500 EST concerts, they edited down some of the very best material for release. The idea behind the sessions was to go into the recording studio without any preparation and just play. “The idea was something like we tried in 2000, or 2002,” recalls Öström. “Just go in the studio and kind of redeem ourselves! Get whatever we had of ourselves out of our system and on to tape, like a catharsis thing. We just play for fun and see what comes out. With this recording we wanted to test the energy level we had during a tour, and also try and test the improvised parts that had grown bigger and bigger through the years we played live, and put that on tape. We had in mind maybe making a record, of course we didn’t know how it would turn out, but that was the thinking behind it. The approach was that we set up the gear, get a good sound – a good balance – and then push the ‘record’ button. It was all from scratch, we didn’t have any pre-planning, pre-thinking; one of us started and the other two followed and we went from there. Totally free, actually. We’d play one hour, one hour and a half, have a break – we just went for it!”

ESTOn tracks such as ‘Three Falling Free Part II’, ‘Inner City, Inner Lights’ and ‘The Childhood Dream’ you realise what an extraordinary pianist Esbjörn Svensson was. Not only in terms of his emotional range, but also that fact that in live performance and on record, he kept his extraordinary virtuoso technique under wraps. However, here we get a glimpse of Esbjörn unbridled. It brought to mind an EST recording session at the Atlantis recording studio in Stockholm I attended. Arriving early, Svensson was already at the piano warming up before the rest of the band arrived. His back was to the control room, facing Berglund’s bass, on its side on the studio floor, and Öström’s drum kit. He had no idea anyone else was in the studio other than recording engineer Janne Hansson, who was attending to the sound level while sipping a cup of strong, early morning black coffee. Svensson, midway through a Chopin étude, followed it with impeccably played sections from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto in C, his touch, technique and attention to dynamics of a concert pianist’s standard, and then he abruptly segued into a high tempo 12-bar blues that went on and on, never repeating himself, building and building to a wonderful, block chorded climax. Hansson, who had recorded several Abba hits in these very studios, looked across and smiled the smile of someone who had seen it all, but had witnessed something special. Svensson was stunning. Relaxing after the session in a sushi bar, I asked him why he never allowed this virtuosity to show through on either records or in live performance. “Because it’s not me,” he said simply.

When I related this story to Dan Berglund and Magnus Öström, Berglund was first to respond: “He never was really interested in showing-off in records or in concerts,” he said. “That was not his way – we were interested in making good music together. I think when I listen to very good musicians you can feel if they can play very, very fast but they don’t. That’s even more interesting.”

 

"We were safe in that room and he went for it without any worries, he felt free"

 

However, both agree that the circumstances of the recording session, where the doors were closed and where any of them were free to take their playing in any direction they wanted had contributed to Svensson revealing a little of the inner-man that had remained under wraps to the public at large. “It could be it was the moment for trying out stuff, feeling free, in a way no-one listens,” reflects Öström. “You don’t have to have any borders in any sense, if he wanted to play more difficult stuff he felt safe, so to speak. No-one but us listening. We were safe in that room and he went for it without any worries, he felt free in his mind to do what he wanted and try what he wanted, he felt free, extraordinarily free and more confident, maybe, I don’t know, we never discussed it. I don’t know where it should have gone had he lived, I don’t know. It might be that he felt that this is working because he was always playing and always practising all the time and his level was moving ahead all the time, he was moving forward all the time, so maybe this was a new step to integrate it into his playing and integrate it into himself as well. Bring out the classical side more – I don’t know, I am just speculating.”

Certainly great art can be achieved by knowing how to limit yourself, and in jazz there is no better exemplar of the less-is-more ethic than Miles Davis, a player who once could have been mistaken for Dizzy Gillespie (check out his playing with the Metronome All Stars from January 3, 1949 on ‘Overtime’), yet chose to limit himself to the notes that really mattered. Equally Svensson, reflecting in part the influence of the great Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, chose to pare his playing down to the very essence of melody, rather than flaunt his remarkable technique. Of course, there are moments when we have glimpses of his technique, but always in service of the song, not himself, and never to the extent that is captured on 301.

The less-is-more analogy (and nobody is suggesting Esbjörn Svensson was another Miles Davis, only to suggest one of many precedents in jazz that include, among others Count Basie and Lester Young) is not the only one that might be made. From 1969 until Davis’ furlough from the music business in 1975, his albums were constructed largely through spontaneous, free flowing jams that were edited after the event by Teo Macero to produce some classic recordings, not least In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Certainly EST were not thinking of Miles Davis when they went into Studio 301 in January 2007, but the modus operandi was coiincidentally similar, even though their aims were quite different (again, this is not to suggest Esbjörn was another Miles, but rather to highlight the circumstances of the album’s creation does have several precedents, from Davis to free jazz and many points in-between).

What is interesting, and perhaps the least commented aspect of the album 301 is the use of electronics, which is far greater than anything EST had done live or on record. Here, EST’s sound engineer Åke Linton participated in the creative process. During the recording he contributed to the music by running effects, overlaying distortions and add-ins live through the desk during the recording process onto tape. It’s a procedure that cannot be reversed in the re-mixing process. His electronic prestidigitation was in addition to that of Svensson’s electronics (who at one point also uses a transistor radio for effects) and the electronic sounds generated by the laptops of Magnus Öström and Dan Berglund.

“We wanted to experiment in the studio and we had the chance to do it,” says Berglund. “We did electronic improvisation on stage – between songs, and at the beginning and at the end of songs – so now we had a chance to really try that out, expand on that a little, and I think sometimes we were recording one song an hour, I like this approach – acoustic and electronics. Would it have meant we would have done more and more? – I don’t know really.” And in his role as drummer and arch percussionist within the EST ensemble, Magnus Öström was perhaps the main instigator of electronics in live performance, often colouring ensembles and interludes behind Svensson and Berglund. “When I think about myself as a drummer, I’m not really a ‘drummer, drummer’,” he says.

“I like sounds and different colours and that’s how I also approach electronics, it’s more like a new colour – it could be a new cymbal, a new drum sound – whatever, but sometimes it happens to be electronics and that’s how I approach it. I wanted to integrate it into the acoustic sound, then it hopefully becomes organic with ordinary drum sounds, that for me is very important, that it is not seen as ‘now it’s acoustic’ and ‘now it’s electronics’ and you go back and forth, but like it’s more new colours and some just happen to be electronics.”

Listening to 301, an inevitable question arises. Is there any more material suitable for release by EST in the vaults and if so, can fans look forward to further albums like this? Dan Berglund pauses, and says: “I think if we go through the material and we think there is more, then maybe, but for the moment that’s enough. Of course it would have to be very good quality to release it, if there was anything not that good we would not release it.” Magnus Öström nods in agreement.

