Only one thing which put the great Benny Golson on a mainline British television channel during the recent cultural blight—public service broadcasting was gradually being ditched, for reasons both fascinating and horrifying. That was Golson’s association with and ability to talk about John Coltrane in a documentary film about him.
‘Trane’s such a media item that people will mention to your friendly neighbourhood jazz writer something they half-heard about a recent Coltrane anniversary. Can he explicate? To them it seems like asking a historian of the American Civil War about Abe Lincoln. Well, nobody doubts Abe was a major figure, or Coltrane, in his field. It is, however, possible to differ about the meaning of the ‘breakthrough’ being commemorated. It meant different things to different people.
The press mention the breakthrough because it fits that genre of Hollywood History which characterises the downright lies some American Musicals flatter public prejudices with. Press hacks produce it too, overcramming press-release material on which they lack background, producing nonsense. Until the aforesaid TV documentary a number of interested and musically knowledgeable viewers were doubtless unaware there was a St. John Coltrane Southern Baptist Church. Services feature a bishop who has removed his tenor saxophone from secular use and withdrawn from the hard life of the professional musician, to devote both to his church.
Coltrane’s intense personal religiosity presumably mattered in relation to jazz’s public respectability. It mattered in reconnecting musicians’ and writers’ considerations of jazz with religious or mystical notions never wholly severable from the fact of music. Coltrane’s musical development was another matter, whether or not a related one. Frankly it’s been received too much as a kind of prescription for all future jazz. Too little attention gets paid to Coltrane’s individual motivations and intentions, his wider ideas about life, not all of which can be accepted as having been right. Post-‘Trane (a phrase to be used in deference to the great gifts of his son Ravi), people with no notion of the whys and wherefores of his distinctive music have just imitated the sound of his voice and the complex mechanics of his musical vocabulary. This misses even the music, and spreads the notion that a certain rebarbative approach (or genre mixing) is all there can now be to jazz. Anything else has to be regarded as nostalgia or ‘easy listening’ or not distinguishable from mass-produced pap. Sometimes player-victims of post-‘Trane instrumental fundamentalism, when they go for the more easily approachable, miss out jazz understanding and simply produce pap.
When the primate of the St. John Coltrane church declared that Coltrane had killed jazz, he meant that for him personally there was no future outside religion. Some people who didn’t believe ‘Trane killed jazz and drew from him musically will confidently talk of spiritual significance. Other people (some of whom have written about the present set, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recording of A Love Supreme) will, however, say that after A Love Supreme their interest in ‘Trane died: there’s much to be said for the view that ‘Trane did not live in order that jazz might die.
It all depends on what the phrase ‘A Love Supreme changed everything’ means. Probably the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is changing a lot of things simply by continuing to perform very much pre-‘Trane jazz.
Attempts to compare this new orchestral work with the Coltrane quartet recording on which it’s based have little relevance. It’s important that the initial recording was not merely by Coltrane—another hack assumption—but by that spiritually and musically ambitious man of genius (however mistaken you may think his later road) in the company of three stupendously gifted musicians. The bassist Jimmy Garrison died too soon after ‘Trane, but for his independent greatness hear him in the Elvin Jones Trio with Joe Farrell. By the time the drummer Elvin Jones died, not so long ago, he’d achieved an enormous amount by developing some aspects of ‘Trane’s legacy and making his own music with a succession of bands. He could sound too loud when the other musicians weren’t right, but with Sonny Fortune, Ravi Coltrane, and Willie Pickens he shone. And there’s still McCoy Tyner on piano and leading bands. These guys didn’t live on under ‘Trane’s shadow; their work while marrying with Coltrane’s inspiration proceeded in ways that were far from one-sided.
Thus too this Lincoln Center band, which can demonstrate, for one minor but remarkable example, the amazing things Fletcher Henderson did in his mid-1930s condensation of Ravel’s Bolero into a three-minute performance for the Benny Goodman big band. Wynton Marsalis has tried to work some wonders on the basis of a sort of transcription and orchestration of the original Coltrane quartet performance: each member of the quartet could think each other’s musical thoughts, and no newcomer should mistake them for executors of one man’s will or four wholly separate wills. They were in the service of unfolding a lot of musical ideas which Marsalis has set out to translate.
Forget the hype and the flak around him, Marsalis is an outstandingly gifted musician whose solid merit shouldn’t be lost behind extra-musical considerations, or tendencies to take him for even more than he is and to overstretch him. The big public name can fill large European concert halls, and if on hearing the Lincoln Center band and Paul Ellington’s Grandpa’s Legacy band not so far apart in time and space I esteemed both very greatly, it just shows how underrated the laterday ‘Duke Ellington Orchestra’ could be.
Not a conspicuously original trumpeter though technically outstanding, Marsalis has Billy Strayhorn’s ability to work in an idiom pretty well Duke Ellington’s. Strayhorn was consistently associated with Ellington as an alter ego (see David Hajdu’s biography of him, Lush Life), where Marsalis relies somewhat on recordings and probably on the inevitability of the Ellington idiom. He opens the present work with trumpets, flute, and woodwind, like dropping the listener in the middle of something. There’s a bit of Gil Evans in the muted trombone accompaniment to the solo trombone feature which continues, followed by I think Victor Goines on tenor, more like Ellington’s Paul Gonsalves than like ‘Trane. There’s a little more echo of Evans in the flute and bass clarinet-led arranged ensemble, trumpet solo, pure Ellington in some Jimmy Hamilton style piping clarinet, and then the four-note motif gets handed round all the horns, like a congregation affirming ‘a love su-preme’ (which they all then do together, intoning the words).
A bass interlude like some things in Ellington moves from the opening movement “Acknowledgement” into “Resolution”. The saxophone ensemble is 1960s Ellington, which here means magnificently played. I think it’s Wessel Anderson who takes the impressive low-toned alto solo avoiding the modal labyrinth. It swings. Tyner with Ellingtonian tinges was presumably the inevitable recipe for Eric Lewis’s piano workout, but storming at times he manages to marry influences with individual result. The fact that this band is full of individuals and with some stars—Joe Temperley, Lew Soloff etc.—has enabled Marsalis to compose a lengthy passage in which every leading phrase in a succession seems to be the opening of a solo, before combining in a complex, fascinating texture.
“Pursuance” begins and ends with train impression sounds, featuring a trumpet-trombone-led ensemble, a long outstanding dark-toned trumpet solo with rhythm, some stunning soprano, and then an amazing ensemble with clarinet and high-register horns combining to an effect Claude Thornhill achieved on the recording of his (“Portrait of a Guinea Farm”) which turned on the young Gil Evans.
Temperley’s unparallelled magnificence opens the fourth and final movement, which is a kind of worship again involving very sustained passages of individual players—every one of them—coming briefly and solo into the open, and then rather than merging, combining. The trombone section is here crucial to the overall balance. Like Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time the music seems to resolve around the melody “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. The conclusion is a balanced suspension of instrumental voices. Impressive music indeed, whatever you compare it with.