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John Coltrane: Live Trane: The European Tours

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illustration of John Coltrane

Over half of the music on the box set Live Trane: The European Tours was never released until now. It comes from two-week tours of Europe that the classic quartet took in three successive autumns between 1961 and 1963. Along with the creative turmoil, especially in the leader’s soloing, a sense of exultation in shared virtuoso exploration permeates the Pablo recordings.

By contrast, sorrow emerges from the howls of The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording, dominated by dense storms of percussion and recorded three months before Coltrane’s death in 1967; it too was never released before now.

Taken together these collections form bookends of the live journey Coltrane took in the ’60s when he worked out his ever-swirling ideas in front of audiences both enraptured and bewildered.

Coltrane formed his classic quartet a little more than a year before the 1961 tour, which began two weeks after his famous Village Vanguard sessions. As with his ex-boss Miles Davis’ combos, Coltrane’s quartet was centered on a brilliantly original, aggressive drummer-Elvin Jones in Trane’s band-whose polyrhythmic style and powerful, arrhythmic accenting cried for a player like Coltrane to accompany. The relationship of Coltrane and Jones changes over the three tours documented on Live Trane, and the young veteran pianist McCoy Tyner grows progressively more personal, more distinctive. Reginald Workman is the bassist in 1961, for a CD and a half, after which Jimmy Garrison replaces him. Coltrane had been a jazz star for several years before he formed his own working band, so his concert repertoire was largely his greatest hits. Among these 37 performances of 17 themes are six versions of “My Favorite Things” (a total of two hours), five of “Impressions” (not yet released on LP by the 1961 tour) and, from his Giant Steps masterpiece, five versions of “Mr. P.C.,” four of “Naima” and one of “Cousin Mary.”

Most of the Pablo sessions, originally produced by Norman Granz, begin with chord or key changes. Often as Coltrane’s solos progress he abandons the changes, which was hardly a new procedure since the 1958 Davis sextet with Coltrane had already begun obliterating chord changes. His solos begin with riffs or longer-tone, often theme-derived passages; soon he interjects double-time phrases; before long, double-time takes over his solo. Coltrane soon grows distant from the changes, and his content becomes fast arpeggios, broken scales, fantastically convoluted phrases, madly repeated licks and cubist motives that get reexamined from every possible direction.

Coltrane’s accents on downbeats are usually inevitable, though especially in “My Favorite Things” he likes to play arrhythmic passages that take flight. The great force of this music comes in part from those downbeat accents; from the tension of Coltrane’s harmonic extremes straining against the harmonic setting; and from the magnificent weight and tension of Elvin Jones’ polyrhythmic drumming set against Coltrane’s heavy playing. Coltrane loved the contrast of his own unvarying, clean, iron tones with the heavy resonance of Jones’ drum kit and the density and rich textures of the percussion lines. Never shy, Jones becomes progressively bolder with each tour; by 1963 the tenor solos become sax-drums duets, as Tyner and Garrison lay out.

Coltrane organizes his diverse solos with cyclic forms, and the cycles typically move from simple to complex. Most importantly, the movement in each cycle is organic: his phrases are developments of motives. In blues and “Bye Bye Blackbird,” cycles are a chorus or a strain long; in the two-chord “My Favorite Things,” theme recalls announce new cycles and chord changes. Contrast his form with Eric Dolphy’s solo methods on the 1961 tour. Dolphy’s phrases are full of wide intervallic leaps, and he too features many kinds of phrasing and puts solos together by free association, which makes for some shocking juxtapositions: at best he sounds like explosions in a fireworks factory. Theirs was a most stimulating friendship. Dolphy was probably the only other inside saxophonist as harmonically extreme as Coltrane, or actually more extreme, since he plays phrases that sweep across bar lines while Coltrane still sticks to chorus structures and four-bar phrase units. So after Coltrane’s opening solo in “Impressions,” Dolphy, on alto, opens with hair-raising, arrhythmic, 16th-note phrases as if to say, “Is this what you had in mind, John?” Of course, free association has pitfalls, and apart from “Mr. P.C.,” Dolphy’s solos have awkward moments. His several alto solos are exhilarating, however, and he plays bass clarinet on “Naima”; on “My Favorite Things,” after struggling with the modal idiom, he plays passages in Coltrane’s style-on flute!

It’s customary to write about the titanic dramas and apocalyptic revelations in Coltrane. To the contrary, I hear a playful quality in the soprano solos of “My Favorite Things” and “The Inch Worm.” The longest pieces in each concert are usually “My Favorite Things.” There are also more than two hours of blues, mostly at fast tempos. Of course, each blues is different. Compare two 1962 versions of “Mr. P.C.”: Coltrane plays the first, in Paris, loosely on blues changes and the second, two nights later in Stockholm, mostly outside the changes. The next year on two “Mr. P.C.” duets with Jones, even without the harmonic pull of piano and bass, Coltrane’s multiphonic cries fit the 12-bar-blues framework. In 1963, where nearly half the music in this box is from, there’s a growing sense of pain in his solo self-examinations, even in the modal soprano-sax waltz “Afro Blue.” Among the examples are a fine “Lonnie’s Lament” and long unaccompanied, exhaustive codas to two versions of “I Want to Talk About You.”

There is a great deal more to hear in the Pablo box, including much fine Tyner and Jones soloing. The recording quality is variable, but it’s only annoying on some 1963 tracks when somebody’s humming (Garrison’s?) occasionally drowns out the soloists. The music in general is of the same high quality as Coltrane’s Impulse! albums from the same period.

The Olatunji Concert is another matter entirely. Coltrane’s final group had bassist Garrison, pianist Alice Coltrane, tenor saxist Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali, one of the drummers who took the next step after Elvin Jones and played pure percussion momentum and interplay without reference to meter or tempo. Ali’s style is already dense; on top of that, bat drummer Algie DeWitt and a third percussionist, perhaps Jumma Santos, join in, making for a rainforest of drums. Over them, Alice Coltrane solos in fast lines and Sanders’ extensive split-tone cries sound like extreme but purposeful constructions.

There are two tracks on the CD, and the only sense of familiar structure in “My Favorite Things” is in hasty theme references by Coltrane, on soprano, and Sanders. Coltrane plays tenor in “Ogunde,” but on both pieces the obsessive, nagging elements of his earlier work now dominate and there are extensive sections of overtones and multiphonics screaming. There are also passages of creative imagination amid all the pathos and the chaos. Of course, the implicit message of Coltrane’s musical life is that value lies in the journey, not in the arrival or the destination; this CD presents a journey, not at an end, but still in progress.