EST

So if there are no plans for any more releases for the moment, are there plans for the bassist and drummer to collaborate in the future? Here, Öström replies, “At the moment, we have said this before, for a while we need to find our own path with our own projects. You never know, we did this celebration for Esbjorn together at a festival in Germany last summer, we played with Pat Metheny and other guys and it was really fun, so you never know what in the future might happen. Of course, it is easy to pick things up when we get together, but first we’ll have to find the right environment and find something that we really think it is worth it and that will be hard to do.” Berglund nods, adding: “I agree, for the moment I’m working with Tonbruket and Magnus is working with his band, I think we need to stand on our own for a while and then see if we really want to do something else together – but you never know.” So Dan and Magnus are not ruling anything out, but equally they are not ruling anything in. But you only have to hear the remarkable empathy they shared on 301, which by the nature of its spontaneous construction is perhaps more revealing of their sympathetic, spontaneous reaction to one another’s improvisational impulses than their playing within a preconceived original composition, to realise they have something special together. So would they rule out collaborating with another pianist? “I don’t know,” says Öström thoughtfully.

“It would be hard to think of doing that. As time goes by it may happen – you never know. For me, at the moment I am in a group with Lars Danielsson and Tigran, and we recorded an album out on ACT called Liberetto – of course it’s not a piano trio, it also has Arve Henriksen and John Parricelli – but I love the sound of the piano and I love the feeling, it might happen in the future. It will be something else, but I love the piano, the sound of the piano and love to play piano myself, so we’ll see. It’s not a closed door, but for the moment I am set up with Lars and I’m happy with that. We’ll see where it goes.” Berglund nods in agreement, adding: “I also think that would be hard, to start another trio. But as Magnus says, you never know. We’re doing this little thing with Jamie Cullum for his radio show, we’re going to play one or two songs together, but we have no plans to start a new EST!”

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Jazzwise. EST's 301 is also included in Jazzwise's Top 20 jazz albums of the last five years.

Photos: first image by Christian Coinbergh, second image byJoerg Grosse-Geldermann; third image by Tim Dickeson

Duke Ellington's finest year

Duke Ellington band

A year of creative peaks, a year to marvel at. For Duke Ellington 1940 was a triumph against the odds, says Stuart Nicholson

The media love anniversaries. Whole programmes are devoted to anniversary events on radio and TV, the daily press and monthly magazines regularly come up with “anniversary issues” of this event or that – it seems we can’t get enough of them. From the Battle of Britain to national sporting triumphs – the football world cup is a perennial favourite – to the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, Princess Di and President Kennedy, and, in the jazz world, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, the list goes on and on. How strange then, that the jazz world has not seen fit to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Duke Ellington’s towering achievements from the year 1940, the year that saw the true flowering of his great genius.

That year, Ellington was in the recording studio 11 times, and the majority of material he committed to wax were some of the best performed, most adventurously crafted and emotionally serious work ever produced by a larger ensemble in jazz. Yet extraordinarily, he gave little intimation of what was about to come during the late-1930s. By 1939, with the Swing Era well under way, Ellington, who had been recording under his own name with his big band since 1926, was feeling the competition. The death of his mother in 1935 and his father two years later had sent him into a depression that saw his career slide into a holding pattern. Musical problems in his orchestra were beginning to mount – his two-bass configuration was rhythmically lumpy compared to, say, the svelte propulsion of the Count Basie orchestra; hit records had been few; his repertoire seemed dated and, from the public’s point of view, the band lacked a “hot” tenor man such as Count Basie’s Lester Young, Cab Calloway’s Chu Berry, Benny Goodman’s Vido Musso or Artie Shaw’s Georgie Auld.

Finally, at the end of 1939, Ellington reacted and put his personal problems behind him. His reception in Sweden (he would write ‘Serenade to Sweden’ in tribute) during a tour to Europe had lifted his spirits and would be responsible for a creative high that would propel him into the 1940s.

He broke ties with his management, the Mills Organisation, which had guided his career to date, left Columbia Records and signed to RCA Victor making three important additions to his personnel. Jimmy Blanton, one of the finest bassists in jazz, transformed the rhythm section, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster added solo excitement and a new tonal dimension to the sax section and composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn would challenge and inspire Ellington to greater triumphs.

 

“‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made”

 

The first intimation that Ellington and his orchestra were on the threshold of greatness came from their second session for RCA Victor in Chicago in March 1940. ‘Jack The Bear’ contains a rare moment of jazz history actually being made – Jimmy Blanton shattering the traditional concept of jazz bass playing with his virtuoso pizzicato technique. On it he shows how the bass could contribute exciting solo lines and interact with the ensemble without surrendering its basic timekeeping role. Then there was ‘Ko Ko’, which has been described as “one of the monumental events in jazz music”. It is an orchestral tour-de-force with the minimum of solo space (24 bars from ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton and 12 bars from Ellington) that succeeds as a piece of absolute or ‘pure’ music in that its minor 12-bar blues form (repeated seven times) has no obvious ‘melody’ in the conventional sense. Its tonal ambiguity and use of dissonance, particularly in the fourth chorus, instantly separates Ellington from the conventional dance bands of the period. Here is a glimpse of the future more profound, even, than Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko Ko’ from 26 November 1945 (not the same tune). Here Ellington looks both ways, to freedom (bi-tonality and his amazing piano splashes of colour that anticipate Cecil Taylor) and form.

Within a week, Ellington was back in the studios and two more classics resulted. ‘Conga Brava’ has an elusive 20-bar form and contains Ben Webster’s first major solo statement with the band, climaxed by a brilliant brass quintet at the end. This headlong tour through exotic rhythms was followed by ‘Concerto For Cootie’, which like so much of his work from this period showed Ellington’s complete mastery of the three-minute form allowed by the then industry norm of 10-inch shellac discs. In an analysis of this piece in 1954, André Hodeir, in Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, called this piece a work of genius.

But the simple fact is that Ellington did not just produce one work of “genius” during this period, indeed it would be most unusual if the same depth of intellect was incapable of sustaining such greatness if such a term is to meaningfully apply. While it is not possible to deal with every recording in this remarkable period, certain works do merit further attention, such as ‘Cotton Tail’, featuring Ben Webster, on Ellington’s brilliant arrangement built on the chords of George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’. The arrangement is full of deft Ellington touches, such as the trumpet doubling the sax lead at the end of the first chorus, the ingenious counterpoint between brass and saxophones and the stunning saxophone soil, reputedly the work of Webster himself. Note too, how piano and guitar drop out at points in Webster’s solo, anticipating the “tenor trio” of sax, bass and drums masterfully exploited by Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson in later years and today by Joshua Redman. Throughout 1940, Ellington was producing two, sometimes three genuine masterpieces every time he went into the studio such as ‘Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)’, ‘Portrait of Bert Williams’, ‘Blue Goose’ that borrowed the first eight bars of harmony from ‘Stardust’ and has Johnny Hodges’ last soprano sax solo, ‘In A Mellow Tone’ (a reworking of ‘Rose Room’), ‘Across the Track Blues’, the superb Blanton feature ‘Sepia Panorama’, ‘Rumpus In Richmond’ and of course ‘Harlem Air Shaft’, the latter an inspired piece of writing notable for creating a remarkable climax in a short space of time during the final chorus.

