John Coltrane: Offering; Live at Temple University

John Coltrane’s Nov. 11, 1966, concert at Temple University is the stuff of legend, and not all of it good: The event was sparsely attended; the student group that organized it lost money; people walked out; the music was grating, atonal and irritating; Coltrane didn’t bring his A game. Recordings of the show have circulated for years-nearly 48-via fidelity-challenged bootlegs. Coltrane diehards are familiar with the music; the rest of us, not so much.

In the case of Offering: Live at Temple University, it’s exceedingly difficult to divine the truth from the tale. Coltrane: the grandmaster of the tenor saxophone, the man who has influenced generations of admirers and wannabes. Temple 11/11/66: a strange affair indeed, a night that seems entirely unscripted, entirely free. Here, Coltrane is like the actor who, for once, plays himself when (he thinks) the cameras aren’t rolling, and it’s unsettling. Through his horn, Coltrane screams, squawks, yells, bellows; and yet he also sweetly sings, prays, soothes. But-and this, more than perhaps anything else, is why this night is legendary-he sets aside the horn and beats his chest and vocalizes. Why? The scholars and the superfans obsess: Had he done everything he could with the horn and decided to free himself of an instrument’s restraint? Was he so enthralled by the moment that it was the only thing he could do? Was it rapture? Divine intervention? It is not for us to know. He did it, and here it is, preserved for those of us who weren’t even born by the time it happened and yet are still mystified by it.

Coltrane would be dead eight months later, another reason for this concert’s consecration. Clearly though, something was happening that night, and there is no denying it was spiritual. His reeds were merely tools through which he praised Lord and life. And this concert was as raw as-no, rawer than-anything he’d ever put to tape.

The band included Coltrane on tenor, soprano and flute; Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax (growling nuttily, mostly) and piccolo; Alice Coltrane, John’s wife, on piano, serving up wild arpeggios and dissonant runs; bassist Sonny Johnson, barely mic’d and almost invisible as far as we are concerned; drummer Rashied Ali, every bit the rhythm-refusenik of Interstellar Space; and a ragtag crew of stringers on alto saxophone and percussion.

In the set was “Naima,” marked by Coltrane’s searching passages, Alice’s thick, dramatic runs and Sanders’ ridiculous barks and shrieks; at 16-plus harsh minutes, it is nothing like the “Naima” recorded seven years earlier for Giant Steps. “Crescent” is equally separatist, with a rumbling rhythm and a darkness that veers far from its gorgeous melody until its 26 minutes are nearly gone, when it returns full bore, reminding us that there is beauty amid the tumult. “Leo” begins with competing honks an octave apart, delivered over chaotic drumming. Sanders takes over, screeching ecstatically and anti-melodically, and then it happens: Coltrane, no horn, begins to sing, without words. On it goes for the rest of its 21 minutes and change-Sanders squawking, Coltrane vocalizing wordlessly, later pounding his chest to add tremolo. (Frustratingly, the performance ends abruptly, when the tape ran out.) Coltrane’s all-but-unaccompanied solo of “Offering,” a mere interlude at four minutes, serves more or less as a moment of rest before the finale of “My Favorite Things,” a 23-minute workout that makes his prior takes of that song seem poppish by comparison: Hear the fanciful counter-rhythms, adventurous detours that sideswipe the melody, a long segment in which insistent piano and skittering percussion duke it out and wacko chanting/vocalizing/caterwauling (now with piccolo!).

Is Offering: Live at Temple University a great album? No. It’s too weird, too difficult, too gritty, too … nonmusical. Is it an essential album? By God, it is. No one is going to listen to this album on repeat. But from this point on, no one can claim to know Coltrane without hearing it.