Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Ears 2014: Vote Early and Often

What another great round of responses! You all have proven once again that your tastes are impeccable, ears are unflappable, and have helped to confirm the observation that it has indeed been another great year for new music!

We had over 150 albums nominated for the New Ears 2014 award and though it wasn't easy to take all of the great suggestions and tease out a select 15 16, but here they are … to the right ... ready for your votes.

You can vote between now and December 31 at midnight, when the winner will be declared and a new year of new music begins. Please remember - this is NOT ABOUT THE BEST ALBUM, but about the MOST INNOVATIVE LISTENING EXPERIENCE.

So as we have said before … “cast your votes, mobilize your fans, persuade the cynics, convince the indifferent, wake up the musical sleepers .... and have fun!”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Matt Nelson - Lower Bottoms (Northern Spy, 2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

One may think, from titles of the tracks on saxophonist Matt Nelson's solo recording Lower Bottoms that he's a bit a jaded .... 'Sunk Cost', 'Sworn Enemies', 'Motor Mouth' and 'To Believe in What' all seem a bit, well, down. However, good to know that Nelson seems to be a master of subterfuge - not only are the tracks teeming with lifeblood but the term solo saxophone is completely subverted with the tools he applies - loops and electronics that help construct a sonic world unto itself. The end result is not what you may think of as solo sax, but a soundscape of depth and precision that gives the listener a real experience. 

The nearly 10 minutes of 'Sunk Costs' begins with the lone sax, travels through a dense patch of post-rock intensity, and ends in a firestorm of melodic phrases. 'Sworn Enemies' follows suit - in that it's not what you would expect - after a percussive beginning where Nelson is maybe amplifying the sound of his keys clamping, creating a mesmerizing sound sculpture that slowly pounds its way into an electronic skronk. 'Motor Mouth' is unusual in that you hear the sax being simply a sax. Less electronically manipulated, but still treated to some processing, the song unravels like a long tangle of melody, captivating in its circular motions. The closing 'To Believe in What' is a forlorn cry - some part primal, some part a nautical horn, and all emotion - squalls of electronics threaten to swallow the bellowing sax but it always navigates its way through the fog.  

Nelson is a member of the recently reviewed Battle Trance, another unusual sax oriented recording that plumbs the depths of circular breathing and repetition. An unique sound and approach, and another great solo saxophone recording from 2014.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Eldbjørg Raknes & Oscar Grönberg - You Make Me Feel (My Recordings, 2014) ****

By Eyal Hareuveni

Norwegian, Trondheim-based vocal artist Eldbjørg Raknes is known for her a highly expressive, free improvised and wordless, vocal technique, often enhanced with a subtle usage of electronics. She is also an esteemed educator, an associate professor at the jazz department of Trondheim NTNU University, a close collaborator of some of the forward-thinking musicians as pianist Christian Wallumrød, guitarist Stian Westerhus (who mixed this album) and sax player Eirik Hegdal and runs the countryside Sjøbygda Kunstnarhus, a hothouse for artistic projects (Raknes was the one who encouraged drummer Paal Nilssen-Love to form his dream band, the Large Unit, in this place).

Raknes is also an artist that never subscribes herself to any genre or style. So it is no surprise that she wanted to explore again the jazz standards tradition but as she defines it, “where one can go with it!” She invited Swedish pianist Oscar Grönberg, who now resides in Trondheim, member of sax player Hanna Paulsberg’s Concept and the free jazz Friends & Neighbors group, to join her. The album was recorded on the second rehearsal session, with a view of the beautiful, peaceful scenery of the Stamsund island in the Lofoten archipelago in northern Norway.

The quiet atmosphere of the recording, together with the fresh, skeletal arrangements of the familiar standards charged these songs with a unique aroma. Raknes sings Gerry Goffin/Carole King “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) or her own adaption of American poetess Dorothy Parker “On Being a Woman” like a mature, compassionate meditation on woman sensuality from a perspective of a wise, experienced woman who has her own insights about the elusive nature of love, romance, its fragility and its great, formative power of love in our lives. The economic playing of Grönberg on songs as “Blame It On My Youth”, “When You Wish Upon A Star”, “Takes Two to Tango” or Joni Mitchell’s “River” adds a deeper contemplative dimension to these topical songs. All songs suggest and do sound now, in its modest, subtle arrangements, as offering illuminating insights on love, in its many manifestations. The last song, Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein “Somewhere” receives a minimalist-meditative arrangement that turns it into a touching lovers prayer.

The patient, leisured phrasing of the clever lyrics highlights the rich, deep-toned voice of Raknes and the profound understanding of Grönberg of the melodic essence of these songs. Both suggest an organic vibrant interplay that attempts to reintroduce and revisit these timeless emotional songs from a contemporary angle that encompasses its innocence - in most of the lyrics and the melodic core - with a skeptic irony.