What is remarkable about these pieces is Ellington’s organisational methods within the popular song form. Often there are several themes in one piece, different rhythmic figures emerge and recede and surprisingly, in view of the limited time span available, transitional and developmental passages. Ultimately, however, it is the sound of Ellington’s Famous Orchestra that sets him apart in contemporary music, what Billy Strayhorn called ‘The Ellington Effect’ – the use of highly individual, sometimes idiosyncratic soloists in combination to create great richness of tonal colour that was both unique and distinctive. Ultimately, however, these recordings are neither landmarks of jazz improvisation or big band dance music popular at the time. The conventional categories of jazz or even classical music seem inappropriate to embrace these major works, which are among the finest bodies of music created in the 20th century. 

Recommended recording

Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra

The Duke at Fargo 1940

Storyville 103 8435 | ★★★★ Recommended

Wallace Jones (t), Ray Nance (t, vln), Rex Stewart (cnt), Lawrence Brown, Joe ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton (tb), Juan Tizol (v, tb), Otto Hardwick (as, cl), Johnny Hodges (as, sop, cl), Barney Bigard (clt, ts), Harry Carney (bs, clt), Duke Ellington (p), Fred Guy (g, whistle), Jimmy Blanton (b), Sonny Greer (d), Ivie Anderson and Herb Jeffries (v). Rec. 7 November 1940

Danish label Storyville last issued their double-CD of this legendary ‘live’ Ellington dance date in 2000, labelled reasonably enough as the ‘60th anniversary edition’. Now they’ve released it again, sub-titled this time as Special 60th Anniversary Edition. Prior to Storyville’s involvement an earlier edition appeared in 1990 on the US-based Vintage Jazz Classics label. I mention this because that version boasted a 19-page booklet essay by Ellington scholar Andrew Homzy, a superlative track-by-track evaluation of the music which is not replicated on the Storyville release or matched by the Jerry Valburn-William Strother-Jack Towers’ notes repeated here from their 2000 release. Even so, there’s enough here to place the recording in context. Towers and the late Dick Burris, tyro audio engineers, had seen the band back in 1939 and resolved to record it when it came to Fargo, North Dakota, setting up their rudimentary gear having cleared their endeavour with the booking agency and Duke himself.

And what a feast of music they captured for this was the famed Blanton-Webster line-up caught in all their blazing glory on a one-night dance gig in the boondocks. No compromises offered bar the occasional pop song, the core repertoire – ‘KoKo’, ‘Sepia Panorama’, ‘Never No Lament’, ‘Cotton Tail’, ‘Boy Meets Horn’ (with every kind of cornet noise from Stewart) etc – all included. Forty-five pieces in all, some truncated for disc changeovers etc, the vocals less well caught than the ensembles. Trumpeter Nance, making his first gig with the band, sounds good, as do all the established stars. What comes across most for me is Blanton’s incredible buoyancy and the extraordinary rhythmic verve he and Greer demonstrate throughout, this exemplified on the outrageous version of ‘St Louis Blues’ that precedes ‘God Bless America’ as the gig’s closer. Then again there’s the sheer energy and audacity of the ensemble playing, every man on song and in the form of their lives. Oh yes, the sound is surprisingly good considering. Don’t wait another 13 years: snap this up now. (Peter Vacher)

This article originally appeared in the Dec 10 / Jan 11 issue of Jazzwise; the review appeared in the Oct 13 issue. Subscribe to Jazzwise

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Billie Holiday – The highs and lows of Lady Day

Billie Holiday left an extraordinary legacy and made an indelible impression on the cultural landscape. Yet the raw emotional pull of her music was the result of a desperately chaotic lifestyle that the singer seemed unable to control. Stuart Nicholson details the highs and lows of Lady Day's life

Billie Holiday, probably the most moving, unadulterated jazz singer of all time, was born on 7 April 1915. When she died 44 years later, on 17 April 1959, she still had a long career ahead of her as a cultural icon, yet to try and reconstruct her life as that of an ordinary woman beset by trial and tribulation is to misunderstand her with a degree of perversity equal to her own. Billie was no ordinary woman. The sound of her voice still has people reaching for metaphor to explain its effect; it engages our deepest emotions because that is what she strove to reach within herself. Yet the great paradox of Billie Holiday was the very singer who could freeze an audience into their seats with the emotional power of her singing, struggled throughout her life with deep emotional problems of her own that she could not begin to understand.

Just how our childhood experiences continue to influence us into adulthood is a question researchers are still trying to answer. One area of consensus, however, is how the degree of emotional support a child receives in their early years has a bearing on social life and even romantic relationships twenty or even 30 years on. Perhaps, then, Billie’s traumatic childhood is a place try and understand her. Being constantly abandoned to friends and relations by her mother, the emotional havoc wrought by her rape as an 11-year-old and her arrest at the age of 14 on the streets of Harlem for prostitution could well have contributed to the diminished sense of self those close to her spoke of. These feelings would also go some way to explaining her abnormally dependent personality, her desire to attach herself to someone who would love and care for her, and then, once in a relationship do anything and accept anything – including physical violence – to maintain it. Equally, her lack of parental supervision from a young age may also have had a bearing on her lack of moral discipline, expressed at an early age through truancy and lack of interest in academic activities, and in later years in drug and alcohol abuse.

Yet such calm rationalisation can never fully explain a life overtaken by the dark and destructive forces that inhabit human nature. Billie was never able to come to terms with her personal demons and much of her life was spent running away from them, retreating into the pursuit of pleasure, something that was in conspicuously short supply during her childhood. From her early teens, she associated marijuana and alcohol with good times. As a young woman she lived it up with a vengeance in the fast track of Harlem nightlife of the late 1920s and early 1930s. She was unconcerned if her indulgences affected her singing career, which progressively left John Hammond, her influential patron and record producer, more and more disenchanted. What he wanted was for his commitment to her career to be matched by hers. In 1939 she was introduced to Buddy Tate, and the tall, elegant saxophonist from Count Basie’s band and the beautiful jazz singer became an item. But when he realised the role alcohol and marijuana played in her life he told her, “Lady, you can’t get high all the time, not every day.”

In 1941, her affair with Tate behind her, Billie married small-time drug dealer Jimmy Monroe and subsequently gravitated to opium for her highs. That all changed around 1943-4 when heroin began to fill a void caused by the wartime shortage of opium. For a while she used intermittently, but then succumbed to addiction, spending vast sums of money indulging herself and her former drugs runner Joe Guy – now her new boyfriend – in monumental highs. In an attempt to protect his main client Louis Armstrong from a drugs bust, her manager Joe Glaser cooperated with law enforcement agencies in 1947 to have her busted for possession. It made the national news. By the time she was released from prison in 1948, she was clean and played two acclaimed Carnegie Hall concerts but quickly re-succumbed to addiction. By 23 January 1949 she was back on the front pages of the tabloids, arrested for possession by Federal narcotic agents.

While the charges were eventually dismissed because of a technicality, her divorce from Jimmy Monroe, her sordid relationship of violence with John Levy, a small-time nightclub owner, followed by marriage to Louis McKay, all interspersed with brushes with the law were acted out in the pages of the tabloid press. Audiences now read Billie’s real-life story into her performances, as if each word might reveal some deep, dark secret about her private life, and songs such as ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do’ (recorded 1949) reinforced her ‘notoriety’ while defiantly justifying her indulgence of the self. This simple step reinforced her authenticity as an artist. As a young woman, she sang from the standpoint of being unlucky in love. Now, as an older woman never far from the clamour of tabloid headlines, she sang from the perspective of a woman unlucky in life.

