John Coltrane: Offering: Live at Temple University
This set, performed just nine months before Coltrane's death, shows both the impressive openness of his late-era band and the limitations of its sound.
Coltrane's untimely death of liver cancer in 1967 cut the legend's life and career short at just age 40. With all the myriad releases he created in his life, and the glut of material that came after, it's hard to believe his career in earnest only lasted about 11 years. It's also a career that tends to get divided into two periods: his traditionalist beginning and his innovative, free-jazz later years. That these two things bleed into each other in more complicated ways is clear to anyone who has spent time with Coltrane's discography, but if the sound changes radically, Coltrane's playing maintained a constant fire, and that fire may come out most clearly in some of his live recordings.
And now we have one more to consider in Offering: Live at Temple University. This release captures a November 1966 set in Coltrane's hometown Philadelphia just after he turned 40 and just nine months before his untimely death. But much as we might like to paint this late live recording as shadowed by the tragedy that followed, Offering is lively and passionate throughout, and it also clearly reveals a shift in Coltrane's relationship to his music. Earlier recordings were an intimate back and forth between Coltrane and his instrument, but here -- captured better than it was on Live at the Village Vanguard Again! -- we see performance as spiritual experience for Coltrane.
He's accompanied here by his wife, Alice, on piano, Pharoah Sanders on reeds and flute, Rashied Ali on drums, and Sonny Johnson on bass. Together, the group doesn't sound so much like a band as it does a group of wanderers, heading in the same direction but making different discoveries along the way. Disc One covers "Naima" and "Crescent". The former, originally a hit in 1960 is an almost unrecognizable aural explosion. Coltrane erupts to life here, not bother to build tension. Instead he blasts open spaced for his horn in the quiet room. It's so forceful you can almost hear the echo around it. There's a similar isolated power to the excellent melding of Alice Coltrane's piano vamps and Ali's beautifully expressive percussion later in the song. "Crescent" runs past 26 minutes, and starts with some blue-light balladry, that quickly unravels into a screeching expulsion from both Coltrane and Sanders. In its long run time, the side never finds a shape but instead revels in its borderlessness.
The second disc is equally expansive and exploratory. "Leo" is the only track here that truly establishes its theme before breaking away from it completely. It's the moment that features the rhythm section mostly clearly, as does much of the second disc here, and Ali's drumming is incendiary, as is Johnson's bass work. In between this wild performance and an unhinged, 23-minute take on "My Favorite Things", we get the four-minute "Offering". At first, it feels like a breather, a soft, lilting number between these bigger, clashing tunes. But the track shows Coltrane still delivering his phrasings at odd angles, creating a playful but spirited back and forth with his wife on the piano. It's a moment of laid-bare intimacy that the more experimental tunes here never quite get to.
"My Favorite Things" here shows both the impressive openness of late-era Coltrane and the limitations of this band and this sound. It features Johnson's bass up front, a wonderful skittering thump, and we eventually come into an off-kilter delivery of the famous theme. That this is the moment the band sounds most like, well, a band is telling. The mix of Offering is also telling. The mix features one player at a time, the soloist (most often Coltrane) always way up in the mix while everyone else fades into the background.
Offering is an amazing performance but not always an accessible one. As Pharoah Sanders shreds through "My Favorite Things" with wild abandon, it feels heavy rather than propulsive. The same thing happens at moments in "Crescent" and "Leo". Sometimes, in all of this spiritual exploration, there's a distance between the players and the listener. It's a moment for Coltrane, for Sanders, for Ali. That much is clear. But sometimes the further they venture out into the free, the more we get left behind. So there are moments, "Offering" and the first half of "My Favorite Things" especially, that are aching in their beauty. Much of the rest of the performance is impressive, and one of the better representations of Coltrane's live power in his last years. But as much as it impresses, some moments might also leave you feeling too far away from the music.