Coltrane Lives on in "The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording"
Between flashily choreographed dance numbers at last year's Grammys, Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell came onstage to announce the winner for Album of the Year. The two stood unaffected by the massive crowd, lights, or anything else for that matter. The lines had piled up on their faces from years of the vicissitudes of show biz, and it was plain the music industry's paint-by-numbers spectacle was only mildly interesting to them. Patiently, they delivered the pre-fabricated patter leading up to opening the envelope. As Santana ripped the envelope, Mitchell spoke the inevitable, "And the winner for best album of the year is…" (about here I remember stifling a yawn), when Santana suddenly chimed in, " ‘A Love Supreme' by John Coltrane!" They both smiled deeply. It turned out that Eminem won the Best Album of 2001, but the album of the year for Santana and Joni Mitchell, this year and every other year since 1964, was "A Love Supreme."
For jazz fans, John Coltrane's ascent, or descent, depending on their personal view of '60s jazz, from soloist in Miles Davis' legendary first quintet—when jazz aficionados speak of THE rhythm section, they mean Miles' first quintet's rhythm section—is a well-known tale. His final recordings, of which "The Olatunji Concert" is the last live one, remain controversial today. In the mid-'50s, he became, after audiences got used to him, one of the most daring and individual post-bop soloists, who was also in one of the best groups ever. Coltrane's solo LPs with various groups, and finally with his own classic quartet in the early '60s, recorded him filling his musical structures to the bursting point. The music was challenging and irrepressible. "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things" arrived on record store shelves as classics.
Then what had been stretched burst. After trying basic experimentations, shortening his solos and adding members to the quartet, a radical shift took place. "A Love Supreme" was the last moment that the audience remained unified behind Coltrane. That record captured Coltrane in conflict between assembling the sound palette he needed to relate his "spiritual love" and slowly sacrificing his other love—the form of jazz. After that record, while still nominally a jazz performer, he began an exploration of atonality that would last the rest of his life. He had to disband his classic quartet, only retaining the bassist Jimmy Garrison. His new group of Alice Coltrane (his wife) on piano, Rashid Ali on drums and Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax, created a radical reformulation of Coltrane's method of unhinging the form of jazz—spurred on by both Ornette Coleman's exemplary loosening of the jazz idiom and his own further interior quest to meld his spiritual search with musical expression. Those who weren't interested in free jazz were left behind. Those who weren't particularly spiritual felt they were excluded. But those who were with Coltrane—whether spiritual, interested in free jazz, or just with him anyway—were enraptured. The audience got smaller, but more fervent.
Trane-ing the Ears
Just as passionate classical music listeners frequently sigh and throw up their hands when Serialism and Atonality are mentioned, many jazz fanatics are bemused when it comes to late Coltrane and other free jazz heavyweights, such as Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler. The music Coltrane conjures is not hummable, easy, or relaxing. The wails, grunts and honks that he wrenches from his saxophone are several miles away from mellifluous. So often styles like free jazz or "atonal" music can be suitable camouflage for third- or fourth-tier talents, since it is easy to bluff your audience. But that does not disqualify those forms of expression. When engaged by a talent like Coltrane's, or Pharoah Sanders', free jazz can go beyond being a platform for some improvisatory honking, to achieving an emotional response that no other type of music can produce. Once sounds like those Coltrane and his group produced at "The Olatunji Concert" are fully ingested by the listener, a lot of other music sounds rather tepid.
The first track, just under a half hour, is based on an Afro-Brazilian song, but almost immediately it becomes a study of sustained dissonance. The second track is "My Favorite Things," which, although the chorus appears intermittently, had a year or two before become a radicalized version, far removed from the tuneful, and by then, famous, performance on the "My Favorite Things" LP. It, too, after a five-minute bass solo, is a long workout of Coltrane and company's sprawling polyphony.
Those who were hooked on Coltrane kept buying his records long after he died in 1967. He left behind seven posthumous albums that were released throughout the rest of the '60s, but among fanatics there had been talk of the bootleg of his last recorded concert at the Babatunde Olatunji's Center for African Culture in Manhattan. Mythic in stature—the '60s jazz equivalent of a fifth Beatle, or the Beach Boys' "Smile" album—the recording captured another augmented form of his quintet spurring Coltrane on to shove his spirit and sweat out of the bell of his saxophone with all his might, which was nothing paltry since he was practicing ten to twelve hours a day at that time. Pharoah Sanders, whom Coltrane hired because of his spiritual dimension, gives some massive solos, ranging from playful to fierce, but Coltrane out-muscles everyone and the show is his. Three months later he was dead, in the midst of an artistic peak. Officially, stomach cancer was the cause, but a drug-filled youth and a monomaniacal focus on music, as this album shows, up until his last days, were probably the main causes. He performed in front of an audience only once after this concert and it wasn't recorded.
Don't buy this record for background music for cleaning the house or driving the car. Buy the record, go home, unplug your phone, make the conscious decision that irritating your neighbors is an occasionally unavoidable fact of life, and listen.