In 1952, her downward spiral into alcohol and drug addiction was interrupted by Norman Granz, who recorded her for his Verve label, and although there were times when her soiled realism blurred into stylised realism, the raw nerve endings exposed by her voice served only to reinforce her authenticity as a jazz singer. Granz told me that by 1957, he felt he had done all he could to help her and wished she had helped herself more. Her parting shot was two albums – Lady in Satin (Columbia) from 1958 and Billie Holiday (MGM) from 1959 – that defy conventional critique; here the emotional destiny of her work is ultimately commanded by knowledge of her real-life story in order to realise their powerful emotional impact. They are harsh, even terrifying, statements that make you afraid to listen because her voice contains a glimpse of death.

 

“Above all else she was a great artist, not because of the suffering her hedonistic lifestyle brought her, but in spite of it.”

 

On 30 May 1959 she collapsed and was admitted to the Knickerbocker Hospital, located on Convent Avenue and 131st Street in Harlem, at 3.40 pm. On the 11 June a nurse discovered heroin in the Kleenex box by her bedside and she was arrested on her deathbed, denied visitors by a police guard unless they had written permission to see her from the 23rd Precinct. When she finally passed at around 3am on the night of 10 July her worldly fortune amounted to just $848.54 in cash. Over 3,000 people attended the requiem mass held for at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church on Columbus Circle on 22 July, yet hardly anyone had visited her in her tiny apartment at 26th West 87th Street during the final years of her life. Already her career was being overshadowed by that quirk of the human condition that sees fascination in those who gamble with life and lose. Just like Charlie Parker, James Dean, Janis Joplin, Marylin Monroe, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and a host of others, her life found unexpected definition through a premature route to eternity. All share one thing in common – a sainted, metaphorical afterlife where the myth has grown larger than the life.

Yet standing back from this simmering life engaged to disaster, a life with so many wrong turnings, wrong associations, seemingly inexplicable behaviour and a failure to take responsibility for a career that once showed such great promise, a pattern does emerge. Throughout her career she seemed never to learn from her experiences in life. Despite her extraordinary talent she always seemed to throw away what she had gained not once, but time and again. Yet in prison, when confronted with her shortcomings, her medical records reveal a person who was both keen and anxious to mend her ways, but it is clear that what she said was only for the moment. However convincing her promises, resolution passed as soon as she was released. Her outward appearance of warmth, loyalty, pride and sincerity seem to have concealed a lack of remorse or any desire to avoid damaging indiscretions or destructive behaviour. Maybe the extreme contradictions to be found in her character created the tensions that gave rise to her genius, who knows?

Ultimately, the key thing about Billie Holiday was that above all else she was a great artist, not because of the suffering her hedonistic lifestyle brought her, but in spite of it. That she was able to achieve so much with the burden she had to carry must surely be her ultimate triumph. 

This article origiinally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

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Sonny Rollins - Tenor of our times

Sonny Rollins

Right there when bebop was freshly minted and he was running around with Miles and the fast set, through his startling early flowering with the classic Saxophone Colossus, to his London jazz club days in the 60s, and up to today when he steps up to the mark once again live and in the studio, very few come near Sonny Rollins. Interview by Stuart Nicholson 

'Rollins – Unique And Absorbing'. The headline of a review in Melody Maker during Rollins' first visit to London in 1965. “His nightly sessions [at Ronnie Scott’s] are something which no serious student of jazz can afford to miss,” continued the review and it has remained that way ever since. A Rollins concert continues to be an event to be savoured, Rolling Stone magazine once saying that in the future people will boast of having seen Rollins perform much as the lucky few now boast of having seen the great bebop pioneer Charlie Parker.

Sonny Rollins is one of the last of the titans from the great era of modern jazz. Noted for his bold tone, propulsive phrasing and buoyant lyricism, he is a master at blending the contradictory impulses of contemporary jazz. He swings even as he fragments rhythms and as he ranges through chorus after chorus of heated improvisation, you always feel the melody is a stone’s throw away. His playing imparts, somehow, a simultaneous sense of struggle and celebration that has helped make him a legend in his own lifetime.

Among the first American jazz musicians to drive a coach and horses through the Musician’s Union ban on visiting American musicians in the mid-1960s, he followed fellow tenor saxophonist Ben Webster into London’s Ronnie Scott club in January 1965 for a three-week residency. As he told Sunday Times writer Derek Jewell at the time, he had accepted the engagement against the advice of his agent because he couldn’t bring his own group. “But I’m glad I did,” he said, adding that he found London a very special place. “I get feelings here like no American city.”

Sonny RollinsForty-four years later, he still remembers that visit with great affection. “When I first came to London for those series of club dates at Ronnie Scott’s I agreed to do something which I was not in the custom of doing, which was to play with a new rhythm section,” he says.

“Since my early times I had my own rhythm section, however, for whatever reason – I forget why I agreed to leave them at home – I was very pleasantly surprised. I had a great group of people, Stan Tracey [on piano], Ronnie Stephenson [on drums] and Rick Laird was our bass player and they were all very competent, talented people so it made my stay there very comfortable and rewarding musically. We hit it off right away and it was very comfortable. It was the original Ronnie Scott’s club on Gerrard Street and it was quite a homely place.”

When he arrived, Stan Tracey recalls he called a rehearsal. “He asked us to play ‘Prelude to a Kiss’,” he told The Guardian. “We played on nothing else but that all afternoon. But he never asked for it at any time in the next four weeks he was at the club. Then next time he came, about a year later, he asked us to play it. Probably the most inventive improviser it’s ever been my pleasure to work with.”

At the end of the engagement, Rollins did an unusual thing, which says much about how he regarded his first trip to London. “I brought presents for some of the staff there, which I am sure was highly unusual. I don’t know, maybe others had done it, but I never heard of it being done. I did it because I really made friends with the people there; I really felt a strong bond with the staff and everybody around the club and parting I felt I wanted to leave something of a remembrance. That indicates how much I felt part of the family, so to speak.”

Described by Ronnie Scott in the pages of Melody Maker in January 1965 as “tremendously moving and technically fantastic”, it was while playing at Scott’s club that Rollins was invited to contribute to a little bit of British movie history by providing the soundtrack for the motion picture Alfie, starring Michael Caine. “I did it when I was working at Ronnie’s,” recalls Rollins.

“The producer of the film came in, we were having a nice successful season in the club, lots of people coming by, and I guess we had some notoriety as being ‘a good ticket.’ And so the producer – actually the producer’s son – heard me playing and said, ‘gee Sonny, you’re the right person who we feel would express the character of Alfie’. Now, after having seen the movie, I don’t know if I should have taken that as a compliment or not! But anyway, I was anxious to do the film, so I did it – I actually wrote the music for the film in the club. When I got through an evening’s performance I would have had to have gone home to a hotel and try to get to sleep, it’s always hard to come down from a concert right away and just get yourself into bed. So I said, ‘Ronnie, after I get through playing tonight I’d like to stay in the club, just lock me up, and I’ll stay here until they come by in the morning to open up, because I want to work on the music and I’ll have a nice private space to do it.’ And Ronnie said, ‘Yes, fine, if you want to do that.’ So, that’s what we did, and I got locked in at night and in the morning the people came to open up the club and clean up the club and everything and I had spent that time working on the score that we used for the film.

