Kronomyth 23.0: A TURKISH DELIGHT. The danger in my making any pronouncement about a particular John Coltrane album is my passing familiarity with the vast body of his work. I’ve heard perhaps a dozen albums, read the glowing praise of pundits with cold disinterest and have divided his records into two camps of “eh” and “ooh.” Crescent belongs to the latter and would currently make my shortlist of quintessential Coltrane. Chronologically, it’s smack in the middle of his classic period, flanked by one of the great quartets from the twentieth century: McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. If you were going to introduce someone to the work of Coltrane, it would be in their company. From the opening moments of “Crescent,” we’re introduced to Coltrane the creator, whose musical vistas spread unhurried like dawn over a dark landscape. There is something supremely confident and natural in the way that Coltrane and the quartet can turn over a melody and slowly admire every facet, then play with it like a cat with a mouse. For the first half of the record, Coltrane is the master mouser, unleashing diabolical solos, resting in thoughtful repose and channeling his fury anew. On the last two songs, Coltrane steps back to let his band have the spotlight; Tyner steps out of the way entirely on “The Drum Thing,” leaving Coltrane, Garrison and Jones to smolder like some exotic censer. The contributions of the quartet here are significant: Tyner’s masterful strokes of color, Garrison’s eastern-inflected bass, Jones’ subtle but strong rhythms. They’re the perfect complement to Coltrane’s unhurried and uninhibited muse, shedding light on the lush green of lovely melodies or receding while the stormclouds of his genius raged. Really, the whole record is perfection, which I realize is what most people say about most Coltrane records, but most of the time I don’t agree with them. This time, however, the quartet has painted a masterpiece.
Kronomyth 4.0: FROM ART, BLUE NOTES AND MILES TO GO. The second Blue Note set features six original compositions on tenor with Trane’s gang: McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman. It’s lyrical (natch) and direct, Shorter’s tenor cutting through the cloud rumblings of Tyner and Jones. The songs are typical of the tamed tempests from the early 60s, marked by sophisticated balladry (“House of Jade”), touristic travels abroad (“Mahjong,” “Juju”) and artful contrasts (“Yes Or No”). Unfortunately, any deeper discussion usually devolves into the jazz critic’s cant of harmonic shifts, modal scales and timbral distinctions, words that only serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate. So, in the hope of shedding some light on this fine work, I’ll tackle a few of the weightier descriptors. Harmonic suspensions (courtesy of Bob Blumenthal’s 1999 liner notes): the carrying over of a note while the harmony shifts. Augmented chords (some guy at Amazon): basically a chord with a sharp note at the end (e.g., C-E-G#). Modal jazz: style of jazz popularized by Coltrane where the playing is founded on a particular scale (or mode) rather than a series of chords. I find these technical terms standoffish, since they tell me what the music is from a compositional standpoint but they say nothing to me about what the music feels like. Now, maybe you get a little chill when you hear the words “modal jazz,” I don’t know. And I suppose I envy you a little if you do. For me, Juju is the throaty tone of the tenor leading an upright and polite discussion while the piano and drums crash and tumble like leaves loosed in a small whirlwind and the bass harrumphing in accord with whatever the sax is saying. No modalities, tonalities or harmonic abnormalities enter my mind when I hear it. Apparently, the session is indebted to Coltrane and purportedly an homage to him. Again, I just know what I like, and I like how Juju swings. It’s a different chapter than Shorter’s later fusion or R&B records, but I think I’ll stick around the 60s with Shorter for the time being.
Kronomyth 42.0: NEWPORT KINGS. This is a posthumous release featuring a pair of live tracks from the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival plus an unreleased recording from the Kulu Se Mama sessions, “Selflessness.” The time between the recordings was only two years, yet they’re light-years removed from each other stylistically. The live recordings are adventurous, of course, but still anchored in a traditional four-piece lineup. “Selflessness,” recorded as an eight-piece, is completely untethered from tradition or convention; it sounds like two different songs superimposed on one another, with persistent hand percussion clapping in one ear against the chaos of creation itself. What strikes me when listening to the live recordings is how time seems to slow down for Coltrane. He finds nuances in the music that you didn’t know existed, as though everyone were moving at half-speed except him, freeing his tenor saxophone to leap and dart between the notes. There are the typical squalls of sound from the saxophone (at times, the man sounds like a goose caught in a twister), which serve to make the twisting, melodic passages more beautiful. And, as often happens with Coltrane, the tenor saxophone discovers a completely new voice that you didn’t know the instrument could produce: an unearthly flutter at the end of “My Favorite Things,” a honk that morphs into mechanical distortion on “Selflessness.” Both recordings feature the classic quartet (minus Elvin Jones) with appearances from Roy Haynes, Frank Butler and Pharoah Sanders. McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison shine on “My Favorite Things,” but the spotlight is never far from Coltrane; his solo at the end of “I Want To Talk About You,” which might have been merely an exclamation point, instead becomes an entirely new conversation with the audience. The attraction of this disc is the startling “Selflessness” and the unstartling supremacy of the classic quartet (with Haynes) onstage. The live recording leaves something to be desired, but the performance is typically top notch. Not the first Coltrane disc you need to hear, obviously, but a better bet to please than some of those early Prestige recordings.
This elpee was a source of speculation for years, as I wondered what such a serendipitous summit of ivory merchants might sound like together. Apparently, I am a rube. This is simply a compilation of old and, in most cases, previously released material cobbled together to make a buck off of inexperienced jazz-tasters like, well, me. The selections are culled from Atlantic’s vaults: a pair each from the debuts of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, two selections from Ron Carter’s Uptown Conversation (Atlantic didn’t have the rights to any of Hancock’s solo material) and two unreleased tracks featuring three-quarters of John Coltrane’s band that date from the My Favorite Things sessions. The goal here, I guess, is to sample and compare the pianists’ different styles, but you’d really want a different platter to pick from. The album seems to get progressively difficult as it moves along. Jarrett is fluid and gentle, Corea plays in terse bursts of sound, Tyner is a torrent of notes and Hancock plays the willing accomplice to Carter’s artier explorations. I was only familiar with the Corea songs going into this, and they did sound different to me; the liner notes allude to a remix by Lew Hahn, so I’ll have to do a little more digging into that some day. Except for “This Is New,” everything here features the bass/drums/piano trio format, which always gives the piano plenty of room to breathe. You can hear that each pianist has their own distinctive style, but these styles would change over time, so comparing them here is pointless. Surprisingly, Atlantic re-issued this compilation on compact disc so a new generation can now experience the magic of being suckered into a star-studded compilation of stale treats.