[15 December 2009]
Enough with the Coltrane tributes already! The giant has been gone for forty-plus years. He’s got a church named after him. I mean, we get it. Coltrane was huge. E-nuf.
Uh, but . . . hold on for a second. I just listened to this recording. Not so fast with the complaining.
Steve Kuhn preceded McCoy Tyner as the pianist in the Coltrane Quartet during a classic eight-week engagement in 1960. And he has been playing consistently strong music ever since, most recently with a layered, lovely trio. And he has recruited the tenor titan of the decade, Joe Lovano, to assure that his Trane Tribute would not be mere mimicry.
But better than that: Kuhn has carefully selected Coltrane material with the focused purpose of creating a particular, sustained mood of gravity. And his arrangements—even on a nifty and familiar Coltrane tune such as “Like Sonny”—contribute to this being a particularly weighty and interesting tribute to Mighty John the Icon. In short, because Kuhn dares to makes his tribute specific and moody—a loving manipulation of Coltrane rather than a tribute that lets Coltrane become the mold—he rises above the usual weaknesses of tribute albums.
This version of “Like Sonny” is different than any I’ve heard, with the famous, ruffled saxophone melody harmonized by the piano in a spooky mode, leading to a feeling of powerful melancholy even as the Latin groove percolates. Lovano dodges and dances delicately, and then Kuhn weaves a line that brings even more heat. It seems like a bit of alchemy that the great affection that underlies this tune (written by Coltrane for/from his friend and sort-of rival, Sonny Rollins) is leavened with a neaviness by this quartet.
That is the mood of this music: the stately pressure of gravity, a weight and a seriousness that jazz doesn’t easily bear over 70 minutes of listening. But Mostly Coltrane strides through it with no problem.
The album opens with three deeply contemplative Coltrane originals from the late-career years 1964 and 1965. “Welcome” (of course) is first, and it establishes a certain feeling of echoing calm. The famously chilly ECM production style is just right here—Coltrane in the Canyons, so to speak, with the piano and the cymbals shimming with similar grace. This is not so much “pretty” Coltrane music as it is stately, handsome Coltrane. “Song of Praise” swirls beautifully for a while, but it also achieves a thick swing under Kuhn’s adventurous solo, even as the song reaches to the outer edges of clarity. And “Crescent”, a much-celebrated composition (and album), comes off as a sumptuous ballad: fragile and majestic at once.
Two of the “standards” that Coltrane is famous for are here: “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “I Want to Talk About You”. The first is the only conventionally “swinging” tune here, with Kuhn handling the melody and the first, long solo. Lovano makes the whole shebang even lighter and more fun. “Talk About You” is reserved for just the trio, and Lovano is not really missed. His purpose here is less to run the changes than to lend breathy voice to the more abstract songs that dominate the collection.
And so “Living Space” arrives as yet another piece from 1965, that pivotal moment when Coltrane shifted more toward abstraction. Kuhn, Lovano, drummer Joey Baron, and bassist David Finck all contribute as the music marches beautifully. “Central Park West” is a 1960 ballad that echoes “Naima”, and Kuhn and Lovano play it as a duet, emphasizing its quality as a kind of chamber ballad. Again: the mood is calm, measured, lovely.
With all that late Coltrane music, however, the band also veers towards the avant-garde. “Configuration” is from 1967’s Stellar Regions, and it gives everyone a chance to jitter and shake free. “Jimmy’s Mode” was originally a feature for the bassist Jimmy Garrison, and it is another perfect vehicle for this band and the shimmering landscape they paint from Coltrane’s inspiration.
There are also two solo piano pieces written by Kuhn. They are pleasing and fit well into the program, but they are hardly the strength of Mostly Coltrane. They do suggest the degree to which this program is personal to Kuhn, a debt that he needed, somehow, to pay. There is no doubt that this is a Coltrane tribute that goes beyond mimicry and even past mere originality. On this recording Kuhn and Lovano demonstrate that Coltrane’s legacy is one they have digested and considered for a long time. The result, happily, is music both original and respectful.
Love live John Coltrane. And even Coltrane tribute albums.