“Tubby Hayes was a frequent visitor to the club during our time there but I would have probably have remembered if Tubby had been doing the soundtrack, I don’t think so. I think it was Ronnie [Scott], Stan Tracey, Phil Seamen – the drummer, a good guy. We had a lot of fun with Phil, and all the guys. As I said I was quite friendly with everybody and it was really a very bright period of my life that time when I was playing at Ronnie’s.”

Sonny Rollins wrote himself into the pages of jazz history on 22 June 1956 with a series of nonpareil performances on the album Saxophone Colossus. From the moment it was released it was hailed as a classic. But for the 25-year-old saxophonist it was just another session during a remarkable creative high that spanned almost three years. During that time he recorded 15 sessions under his own name that began with Worktime in December 1955 and ended with Freedom Suite in 1958, taking in Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West plus the classic Blue Note session A Night At The Village Vanguard for good measure.

 

Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit

 

By any standards this was an astonishing period of creativity. It saw Rollins prising jazz from the omnipresent influence of Charlie Parker, whose legion of followers mistook speed for content and ended up creating solos like one enormous glissando. In contrast, Rollins demonstrated that jazz improvisation could be sustained for lengthy periods with great cohesion, subtlety and even wit. With blunt, asymmetric phrasing and a big powerful tone, his style was unmistakable. Before your very eyes he seems to dismantle songs and reassemble them in new and interesting ways, a feat performed with such clarity of purpose you could almost hear him thinking.

His solos were propositions, cerebral inventions that sounded as if they could be spun endlessly, rather than the pronouncements of an Armstrong or a Parker, which seemed to arrive etched in stone. “I always stress that music never ends, it just continues, there is no real cut off,” he says. His improvisations were governed as much by the underlying harmonic sequence as the development and thematic variation of a melodic idea. Ever since ‘Blue Seven’ from Saxophone Colossus, shrewdly analysed by Gunther Schuller in the pages of the then highly influential American magazine Jazz Review, Rollins has, over the years, developed and refined this creative process into a unique art.

In September 2008, after more than two decades mainly playing with a quintet (including his nephew Wes Anderson on trombone, an association on record that began with 1984’s Sunny Days, Starry Nights), Rollins decided to perform a concert at Carnegie Hall with a trio. As the New York Times reported at the time, “All those who watch jazz closely stepped back and took a deep breath.” The reason was simple. For many, perhaps most, of his fans, performing with just bass and drums accompaniment was the ideal forum in which to express his remarkable improvisatory gifts. Yet his trio recordings seem to exist almost in parallel to his remarkable career and yield some of his most memorable albums – not least Way Out West, A Night At The Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite.

“When I look back on my career I find that I was playing trio almost from the beginning,” he reflects. “You know when I first met Miles Davis I was playing as an opening act for him, Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis, some of these stars that were playing down on 52nd Street. This was a place up in the Bronx called the 845 Club and I was hired to play and open up for these guys and as I look back I remember I had a trio then. When Miles, I remember, offered me a job in his band he had heard me in a trio originally. When I look back on my career I find that many records were made with a trio, that’s why nowadays when you find saxophone, drums and bass there’s a little bit of Sonny Rollins in that line-up. I found I had been doing it for so much of my career. I didn’t even realise it until somebody asked me about it a year or so ago, and I looked back and realised how much of my work was with a trio.

Some of my records like A Night At The Village Vanguard, Way Out West, Freedom Suite were made with a trio. I had some more than useful accompaniment too! I had people like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Shelley Manne, I mean I had configurations of groups which really had the crème de la crème and so the success of those records is certainly not only my playing but I do find it has been some years since I played in that grouping. I find that as a soloist it gives me more freedom to hear the harmonic possibilities of any piece of music that we’re playing. With due respect to the piano players, and I have worked with some of the best, the piano is a dominating instrument and if you have 88 keys and the person is playing chords behind you when you are soloing it is very difficult to deviate from their harmonic direction. With a bass and drums I don’t have that, I can hear my own harmony and fill it in myself. I’ve always liked that, when I first started playing as a kid I used to be in the house playing by myself, for hours and hours, and my dear mother used to call me, ‘Sonny, Sonny, it’s time to eat dinner.’ And I’d just be in there in the bedroom playing in my own reverie, my own peaceful trance so to speak. I have always been a person who has been able to create my own harmony when I play.”

Rollins’ instantly recognisable tenor saxophone sound did not come out of nowhere. It includes a synthesis of key players from the generations in jazz that preceded him when he was developing his own voice in the late-1940s. “My idols were originally Louis Jordan, the rhythm and blues saxophonist, then I gravitated to Coleman Hawkins and I stayed with Coleman Hawkins trying to absorb him and then I familiarised myself with Lester Young,” he recalls.

“All the time of course I had heard Ben Webster and tried to absorb some of his playing and the great Don Byas was one of my ultimate favourite saxophone players who I think was one of those unsung heroes. So I tried – I learned a lot, I wish I could have learned more from these people [laughs], I studied them a lot, let me say that! I studied all of them a lot, and Charlie Parker came along and I studied Charlie Parker a lot, the fact that Charlie Parker came on the scene just at the time I was coming into my adolescence he became a prominent source of my inspiration at that time.

“When I first heard Charlie Parker it was in the 1940s – the first record I had by Charlie Parker was a record called ‘KoKo.’ It was a famous record of him playing on ‘Cherokee,’ it was on Savoy. On the other side of that record was ‘How High The Moon’ by Don Byas. I actually bought that record for Don Byas because I didn’t really know Charlie Parker, but listened to Charlie Parker play, it was interesting but after playing it for my friends at school I realised this guy has got something going here, and I began to become a devotee of Charlie Parker.”

 

 I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god” – Sonny Rollins

 

Later, the great Charlie Parker would become something of a mentor to the precociously talented Rollins. “He looked at me in rather an avuncular way, myself and a lot of other young people, all trying to play like him, and I think he was very proud of us, really,” he says. “As I began playing more and getting some recognition from some of the older players and so on, finally I got to the point where I was playing with Miles Davis and our paths crossed, and Miles said to Charlie Parker, listen to this guy, and Charlie Parker, the first time he heard me, he said, ‘Hey, man that’s me!’ So I really felt great, and he was like a father figure to us all, mentor and everything. People have asked me, ‘Sonny, you played with people like Charlie Parker when you were young, didn’t it make you feel a little bit scared?’ I said no. Actually I loved all those people, they were my gods, but still I had something in me that made me always feel as if I belonged, and that I should be where I was. I just had a feeling that I was in the right place with the right people, people like Charlie Parker, our idol, our prophet, our god.”