Listen here:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Cory Wright Outfit: Apples + Oranges (Singlespeed Music, 2014) *****

Reviewed by Joe

I have to say straight away that this is a new one for me, a great surprise. Singlespeed mentioned in a press release that he was bringing out a record from Cory Wright, unbeknown to me this record was going to blow me out of my chair (the sofa, in reality).

Next, what type of music is it?

What really defines the music on this release is the excellent ensemble playing, combined with beautifully written charts and arrangements, there isn't one duff track on the record. The underlying trend of the music is built on tradition, and in particular that of hard-bop. Yet, the group, and the compositions, take this much, much further. The music develops in an extremely organic fashion, using some intriguing methods, tempo changes, improvised sections and hot fiery solos. The music sits on neither side of the fence, taking in straight ahead and improvised musical traditions. Cory Wright has put together a set of charts which succeed in the same way that the Ken Vandermark Five have tried in the past. Other groups, such as Atomic or Motif, have also pushed in the same direction, combining accessible melodies with alternative ways of soloing over (or with) material. 

On this record examples of that can be found from the start Freddie Awaits the Sleepers blasts off the record, a theme that could come straight from the Marsalis song-book (with a difference). Great melody, wonderfully arranged interlocking hits and rhythm section breaks, before letting the soloists play their magic over the whole thing.

That's just the beginning of the record, things keep coming at you! Low Impact Critter (tk2) starts off with some great free blowing before coming together for a theme, using an impro/theme/impro/theme type form, to great effect. St. Bruno's Preview (tk3), gives you a breather, a short 'to the point', quasi ballad. Many of the pieces tread a fine path between total freedom and organised melody, added to this the soloists negotiate each piece, fitting in perfectly. One of the key soloists, Evan Francis (alto sax and flute), plays some very fiery solos, using strong sinewy lines to bring tension to the music. Cory Wright also plays some excellent tenor sax, reminding me of Oliver Nelson at times - a way of playing a sax like a composer. He also plays clarinet on The Sea and Space (tk5), giving us new colours in the ensemble sound, and of course the solos also. But the whole ensemble is clearly top notch, Rob Ewing, on trombone, plays a key role in the ensemble's sound, adding fine imaginative solos along the way. Add to that the fine bass and drums team of Lisa Mezzacappa and Jordan Glenn who do a great job of bending over backwards to fit into all situations with equal energy and inventiveness. The album clearly works best listened to as a whole, the shorter pieces - all titled St. Bruno's .... - work as melodic interludes connecting the larger scale pieces.

Finally, as you can see there's plenty to say about this record. It's a top notch album that should be heard, especially by those interested to hear inventive music from the American west coast. This is how one imagines jazz should be, fresh, musical, adventurous, and certainly no pretensions.      

The musicians: Cory Wright - tenor sax & Bb clarinet; Evan Francis - alto sax, flute; Rob Ewing - trombone; Lisa Mezzacappa - bass; Jordan Glenn - drums.


p.s. Although the CD was recorded in 2013, I understood (maybe incorrectly) that the release was in 2014. Anyhow, its a great album, don't miss it! You'll find a nice live video on YouTube, for all interested. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Wayne Horvitz: Conductor, Composer, Inspiration

Wayne Horvitz and The Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble - At the Reception (Songlines, 2014) ****½

By Paul Acquaro

On his Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble recording “At the Reception” - keyboardist, composer and conductor Wayne Horvitz leads a big band through a set of his compositions that involve a great deal of improvisation and are highly enjoyable to listen to, over and over again. The music is collection of themes that long time listeners of Horvitz may recognize from recordings like “American Bandstand”, “Sweeter than they Day”, and the Gravitas Quartet. What sets this set apart is of course the big band setting and the process in which he shapes the music.

In fact, it’s the later part that is discussed in the liner notes. Horvitz begins his notes referencing his work with the late Lawrence “Butch” Morris, who had developed an approach to improvisation and large ensemble improvization that he called “Conduction”. The site “” offers an explanation of Morris' approach:
Conduction®: A vocabulary of ideographic signs and gestures activated to modify or construct a real-time musical arrangement (of any notation) or composition. Each sign and gesture transmits generative information for interpretation and provides instantaneous possibilities for altering or initiating harmony, melody, rhythm, articulation, phrasing or form.
As Horvitz explains, it was through a deconstruction and reconstruction of the methods that he learned when working with Morris in the 1980s that he came up with his own approach to working with a large ensemble. Unlike Morris, who worked with more spontaneous developments, Horvitz moves around composed sections and has his musicians develop their improvisations through his compositional frameworks. Though his initial work was with high school students, he transferred this approach to more seasoned and professional musicians. This ensemble is currently working out of the Royal Room in Seattle and creating music of wonderful subtlety and contrasting grand sweeps of sound. 

