Music

Ravi Coltrane and SFJazz Honor John Coltrane with A Love Supreme

Photo courtesy of SFJazz

Considering that Coltrane only played the classic composition in its entirety a single time (at a 1965 show in France), it’s a work of art that remains ripe for further interpretation.


Ravi Coltrane
City: San Francisco, CA
Venue: Miner Auditorium at SFJazz

Jazz great John Coltrane honored on what would be his 91st birthday with performance of his masterpiece

Jazz giant John Coltrane was only 40 years old when he passed from this Earthly plane in 1967 due to liver cancer. The SF Jazz Center has honored Coltrane on numerous occasions and again this week with a series of shows, culminating here on what would have been his 91st birthday with his son Ravi Coltrane leading a tribute performance of the sax legend’s 1964 magnum opus A Love Supreme.

Ravi Coltrane is a skilled saxophonist as well and is set to lead a band that features further family connections with bassist Matthew Garrison (son of John Coltrane Quartet bassist Jimmy Garrison) and drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of John Coltrane collaborator Roy Haynes.) Rounded out by trumpeter/keyboardist Nicholas Payton and guitarist Adam Rogers, the quintet’s performance has generated such a buzz that the evening features two separately ticketed performances. SF Jazz has helped raise the buzz with the release of a “Spiritual Jazz” playlist on Spotify that features tracks from masters like Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra as well as young guns like rising star Kamasi Washington.

There’s something about the spiritual jazz concept that offers a deeper sonic impact than traditional jazz for some listeners, perhaps reflecting the move toward a higher consciousness of the 1960s when jazz musicians started pushing improvisational boundaries to the point that they began to influence rock musicians like Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead. The allure of spiritual jazz isn’t just about pushing sonic boundaries though. Coltrane himself suggested a higher purpose in the liner notes of the original album when he wrote, “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”

Coltrane’s A Love Supreme became an iconic landmark, an album that demanded to be listened to in its entirety in order to perceive the full sonic journey. It’s remained an influential classic through the decades and here into 2017, with Dead and Company even busting out a jam on the main theme on their summer tour. The world’s been in need of more love ever since Donald Trump and his corporatocracy cronies took over the White House, and so these shows provide a noble service in honoring this spiritual ode to ultimate love for the creator… in whatever form listeners might personally relate to themselves. Considering that Coltrane only played the classic composition in its entirety a single time (at a 1965 show in France), it’s a work of art that remains ripe for further interpretation.

Attendees are buzzing in the lobby here on this autumn equinox weekend eager to see the classic work performed, while promos also suggest the music will be “reconceived… on fiercely personal terms”. That is to be expected of course what with how the album is only 32 minutes long. There’s a sacred vibe in the Miner Auditorium as the lights go down, with a readiness of sorts in the air for a spiritual jazz performance that will take the audience higher. Ravi Coltrane and his cohorts warm up with strong performances of “Satellite” and “Crescent”, with the latter strategically being the title track from the album that preceded A Love Supreme. The quintet is loosened up now and ready to dive into the four-part suite.

The iconic opening section of “Acknowledgement” feels somewhat akin to a religious or shamanic ritual. As on the original recording, Ravi Coltrane and the musicians chant the four-note theme at the conclusion of the section, “A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme…” It feels sort of like a Buddhist mantra, and it wouldn’t seem particularly out of place if some Gyuto monks came out on stage chanting as well. Drummer Marcus Gilmore momentarily steals the show during the beginning of the “Pursuance” section, laying down some dynamic solo percussion that is about as compelling as a drum solo can be. Payton also stars here in filling the shoes of the great McCoy Tyner with a dazzling rapid-fire piano solo.

Each of the four sections -- “Acknowledgement-Resolution-Pursuance-Psalm” -- is performed with a vibrant delivery and improvisational flair that finds the players using the original music as a template for further exploration. The original recording didn’t even have a trumpet player or guitarist, so Payton and Rogers add extra elements here that flesh out the music in new ways. Ravi Coltrane stars time and again, playing with a flair and intensity that make him sound a lot like his father. When the show concludes some 90 minutes after it began, it’s hard to fathom where the time went as the set seems to have passed by in a flash. Great live music is known for being able to bend space and time in such a manner, and Ravi Coltrane is following in the footsteps of one of the masters.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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