Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Masters Of & At Play

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.

For more information, go to www.resonancerecords.org/release.php?cat=HCD-2030.

Dave Douglas, trumpeter, composer, podcaster, and label owner, has always been productive with, at least, two to three ensembles going at the same time. Several years ago, he partnered with electric bassist Steve Swallow and the Doxas brothers (tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Chet and drummer Jim) to create Riverside.  The American-Canadian quartet's self-titled debut album was dedicated to the multi-reed master Jimmy Giuffre. The ensemble chose to create new music inspired by the clarinetist/saxophonist whose career moved from big bands to small groups to "free" music to electronic experimentation.  Steve Swallow had worked with Giuffre in his Trio with pianist Paul Bley that played totally improvised music in the early 1960s. At that time, Swallow played acoustic bass - when Giuffre reconvened the Trio in the late 1980s, the bassist had switched to electric bass changing the overall sound of the group.

The music on and attitude of the second Riverside album, "The New National Anthem" (Greenleaf Music), was inspired by composer, pianist, and wife of Steve Swallow, Carla Bley.  The title track, originally recorded by Gary Burton for his 1967 Lp, "A Genuine Tong Funeral",  is just right for an anthem; you know, long enough for the flag to be raised but before the crowd gets restless. Ms. Bley, who is known for both the political nature of her music as well as the humor often found in her compositions, also composed "King Korn" which first appeared on a 1963 Paul Bley Lp (and which the late pianist recorded on several other occasions). Here, the piece has an Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry feel thanks to the sharp interactions of the trumpet and clarinet.  Her other contribution is the Kurt Weill- inspired "Enormous Tots" (from her "Tropic Appetites" suite and the bouncy, martial, feel is perfect for both Chet Doxas (on tenor) and the trumpeter to play around with delight.

There's a cowboy music-cum-Nino Rota feel to "Il Sentiero", a tune with a boozy trumpet solo, pounding drums, sweetly melodic bass, and rippling clarinet, a touch of carnival in the Old West.  Douglas's "King Conlon" is his musical response to learning "King Korn" (programmed as the following track) - it's a delightful jumble, perhaps more Charlie Parker than Conlon Noncarrow.  There's a hint of be-bop in the trumpet-clarinet-drums that opens the piece. Drummer Doxas swings delightfully while Swallow dances along with the soloists.

The saxophonist's "View From A Bird" has a lovely solo bass introduction, a good reminder that Swallow is like no one else, putting musicality in front of technique, the third melodic member of the group. Sometimes, you have to listen closely to hear what he is playing but it's worth the concentration. Listen to how he and drummer Doxas lock the groove down on "Americano" and how he continues to do so even as his section mate kicks the tune to a higher level. Also, pay close attention to how good this music sounds, how you can everyone's part even when they play loud.  Notice Swallow's stunning solo on "Demigods", how it perfectly fits the bluesy nature of the song and does not interrupt the flow. The bassist contributed a new song, "Never Mind", to the session, a blues-drenched ballad with strong solos from the saxophonist and trumpeter.

Long-time listeners to the music of Dave Douglas may hear a comparison to the trumpeter's "Magic Triangle"/ "Leap of Faith" quartet (with Chris Potter, James Genus, and Ben Perowsky), also a piano-less ensemble.  Still, Riverside is blessed by the maturity of trumpeter/composer, the presence of master musician Steve Swallow, and the influences that the Doxas brothers bring to the music, not to forget lessons learned from listening to the music of Carla Bley.  "The New National Anthem"  is worth your attention (and you do not need to stand and salute, unless you want to).

Here's a track to enjoy:

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