After the refined bass intro to “Daylight”, a composition from his rock oriented late 1990's group “PigPen”, the group explodes into  free playing that eventually funnels into a solo by trumpeter Samantha Boshnack. As interesting as the soloists are, the background playing needs to be called out too as it creates an ever changing tapestry of tonality and colors. The track “Trish” is a gorgeous movement of chords shifting and under a pleasant melody. Another highlight is on the following track "Barber Shop," a work Horvitz composed for a Charlie Chaplin movie soundtrack. It features the work of soprano sax player Kate Olson (from the duo The Syrinx Effect, whose other member Naomi Siegel also plays on this recording) and tenor player Skerik, who co-leads the joyful marching band-esque romp. “Ironbound” is a track that features the horn section in making an abstract picture. Broken into a virtual “Side A” and “Side B”, the album continues with a program of music that continues to captivate with an interpretation of Sweeter than the Day’s “Prepaid Funeral”.

At the Reception is an excellent large ensemble recording that doesn’t aim to challenge the listener by pushing them to edge, as it rather engages the listener with the spontaneous arrangements. These interpretations of Horvitz’s music are enjoyable to hear and can easily appeal to listeners beyond the dedicated avant-garde jazz audience. The album’s appeal grows more on each listen as new musical details emerge.

The collective is: Ivan Arteaga: alto saxophone; Samantha Boshnack: trumpet; Ryan Burns: piano; Eric Eagle: drums; Geoff Harper: bass; Jacob Herring: trombone; Al Keith: trumpet; Willem de Koch: trombone; Beth Fleenor: clarinet; Steve O’Brien: trumpet; Kate Olson: soprano saxophone; Naomi Siegel: trombone; Greg Sinibaldi: baritone saxophone; Skerik: tenor saxophone; Wayne Horvitz: conductor, composer

Wayne Horvitz - 55: Music and Dance in Concrete (Songlines, 2014) ****

When you pick up the LP of Wayne Horvitz's 55: Music and Dance in Concrete you may be struck by its austere beauty. The image, the booklet, the sound, all work to re-create the location of the visual and acoustic properties of a circa-1900 Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington, nestled amongst the temperate rain forests, jagged Olympic peaks and cool waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The album cover depicts concrete like the bunkers of the fort, and the LP size insert booklet sports a cover of a dancer, bathed in blues, reds and greens. The printed booklet captures a bit of the multi-media project it represents.

The music is modern classical and “modular”, composed out of short tracks that when downloaded from the internet (the LP contains a sampling, the download card several more) run from a minute to no more than four. According to the liner notes, Horvtiz composed 55 short pieces, and then additionally recorded 55 improvisations with a chamber group at the fort, and from these 110 pieces constructed the music that would then be later performed to dance choreographed by Yukio Suzuki.

The music is impressionistic and evocative, and it is no stranger to dissonance and uncomfortable contrasts. The tracks unfold slowly, some pieces are soundscapes and others unfold with more insistent tempos and structured melodies. There is a lot of darkness and minimalism in the grooves, as classical instrumentation, free improvisation, and a great deal of reconfiguration in the laboratory are stirred together. The resulting pieces are distinct and fascinating miniatures that are like small crystal sculptures - delicate and sharp, beautiful and just a little, satisfyingly bit, terrifying.

On the LP - or digital download - the sum of the parts is a rather a compelling soundtrack that can stand well on its own, but at the same time hints at the visuals.

The music is performed by many of the musicians that work with Horvitz in the Royal Room Collective Music Esemble. The whole group is: Steven O’Brien, trumpet; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Kate Olson, soprano sax; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass carinet; Briggan Krauss, alto sax; Maria Mannisto, voice; Victoria Parker, violin; Eyvind Kang and Heather Bentley, violas and Roweena Hammil, cello. Composed and mixed by Wayne Horvitz.

The Westerlies - Wish The Children Would Come On Home (Songlines, 2014) ***½

The Westerlies are a bass ensemble based in New York but originally from Seattle. They released Wish the Children Would Come On Home, an album of arrangements of Horvitz’s music, this past spring. The keyboardist contributes a Yamaha DX7 to four of the tracks, but otherwise, these are intricate, carefully arranged, impressions of Horvitz’s music played by an unusual brass quartet.

The music captures the essentials of Horvitz's compositions: the Americana tinged melodies, the sometimes abrasive but always thoughtfully juxtaposed harmonies, and their improvisational nature. With the instrumentation - two trumpets and two trombones - there is a classical feel to the music that adds some solemnity (Sweeter than they Day, Triads), along with humor (The Band with Muddy), joy (Home) and a bit of pure texture (Interlude, Wish the Children Would Come On Home). There are a lot of layers to the music, it moves slowly at times, and it’s a record that asks for repeat, attentive, listening.

