This follow-up to Saxophone Summit’s triumphant 2004 debut, Gathering of Spirits, resonates with deep meaning on a number of levels. First, it is shrouded in sadness due to the absence of founding member Michael Brecker, whom this disc is dedicated to. Secondly, his replacement in the Sax Summit lineup is Ravi Coltrane, a natural heir to the Trane legacy that Brecker and fellow saxophonists Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman embraced throughout their careers. Furthermore, it includes two latter-day Trane pieces, “Expression” and “Seraphic Light,” that Ravi’s mother and John’s widow, the late Alice Coltrane, originally played on. (By tragic coincidence, Alice passed away on January 12, 2007, a day before Michael Brecker died.)
Given all of these heavy circumstances coming into the October 2007 session, it’s easy to see why Seraphic Light bristles with moments of cathartic intensity and joyous abandon. The three Trane pieces here—“Cosmos” (from Live in Seattle), “Seraphic Light” (from Stellar Regions) and “Expression” (the title track from John Coltrane’s final studio sessions in February-March 1967)—contain dense, atonal excursions that might scare away timid listeners. And yet there are other moments here that are far more listener-friendly than the previous Sax Summit outing, making for a kind of yin-yang project. Or, as Liebman puts it in the liner notes: “In essence we have two albums in one. The original tunes are to my ears quite accessible and compact in their performances, offering a needed contrast to the weightier Coltrane material.”
Originally formed in 1997 as a loose blowing ensemble for a John Coltrane tribute in Japan, Saxophone Summit evolved over several gigs into a tight working unit with well-planned arrangements and thoughtful originals. That tightness manifested on Gathering of Spirits and continues on Seraphic Light with the superb rhythm tandem of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart returning to provide solid grounding in the midst of the most outré excursions. The underrated pianist Phil Markowitz, also returning from Gathering of Spirits, is a key presence here, offering the kind of extended voicings and glistening arpeggios that both McCoy Tyner and Alice Coltrane brought to John Coltrane’s expansive vision.
This time out, every member of the group contributes a composition. Markowitz’s “Transitions” kicks off the proceedings in spirited fashion, shifting from a brisk 6/8 pulse beneath Lovano’s and Coltrane’s tenor solos to a gentle rubato section underscoring Liebman’s probing soprano solo. Ravi’s “The Thirteenth Floor” opens with a juggling of angular ostinatos—the kind of contrapuntal web that he regularly dealt with during his tenure in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements—with Lovano repeating a low-end motif on alto clarinet while Coltrane on tenor joins together on some intricate unison lines with Liebman on C flute. As the piece develops, the hypnotic form holds while the three horn players engage in more freewheeling exchanges, with Lovano switching to Scottish flute and Liebman on wooden flute. Hart’s “Reneda” is an affecting melody that showcases Liebman’s flowing lyricism and unbridled improvisations on soprano sax, and also highlights Markowitz’s gentle, cascading touch at the keyboard. McBee’s gorgeous “All About You” (originally written in 1973) sets a sublime tone for Ravi’s beautiful ballad playing on tenor, and showcases the great bassist in an extended dramatic solo.
Trumpeter Randy Brecker makes a special guest appearance on his urgent “Message to Mike,” which is built on a funky riff that was a Mike Brecker signature. The tune is fueled by Hart’s Latin-flavored pulse and slamming backbeat and employs generous doses of simultaneous soloing by all four horn players so that by the end of piece it sounds like a frantic Dixieland band in full wail. Liebman’s more introspective “Alpha and Omega” presents a somber blend of Coltrane’s tenor sax, Lovano’s alto clarinet and Liebman’s soprano sax against the sparse, rubato accompaniment of Hart, McBee and Markowitz. Lovano’s breezy “Our Daily Bread,” in which Joe on tenor, Ravi on soprano and Liebman on C-flute engage in some freewheeling exchanges over a midtempo swing groove, is perhaps the most accessible number on the album, standing in direct contrast to the dense and lengthy Coltrane numbers that close out the collection on a heightened level.
The three principals delve into Trane’s “Cosmos” with unbridled conviction, summoning up ferocious intensity on tenors while Markowitz tweaks the proceedings with powerful, harmonically provocative piano work. Lovano switches to the aulochrome (an odd Dr. Seuss-like double soprano saxophone) for the brooding, hymnlike title track, which escalates over 11 minutes to some impassioned free blowing by each of the saxophonists and includes a stirring African-inspired drum solo by Hart. But the peak of heightened intensity is reached on the final track “Expression,” in which Randy Brecker joins the three tenor players for some ecstatic free-jazz blowing underscored by Hart’s rolling pulse to conclude this spiritually charged offering.
Of course, Alice Coltrane never used to term “jazz” to describe her husband’s late works, describing it instead as “music of a higher principle.” That definition certainly applies to a great deal of Seraphic Light.