Charlie Parker, whose personal life has become legendary, had, as Joe Goldberg points out in Jazz Masters of the Fifties perhaps “too great” an influence on the young Rollins.

“Jazz musicians have hard, hard, hard lives and they are prey to the usual things artists are prey to – alcohol, drugs all these things,” says Rollins frankly. “I would say all artists are subject to getting involved in these things because it sort of goes with living and trying to get closer to nature and music, and these things are hard to find in every day life, every day society, so artists and writers may get into drinking and all that, because we’re trying to find essences of things you’re not going to find in everyday life. That’s what makes art ‘art,’ something separate, so one of the pitfalls is that in order to find those things you drink a lot, you use drugs a lot, you find ways that at least temporarily give you a different consciousness.”

 

 Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor

 

Having seen two friends, Ike Day and Lowell Lewis, have their careers ruined by addiction, Rollins abruptly dropped out of the music scene to break his pattern of addiction and found work in Chicago as a janitor. He continued playing, but not professionally during this period. It was now 1955, and Miles Davis, who was forming a new quintet, let it be known in print he wanted Rollins to join him. “Well I had been playing with Miles,” he recalls. “When I was away from New York he gravitated towards me to start his band up, we were very good friends, Miles and me used to hang out, at my house, I’ve been in his house, this kind of stuff. Although I had played with Miles and John Coltrane in 1949, I think that’s right but my chronology could be off a little bit, we both played with Miles [around then], so Miles knew Coltrane and he knew me – I think he recounts some of that in his biography. I was very excited when he wrote that he wanted to get Sonny, but I think that was because he and I were very close personally and musically, so probably that’s why he wanted to get me back when he formed his band.”

Rollins was playing in Davis’ quintet with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones on a July 1955 broadcast from the Café Bohemia in New York City, but in September 1955 he signed himself into Lexington to try and kick his drug habit. He was replaced by John Gilmore, but on Monday 26 September, Philly Joe Jones phoned John Coltrane who joined the band the following day at the Club Las Vegas in Baltimore. The classic Miles Davis Quintet was born. “I’m sure Coltrane was available and was someone who he would have taken also,” says Rollins. “I think he just mentioned my name as the first one at that point, but Miles loved to have a strong saxophone player. That was one of his desires, he always wanted to have a strong saxophone player, as you know he always had strong saxophone players with him. I think it set his playing off in relief, which he enjoyed and he realised it was good musically to play against the pattern of saxophone sounds, it set his playing off in relief that made it made him more cogent and I think he knew that.” 

As Miles Davis went on to make jazz history with John Coltrane, Rollins was about to make history himself. In December 1955 saxophonist Harold Land left the Clifford Brown / Max Roach Quintet at the Beehive club in Chicago, so Roach called Sonny Rollins. “I had been in a rehabilitation hospital for substance abuse, and when I joined Clifford Brown and Max Roach I had been fighting to get free of all of these things,” he recalls. “I had been going along very nicely, in fact I had turned a corner in many ways, I had turned a corner but I had to stay away from music for a while, I had to stay away from the environment of music until I got myself strong enough to be around music and not fall prey to drinking and drug abuse and all that stuff. So I was right at a critical point in my life when I had turned a corner and I was ready to going back to playing, and that’s when I met the band and they asked me to join it and Clifford became such a light to me, because he was playing so great and yet he was completely clean, a clean living person. So he was a great influence on me in a very, very positive way.”

Just about a year older than the mercurial Clifford Brown, Rollins was about to step into a front-line partnership where he would realise his own great talent. “Clifford was a fine, consummate musician, but I certainly didn’t feel, ‘Boy, Clifford Brown, I don’t know if I should be up here,’” he says. “I didn’t feel that, but I certainly felt a big challenge playing with Clifford Brown because of his great playing. However, I was playing a little differently to the fellow I followed in the band, Harold Land, a fine saxophone player. But the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band with Land was set in a certain direction, when I joined the band it sort of opened up a lot of other things, it changed a lot about the band, a lot of people observed that, it changed the character of the band, and in so doing it changed Brownie. He was so great, I don’t know if I was as great on saxophone as Clifford was on trumpet, I’m not sure about that, you know? But what I am sure is that I had it in my hands to go in a slightly different direction which changed the character of that band.”

By now, Rollins had developed a strong musical personality that could challenge Brown and Roach and help them reach new highs, and their remarkable recorded evidence suggests Rollins brought a gravitas to the band which took it to the cusp of true greatness. Potentially their musical relationship could have been one of the most seminal in the annals of modern jazz, eclipsing that of even the Davis quintet. But it was not to be. The clean living Brown lost his life in a car accident on 26 June 1956. Rollins remained with Roach, playing with Brown’s replacement Kenny Dorham for almost a year, but it was to be his last as a sideman, and his association with Dorham was his last significant association with a trumpeter (except for a brief alliance with Don Cherry five years after he left Roach in May 1957).

Since then, as an internationally renowned artist Rollins’ stature within jazz has continued to grow. In 1986 he was hailed as jazz’s greatest living improviser, and he continues to be capable of filling any concert hall around the world.

So what is he looking for, with all that he has achieved, in his constant search for perfection? “I’m looking for continuity of ideas and the perfect cut-off. I’m looking for that type of really beautiful statement, an impressive statement, really on my part. I’m also looking for a good community effort on behalf of the group, not just myself. So I’m looking for the perfect balance, and this you can get to a certain point, maybe 50 per cent, maybe 60 per cent, maybe 70 per cent, maybe 80 per cent but it is never there completely. So that’s what I am looking for.”

This article originally appeared in Jazzwise, November 2009. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

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Review Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus ★★★★★

Review Max Roach – Complete 1958-59 Plus Four Sessions ★★★★★

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John Coltrane – In the Temple of Trane

John Coltrane

Such was his desire to play the unplayable he would at times take the sax from his mouth and begin to chant and sing over the band. Stuart Nicholson looks at events in both Trane’s life, and society at large, which ultimately helped shape a seething soundtrack to this most turbulent of times

In 1966, the United States was in turmoil with race riots in most large cities, Civil Rights protests, anti-war demonstrations, the rise of the counter-culture and sexual liberation. In jazz, the rise of free jazz – inextricably linked to the social climate from which it emerged – was for many the anthem that screamed rejection of racial inequality. Like American society at this time, saxophonist John Coltrane’s music was also in flux, his growing involvement with the avant-garde, or New Thing, sparking the defection of long serving sidemen while provoking an angry debate among his followers about his musical direction that has continued to this day. As journalist Stanley Crouch has written: “By 1966, Coltrane was not only having trouble in clubs, sometimes being fired on opening night, he could empty an entire park, which, as Rashied Ali recalls, he did in Chicago. During the performance and others witnessed in New York, Coltrane put down the saxophone and started shouting, yodelling and screaming through the microphone while beating on his chest.”

