John Coltrane: The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording

John Coltrane
The Olatunji Concert: the Last Live Recording

In 1957 John Coltrane had a spiritual awakening. In previous years, he had been a talented and risk-taking saxophonist with a stylistic debt to Dexter Gordon who had won possibly the most coveted chair in the business as the other half of Miles Davis’ front line. But after 1957, his playing took on greatness and then the greatness expanded to include every aspect of his art. By the time of his death in 1967, Coltrane was loved and admired by many for his spirituality, his great facility as a saxophonist, his harmonic and stylistic innovations, his vision as a bandleader, and his relentless musical evolution.

In the last years of his life Coltrane seems not to have stood still. His playing grew through his legendary obsessive practicing; and as it grew, he invented and then re-invented the musical settings around him. In the late ’50s he wrote some of the harmonically thorniest original compositions and standard arrangements jazz musicians had ever seen. By 1961, he had dropped most of the chords for the broader expanse of modal music, and in 1965 the scales were gone too, as his modes expanded into total freedom and sound exploration.

As Coltrane’s music changed, so did the requirements it made on his sidemen. Elvin Jones (drums) and McCoy Tyner (piano), members of the quartet since 1960, left in 1966 to pursue more tempered paths as Coltrane’s music was reaching further into uncharted territories of freedom. Coltrane delved deeper into musical abstraction with their replacements Alice Coltrane (piano) and especially Rashied Ali (drums), whose concept of time was as expansive as Jones’ was propulsive. The saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders started playing regularly with Coltrane in 1965 and did so until Coltrane’s death. During his years with Coltrane, Sanders’ playing was fierce and passionate, often eschewing notes for scream-like sounds. In form, tone, and instrumental style, the free music of 1967 bore little resemblance to the driving modal music of 1964.

The Olatunji Concert preserves two pieces from a concert at New York’s Olatunji Center in late April of 1967, about three months before Coltrane’s death. The quintet (plus one and possibly two inaudible percussionists) plays lengthy versions of “Ogunde” (29 minutes) and “My Favorite Things”(35 minutes).

When beloved artists die, we often wonder what they would have done with their music had they lived, even if their music had been in decline at the time of death. In Coltrane’s case, considering his music’s record of change and growth, it is a safe bet that it was going to change drastically again. The Olatunji Concert, recorded so near the end of Coltrane’s life, qualifies as “an important historical document” (as it is called in the back-cover copy). The devoted listen for clues of the music that might have come. And perhaps there are clues, as in the return of chord changes in Coltrane’s solo on “My Favorite Things”, and the increasing ratio of melodic and lyrical inventiveness to non-tonal sound exploration in his playing.

The other thing to note about historical value in a recording is that it warrants the release of poorly recorded music. The liner notes explain that an amateur engineer made the recording at Coltrane’s request. It’s recorded very hot — the only time the recording does not distort is on Jimmy Garrison’s solo bass at the beginning of “My Favorite Things”. Otherwise, the cymbals tend to obscure everything else except the saxophones. As a result, there’s nothing to “enjoy” sonically here. It takes effort and some imagination to get past the poor recording to the music it so imperfectly relays, but such effort is well rewarded by the riches in the performance.

“Ogunde” begins with a phrase that sounds like an ending, as if the whole of the music could be summed up in a single noble cadence. This opening phrase and the rest of what Coltrane played on this day is in the style that he developed toward the very end: ecstatic, brightly focused, and with a kaleidoscopic vibrato. What follows is the work of a musician at a peak so high that his music is somewhat disorienting to listen to — in its abstraction of melody it seems to have no antecedent, yet it feels as familiar as the blues.

At 2:40 Coltrane exits, only to return 14 minutes later. In the meantime Pharaoh Sanders tests the limits of the saxophone’s capacity for sound production and this listener’s tolerance for extended and insistent shrill wailing. Sanders’ endurance is impressive, and the abandon with which he plays is attractive and admirable. There is even something beautiful in his playing, but the lack of warmth here leaves me out in the cold, so to speak, and in listening to this recording I will most likely skip through this statement.

When Sanders finally relents at about 10:00, Alice Coltrane’s piano comes to the fore and sounds like the most familiar of comforts by comparison. Her sound is quick and colorful, intelligent and playful. When Coltrane returns at 16:40 and hovers around the same scale for a minute, the result is like the sun breaking out after a storm. His extraordinary solo builds majestically through the restatement of the theme at 25 minutes and a coda startling for its power and inventiveness. His last phrase sounds electrified — something like Jimi Hendrix might have played, but with a depth of the darkest blue and technique that in earlier times might have been thought diabolical.

Except for two statements of the melody at the end, the second piece is “My Favorite Things” only in name. It begins with a dark and resonant bass solo from Jimmy Garrison who shows his depth as a musician by keeping things interesting for over seven minutes. Coltrane’s golden wide-toned soprano is heard from here, in fine form. His playing is again fascinating as he tears immediately into an extended solo that burns like magnified sunlight. When Coltrane finishes his solo at 15:30, Sanders enters in a much more lyrical mood than he was in on “Ogunde”. He quotes the “My Favorite Things” melody at 16:15 and is playing again frenziedly by 20:00.

Coltrane returns, as he often did after McCoy Tyner’s piano solos on this song, with a series of trills to set up his final exposition. And the solo that he plays is wonderful — full of new musical ideas including an extended section where he improvises an outline of shifting chord changes. At 33 minutes, Coltrane plays the familiar tag that always ended his performances of this tune, Ali gives us ample warning that silence is near by throwing drum rolls past the end of the song like a somersaulting body slowly coming to rest, and the concert is over.

If you’re interested in the elemental music of Coltrane’s farthest outposts I would recommend starting elsewhere due to the sound quality of The Olatunji Concert: Meditations (a recording with both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner from his great quartet and Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali from his final quintet) for its cathartic power, Interstellar Space (a record of duos with Rashied Ali) for its alien beauty, and Stellar Regions (which preserves the quartet with Alice Coltrane) for its final new directions. If you like these, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to hear The Olatunji Concert as well.