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Catastrophic Coltrane

Where was John Coltrane headed in the last phase of his musical journey?
Coltrane.jpg

Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos

A television showing John Coltrane, Equatorial Guinea, 1990

Offering: Live at Temple University offers further evidence of the catastrophe of the last phase of John Coltrane’s work. “Last” rather than “late” because he became ill and died too suddenly (on July 17, 1967), too early, to have properly entered a late period. He was forty. In any other field of activity that would be a desperately short life. Only in jazz could it be considered broadly in line with actuarial norms. So there’s no late phase in the accepted sense of Beethoven having arrived at a late style, only a sudden ceasing of the unceasing torrent of sound.

The interest of recordings from this final phase—in which Coltrane’s playing became increasingly frenzied and the accompaniment more abstracted—lies partly in what they preserve and partly in any hints they contain as to where Trane might have headed next. Given the composition titles from the last studio duets recorded with drummer Rashied Ali in February 1967—“Mars,” “Venus,” “Jupiter,” “Saturn”—and released posthumously on Interstellar Space, the question might reasonably be asked, where was there left to go?

This latest discovery—more exactly recovery since parts of the concert have circulated as poorly produced bootlegs—in the ongoing archaeological dig of Trane’s work was recorded in Philadelphia, on November 11, 1966. There’s a degree of irony about the date, Armistice Day, with its traditional Minute’s Silence, given the shrieking, screaming, and wildness—the ferocious anti-silence—of the music. Three of the concert’s six songs—“Crescent,” “Leo,” and “My Favorite Things”—are over twenty minutes each. Only the title track, a short and devastated ballad, offers respite from the extended wailing and overblowing.

Things were happening so fast in jazz at the time—and with Trane in particular—that it’s startling to realize that First Meditations (for Quartet), his last, partially great recordings with the classic quartet (McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison) had been made on September 2, 1965. I played First Meditations after repeatedly listening to Offering and found it, if such a thing is possible, even more overwhelming than I did when I listened to it regularly back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You can hear the quartet straining at the limits of cohesion, Trane pushing beyond that—and, perhaps, from Tyner and Jones an undertow of regret. I say “partially great” because it still loses me after the first two pieces, “Love” and “Compassion.”

Numerous times in the past the quartet had brought a tune back from the silence into which it had subsided (on “Spiritual” from Live at the Village Vanguard, for example, or “Alabama” on Live at Birdland). The transition between “Love” and “Compassion” will be the last such resurrection, all the more miraculous because, in “Love,” the yearning of Trane’s cry is enhanced by resignation: by the acknowledgement (an advance on the section of that name on A Love Supreme) that it will not be answered. Trane might not have had a late phase, but the quartet certainly did.

Tyner and Jones stayed on for a while, their contributions diluted by drummer Rashied Ali (who appears, along with Pharoah Sanders, on the revised version of Meditations recorded on November 23) before both departed (with Alice Coltrane taking over piano). Only Garrison stayed to the end (though he’s missing at the Temple gig, replaced by Sonny Johnson on bass). It’s an extraordinary idea: adding another drummer when you’ve already got Elvin Jones in the engine room. (Visual confirmation of Elvin’s unmatchable power is provided by footage of the quartet playing an unseasonably cold festival in 1965. Elvin is behind the traps, in a sports coat; steam is pouring off him.) But Coltrane seems to have felt compelled to add musicians in the hope that doing so would clarify the reason for having done so. Pharoah Sanders, a constant partner on tenor in this final phase, is briefly joined at Temple by a couple of young saxophonists, Steve Knoblauch and Arnold Joyner, both of whom play free. Four additional percussionists also have a chance to sit in.

One applauds the democratic inclusiveness while remaining uncertain as to the result. It must have been incredibly exciting to have been there that night (even if, for circumstantial reasons, the house was not full) but, as often happens with free jazz, that excitement fades after the event, on record. Or perhaps it just makes evident what was harder to grasp in the intoxicating frenzy of the moment: that free jazz had run its course—come up against its limits—while the course was still being run and the limits breached. The fact that things fall apart does not mean that they can’t keep going, especially given the huge freight of history that the music and its revolutionary promptings and trappings is, at this point, obliged to bear. On that note, one wonders about Yeats’s claim that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Trane is as passionately intense as ever. Did he lack conviction? Maybe the Yeatsian opposition is false and passionate intensity covers up or disguises a deeper lack of conviction.

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The novelty or specific interest of this set is the way that Trane sort of sings, or vocalizes, or makes noises and beats his chest in the midst of “Leo” and “My Favorite Things.” These eagerly anticipated moments actually sound a bit daft—which is not to say that they were without value. Perhaps they stayed with Pharoah and provided inspiration for the occasion when, while tearing up Coltrane’s “Ole” at the Keystone Korner on January 23, 1982, he takes the horn out of his mouth and screams. The scream is like fuel thrown on a fire already blazing with the power of Pharoah’s solo and the gale force of the rhythm section. That kind of propulsive force—saturated with elements first harnessed by Coltrane’s classic quartet—was considerably diminished in the sonic shimmer of Trane’s last phase: something he felt he no longer needed, that he may even have regarded as restricting his journey to…

Well, the sleeve notes by Ashley Kahn are extremely informative, but I would question the assumption that there is something “spiritual” about this last phase of Trane’s musical journey. If it’s there I can’t hear it. What I do hear is the momentum of what he’d done before—and a situation he’d helped to create—carrying him towards a terminus, a brick wall, a dead-end or, in the cosmic scheme of things, some kind of interstellar void. Or, to bring things back down to earth with Elvin’s reasons for quitting, “a lot of noise.” The sense of inevitability is tempered by an adjacent example of avoidability. Miles Davis (hard to imagine this famously mean mother letting those kids sit in or of anyone describing his musical journey in “spiritual” terms) avoided the trap of free jazz while corralling much of its swirling energy. At the time of Trane’s Temple University concert Miles was leading his second great quintet (Hancock, Carter, Shorter, Williams) and would soon move ahead into the still more protean phase of In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and beyond.

At this late stage I should confess that the word catastrophe in the opening paragraph carried a little freight of its own. For while Coltrane’s was a last rather than late phase, bits of Adorno’s defining analysis of late style—“In the history of art late works are the catastrophe”—flared into view while listening to Offering. The clichéd idea of Beethoven’s late style, according to Adorno, is that he broke through to a realm of pure expression, free of conventions. In late works, or so the conventional view maintains, the artist’s personality “breaks through the envelope of form to better express itself, transforming harmony into the dissonance of its suffering, and disdaining sensual charms with the sovereign self-assurance of the spirit liberated.”

Is that what happens here? Isn’t that what free jazz is all about? Except, of course, that Coltrane keeps coming back to old forms and old favorites—opening the set with “Naima” and ending it by gouging everything but the heart out of “My Favorite Things.” (By comparison with this performance, the version of “My Favorite Things” recorded in Japan less than three months earlier is positively catchy.) So little is left of the original Rodgers and Hammerstein composition that, amid all the wreckage, “one finds formulas and phrases of convention scattered about.” Their loveliness is briefly enhanced by the ravaged landscape that is always about to engulf them.



Offering: Live at Temple University has just been released by Resonance Records.

An earlier version of this post misstated John Coltrane’s age at the time of his death. The post has been corrected.

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