John Coltrane OfferingUntil now, the story of Coltrane casting aside his saxophone and “shouting, yodelling and screaming” has been part of the apocrypha surrounding his final months, portrayed as the existential angst of an artist whose time was running out and could no longer express all he wanted to say through his horn. In an interview in The Sixties, a collection of interviews edited by Lynda Rosen Obst, Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s drummer at the time, described Coltrane’s thinking: “He was studying Buddha sometime near the last gig and found that there was a chant where you could pound your chest and it would change the sound of your voice. He wanted to get that quiver on the horn, and when he couldn’t get it, he’d put the horn down, beat on his chest and scream into the microphone. People really thought he’d lost his mind then.”

With the release of John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance), recorded on 11 November 1966, we have Coltrane vocalising as Ali describes on the compositions ‘Leo’ and ‘My Favorite Things’ that underline the importance of this newly discovered material. Where The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording – recorded 23 April 1967 – is equivocal, muddy and indistinct, Offering is unequivocal, powerful and hard-hitting, providing a valuable insight into the nature and direction of Coltrane’s music at a crucial period in his life. What emerges is a remarkable spirituality, the connectedness of Coltrane’s chanting to the totality of his music purview and the lucidity of his playing. If these recordings bear witness to the dramatic times in which they were recorded, then the music reflects the drama being acted out in American society itself.

In 1964, president Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara fabricated an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to provide the pretext for escalating American involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1966, in the face of military draft to fight a war whose objectives were unclear, a rising body count, and the certainty of victory appearing more and more remote, student protest and unrest were spreading like wildfire through college campuses across the United States. Convinced communist agitators were behind the unrest, an increasingly beleaguered president ordered the CIA and the FBI to begin a massive surveillance and information gathering effort against anti-war activists.

John ColtraneCodenamed Operation CHAOS, top of the FBI’s list of targets was Nobel Peace campaigner Dr. Martin Luther King, who had labelled the United States government, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Three years prior to Offering, in 1963, King had helped organise the March on Washington where he galvanised the world with his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. But King’s peaceful struggle was being played out against a background of inner city rioting, the Watts riot in August 1965 shattering American quiescence as fires burned and blood flowed in the streets.

Socially, religiously and culturally aware, the traumatic events in American society seemed to be playing out in Coltrane’s music. In an August 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky, Coltrane observed, “I think that music, being an expression of the human heart, or of the human, of being itself, does express what is happening.” After attending a Malcolm X meeting and left “quite impressed,” Coltrane was asked whether the kind of social and political issues Malcolm X talked about were expressed in his music, and whether he thought they were important. “Well they’re definitely important,” Coltrane responded, “and as I said, the issues are part of what is, you know, at this time. So naturally as musicians, we express whatever, whatever it is.”

As 1964 gave way to 1965, the members of Coltrane’s classic quartet – McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones – found themselves witness to their leader’s deepening engagement with the ‘New Thing’. When Coltrane recorded his classic A Love Supreme in December 1964, he also recorded a further version of ‘Acknowledgement’ adding New Thing saxophonist Archie Shepp and bassist Art Davis. It was not released for some 40 years, suggesting Coltrane’s music was already in transition, even though the organic unity of the ‘A Love Supreme’ suite in its released form suggests otherwise. Coltrane’s thinking became clear with the album appropriately named Transition, recorded on 10 and 16 June 1965 that, while including ‘Suite’, in obvious continuum of his religious preoccupations, suggested in its totality – ‘Transition’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Suite’ and ‘Vigil’ – a gathering of forces that presaged his major work Ascension, recorded on 28 June 1965, barely two weeks later. This recording marked the beginning of what has become known as ‘Late period Coltrane’, portrayed as a rupture with the past and the beginning of the saxophonist’s musical roller-coaster ride into eternity.

While the multi-throated roar of Ascension writ large the change in Coltrane’s music, what actually followed was a period of gradual transition that, although the energy and the drama of his music might suggest otherwise, was marked by cautious and careful rationality. New Thing at Newport: John Coltrane/Archie Shepp, recorded on 2 July 1965 at the Newport Jazz Festival, might have been an unequivocal announcement of his alignment with the New Thing, but Coltrane’s set was with his classic quartet, although his powerfully expressive foray into the altissimo range and free interlude on ‘One Down, One Up’ was a portent of things to come. Shepp, who played a set with his own group would later that summer sit-in with Coltrane’s group at the Down Beat festival in Chicago.

As long, powerful and increasingly abstract as his solos were becoming, Coltrane had achieved such international recognition that by now he was outselling the rest of the Impulse! catalogue put together. Perhaps the financial rewards of success allowed him to experiment by introducing New Thing players into the ranks of the classic quartet – after a week in Indianapolis as a quartet in early September, Pharoah Sanders and Donald Rafael Garrett were added to the group for their performance in San Francisco and appear on Live in Seattle from 30 September that year.

From Seattle, Coltrane moved to Los Angeles adding drummer Frank Butler, where the sound level, according to Downbeat, “was to say the least, intense.” When asked by the magazine if this was permanent, Coltrane said it was purely experimental, “I just wanted to see how it would work out, I may try it again later.” When he returned to New York in October, Sanders, Garrett and Butler were among the musicians on the tracks ‘Kulu Se Mama’ and ‘Selflessness’, while Butler is absent on what Coltrane scholar David Wild called the “acid-etched” ‘Om’.

 

“Lewis Porter has pointed out that Coltrane had dabbled with LSD while Miles Davis went further, claiming it was what killed him”

 

Although it seldom forms part of Coltrane discourse, Coltrane’s biographer Lewis Porter has pointed out that Coltrane had dabbled with LSD while Miles Davis went further, claiming it was what killed him. Somewhere between these two opposing poles lies a truth we will never know, but suffice to say in the worlds of rock and jazz, on both sides of the Atlantic, the ready availability of LSD to both musicians and fans was a fact of life. Tripping on acid had made thinking the unthinkable commonplace and popular culture was awash with new ideas and unusual connections in music, design, light shows, literature and more presenting another context in which to consider an acoustic group creating the energy of an electric rock group or combining jazz and Indian music or combining jazz with Buddhist chants.

In November 1965, the quartet’s appearance at the Village Gate was with the addition of Sanders, Shepp, altoist Carlos Ward and drummer Rashied Ali. The evening was described by Downbeat with characteristic understatement as: “Trane + 7 = A Wild Night at the Gate,” reporting that “One simply couldn’t hear anything but drums on ‘Out Of This World’. I had no idea what the soloists were saying and I doubt the players could hear each other… at one point I saw Coltrane break out a bagpipe and blow into it, but damned if I heard a note of what he played.”

On 23 November 1965, it would be just Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali who would join the quartet on Meditations, a recording that, as Coltrane himself pointed out at the time, was “an extension of A Love Supreme since my conception of that force keeps changing shape.” The album provides a useful yardstick with which to measure the distance his music had travelled from A Love Supreme, recorded virtually a year earlier.

