Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Olé Coltrane: Hope Comes in Many Forms

I am convinced that somewhere the real John Coltrane manages to emerge; I am just unsure where it happens. I won't condescend to claim that his true voice appears on the marvellous, rediculously catchy Blue Train nor on the devastating blow fest that is Giant Steps - long personal favourites of mine in the Coltrane catalogue - just as I would blanche from suggesting that it is revealed on the shrill A Love Supreme nor on the excruiating Ascension. Something tells me that the real John Coltrane might just appear on a comparatively mundane work - a descripive which few of his albums - be they captivating or irritating - merit - but that theory will have to wait until I've found one that qualifies; until then, we can but speculate.

Early and later works alike demonstrate Coltrane's undoubted command over the tenor saxophone during his decade as a prominent soloist and leader. But there is an often overlooked period in the middle in which his desire to craft extraordinary music superseded his virtuosity and obsession with getting every possible sound out of his instrument. This phase coincides with his period on the Atlantic label and his switch to the soprano sax.

(It's an easy instrument to scorn, particuarly since the rise of Kenny G's slick, New Age soloing. Isn't a musician better off picking up a clarinet - itself a much maligned woodwind, conjuring up corny ragtime hits - if they so desire that type of sound? Still, real men play the sax and there was no way Coltrane was going to lead a group playing the sadly outdated licorice stick. Shame.)

Restraint was never one of Coltrane's chief characteristics but the soprano sax managed to keep him in check like never before - or, indeed, again. While his trademark squeaks and honks sound almost bearable - at least some of the time - on the tenor, they would sound positively repulsive on his new reed instrument. (He would dust off his soprano sax from time to time in the subsequent months, notably during a session with Duke Ellington in the autumn of 1962; it's probable his venerable collaborator wanted to have nothing to do with the manic sounds that spewed forth from Coltrane's tenor.) As a result, Olé Coltrane is home to some the most delicate, finely woven playing of his entire career; even his turns on the tenor sax - particularly on the gorgeous McCoy Tyner composition 'Aisha' - deliver enough beauty to counteract any possible recklessness (within the first two minutes, playing a melody reminiscent of the old wartime favourite 'Over There', Coltrane even manages to alchemically turn his tenor into a soprano and back into a tenor).

The liner notes to my copy of Olé argue that this was simply the beginning of Coltrane's hugely influential period on the Impulse! label, laying a "foundation" for his evocations of rapturous spirituality that dominated the final five years of his life. But his attempts - also heard on the contemporaneous Africa/Brass volumes - at blending his virtuosity with supple textures and fragile arrangements proved a massive dead end in a career wrought with them.

Olé Coltrane: perhaps not the real John Coltrane but certainly the John Coltrane that I long to hear.

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