Although Coltrane featured on the 30 December 1965 cover of Downbeat celebrating “The Year of John Coltrane” and his success in the 30th Annual Reader’s Poll, the comings and goings within the classic quartet had not been met with unalloyed joy by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. The latter was offended because he considered his ability was being doubted by having another drummer playing alongside him and the former simply complained he could not hear himself playing, leaving in late 1965. When Jones handed in his resignation in January 1966 he cited the same reasons. Shortly afterwards, Sun Ra claimed that Coltrane hired Rashied Ali as a means of driving Tyner and Jones out, and when this was put to Coltrane in 1966 he said, “I was trying to do something. There was – I was trying to do something. Please… there was a thing I wanted to do in the music, see, and I figured I could do two things: I could have a band that played like the way we used to play, and a band that was going in the direction that this, the one I have now is going in – I could combine these two, with these, you know, with these two concepts going. And it could have been done.”

John and Alice ColtraneClearly, playing both ends against the middle did not work, and Coltrane immediately immersed himself in his new musical direction including revising his approach to the saxophone by using the higher registers of his tenor saxophone more, changing his vibrato and seeking greater freedom in tonality. With Tyner gone he turned to his wife Alice Coltrane (neé McLeod), who had been a student of Bud Powell and had previously worked in the bands of Kenny Burrell, Johnny Griffin, Lucky Thompson and Yusef Lateef. In 1962 she had auditioned for vibist Terry Gibbs’ group, “Right from the introduction Alice played on the first song, I knew she was something else,” recalled Gibbs in 2003. “She sounded like Bud Powell. She played chorus after chorus and every note was a gem…so now I had a good quartet!” In 1963 they recorded Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time together, “Alice actually stole that date from me,” recalled Gibbs. However, when his band played opposite the John Coltrane Quartet in Birdland, events took an unexpected turn that lead to him losing his star player. “When I first introduced Alice to John, I immediately saw a puppy love romance starting,” said Gibbs. “There was a back booth in Birdland where the musicians could sit and every time we got off the stage, Alice would be there, just staring at John while he played. I think she was falling in love with him.” John Coltrane and Alice McLeod married in 1965 and in 1966 she replaced Tyner’s quartile approach to harmony with a freer accompaniment, which was echoed by Elvin Jones’ replacement Rashied Ali, whose drumming style Coltrane once dubbed “multi-directional.” With Tyner and Jones, Coltrane’s performances had been long; with his new group they became even longer as Live at the Village Vanguard Again (recorded 28 May 1966) or John Coltrane Live in Japan (recorded July 1966) reveal — for example, the 57min 19 secs performance of ‘My Favorite Things’ recorded at the Sankei Hall in Tokyo.

Although Coltrane’s live performances were becoming increasingly outward bound, he did not cut links with his past completely – for example, ‘My Favorite Things’ remained with him until his last live recording in April 1967. As Coltrane expert Ashley Kahn observes, “what Coltrane was diving into at the end of his career, a lot of ideas and devices and advancements that he had made since the 1950s were still being worked into what he was doing — his approach to the instrument, his phrasing, the harmony ideas — he never really discarded that stuff, it’s just that people miss the fact there is an incredible depth to everything he did.”

While it is true that the New Thing had its share of noise makers, performers who came and went, now long forgotten and who failed to make their mark on the ledger, for some it has been tempting to bracket Coltrane’s “final period” with the work of these lesser artists. “There is an interesting Cannonball interview where he discusses exactly that thing,” continues Kahn. “He goes, ‘I am not against the avant-garde, I am against players who don’t know what they are doing and getting by calling themselves avant-gardists or free jazz musicians or the New Thing. Even within the music, there is a hierarchy of players who are making a statement and coming from something and those who aren’t,’ and being the diplomat he doesn’t say which ones are which!”

Certainly energy and intensity were important ingredients in what Coltrane was doing at this time, figuring highly in his musical conception. “Energy. Yeah, I like to have this energy,” he said in 1966. “There’s always got to be somebody with a lot of power, you see, because Elvin [Jones], in the old band, Elvin had this power, I always have to have somebody with it, you know? Rashied has it, but it hasn’t quite unfolded completely.”

In 1966, drummer Jack DeJohnette played with Coltrane for two weeks at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago: “Mentally, spiritually it was one of the most challenging gigs I did,” he said. Coltrane had previously allowed him to sit-in with his classic quartet when he was in high school, but the band with Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Jimmy Garrison and Rashied Ali was a different proposition altogether,” he recalled. “I realised on an energy level how amazing John was, so I was relieved that I had developed as a drummer to hold my own, because we had two drummers in that.”

Yet whatever misgivings Coltrane may have expressed about Rashied Ali, they were apparently resolved by 22 February 1967, when he recorded an album of duets with Ali that were finally released in 1974 as Interstellar Space. Conceptually ahead of its time, Coltrane displays motivic development and moments of melodic lucidity in many places giving the album a structural unity sometimes absent in free music endeavours, and in the 1990s, echoes of this album could be heard resonating in the playing of robust players such as David S. Ware and Charles Gayle.

A week earlier he had been in the same Rudy Van Gelder studios with a quartet comprising his wife Alice, Jimmy Garrison and Ali in an album of contrasting calm called Stellar Regions that was not released until 1995, and Expression (which also included compositions from 7 March) that was released in 1967, after Coltrane’s death on 17 July. The liner notes to Expression refer to the material being taken from Coltrane’s ‘last recording sessions,’ and although not intended as a memorial album it seemed that way from the cover art.

The remarkable album Offering, recorded live at Temple University on 11 November 1966, fits into the continuum of this work while simultaneously illuminating it. It has an aspiring New Thing saxophonist Steve Knoblauch, not destined to be a musician but ending up in a career in community mental health, drifting on stage and soloing on ‘My Favorite Things’ with de rigueur shrieks and honks fashionable at the time, and alto saxophonist Arnold Joyner who although uninvited plays a five minute solo on ‘Crescent’. Coltrane’s passion for rhythmic energy is reflected in percussion section of Umar Ali, Robert Kenyatta and Charles Brown on congas and Angie DeWitt on bata drum, that add both density and diversity to the music, reflective of the influence of an “imagined” and idealised African and Afro culture that was given currency by the black nationalists. The presence of tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was an acknowledgement by Coltrane that in his quest for intensity and energy, even his remarkable physical constitution may flag, “I find that physically, the pace I have been leading has been so hard,” he said, adding later, “I like to have somebody there in case I just don’t, can’t get that strength. I like to have that strength in the band, from someone. And Pharoah is very strong in spirit and will.”

In the audience that night was a young Michael Brecker, who attributes the concert and Coltrane’s remarkable playing to giving him his life’s mission, and the young student Francis Davis, who would be similarly inspired to become a jazz writer. But perhaps revealing of the cathartic effect of this concert was how, after Coltrane concluded with ‘My Favorite Things’, the Radio WRTI broadcast of the event continued, featuring a conversation on air between the two students who had mounted the concert, and although not included on the two CD set, Ashley Kahn explains: “The post-show commentary by these two college kids was really special. Basically they knew something really, really important had just happened, they can’t describe it, they’re not jazz critics or music critics, they’re college students and they’re trying to explain the effect it had on them and they are just kinda lost for words, and I think that’s the most important thing about this, the whole idea of Coltrane bringing to each performance the idea that this is a very special spiritual moment that he’s going to share, and that is what comes through on this concert – and by chance it is Temple University and the name of the album is Offering, so it all ties together.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.

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