The Westerlies are: Riley Mulherkar - trumpet;  Zubin Hensler - trumpet; Andy Clausen - trombone; Willem de Koch - trombone; and Wayne Horvitz - DX7 synthesizer (on 4, 8, 12, 16)

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Olie Brice Quintet: Immune to Clockwork (Multikulti, 2014) ***½

Reviewed by Joe

This is a recording that I've been waiting for since sometime. Hints on Olie's site about the existence of the group, and the probable recording, have been appearing for some time, therefore, to finally see (and hear) the fruits of this group is very exiting. Along with Olie Brice (bass and compositions), there's UK musicians Mark Hanslip, tenor sax; Alex Bonney, trumpet; Jeff Williams on drums, and an interesting addition is that of Polish clarinettist, Waclaw Zimpel on alto clarinet. Fusing a combination of rhythmic and rubato melody lines, the music that Olie Brice writes reminds me, at times, of Ornette Coleman's 1970s Broken Shadows period. The idea of chord-less quintet playing a mixture of free oriented musical styles, makes for interesting listening, and something which suits this approach to making an improvised music which is neither totally free, nor written, but another form of modern jazz which takes its inspiration from all genres.  

Brice's compositions, although strongly routed around free improvisations, also have melodies and chord progressions, which are used as a backbone for the group to develop their own free-er ideas. This helps make the album easily accessible and yet in no way compromises the soloist's own playing. The musicians manage to sustain the high level of group work throughout the album, working around the themes to produce some fine music. Each piece has its own atmosphere, often presenting a melodic motif which the group then dissects as it chooses.

Mark Hanslip's sinewy tenor sound snakes over the compositions, moving happily between dense melodic lines or textured multi-phonics to create some great music. The underrated Waclaw Zimpel, for all that don't know him, is one of the new breed of clarinettists working on the excellent Polish improvised music scene. His playing is always exciting, rooted in melody, yet always looking for new ideas and ways of expression. Check out his playing on the Hera records (on Multikulti), in collaboration with other's, or his own quartet. The other front-line player, Alex Bonney, also deserves a quick word. His playing is definitely understated, yet always perfect for each situation he plays in (he's also a laptop wizard, engineer and producer). Here he uses melody in a way that reminds me of players such as Bobby Bradford.   

As for the music on the album, there are several highlights to be found pasted throughout, here are some which spring to mind:

On the opening piece (The Hands, tk1), Mark's tenor roams around finding lines that work with the original melody which he also manages to incorporate within his solo, something we rarely hear nowadays in jazz.

Crumbling Shyly (tk4) and Tell Me Again (tk7) both hark back to 60s style rubato melodies that lurch forward before opening up to allow the horns to weave lines over the turbulent rhythm section. Tell Me Again, which closes the album, has a particularly poignant melody which the soloists seem to capture perfectly.

What Might Have Been (tk5) a fine ballad feature for tenor sax where Mark Hanslip shows how he is a master of free form and melody. 

The Old Yedidia (tk2), starts with a melancholic theme before giving way to a lilting 6/8 section for the solosits. Alex Bonney's trumpet leads off, playing some lovely phrases which keep within the boundary of compositions original idea. Waclaw Zimpel follows a different path, taking a more open approach to the music. His improvisations although rich in melodic ideas, react differently to the themes. His playing, which reminds me a little of John Carter, goes more for a mixture of sonic textures, sometimes gentle and at other times his searing lines push the rhythm section to follow him.

On Immune to Clockwork (tk3) the ensemble works tightly together, improvising as a group before letting Olie Brice and Jeff Williams take over, leading us to the end of the piece with a mixture of rhythm and melody.

This leads me to the fine work of Olie Brice and Jeff Williams throughout the record. They both work with the front-line in a way that compliments and supports both the front-line and the music throughout, a perfect team in such a situation. It's a pleasure to hear these fine musicians working together, it would be great to see the group live as music such as this benefits from being heard played in front of an audience. However, the music that the quintet makes is strong, manages to remain innovative and truly accessible, what more can one ask!


If you'd like to hear a clip, head over to Olie Brice's Soundcloud to hear "The Hands" (tk1).

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tomas Fujiwara Trio – Variable Bets (Relative Pitch, 2014) ****

By Chris Haines

The album fades in from nothing with the gradual increase in volume of the pulse of an electronic sound from the guitar, which is carefully joined by the brushing of cymbals and what appears to be the extended technique of vocalising through the trumpet.  This is Tomas Fujiwara’s trio of himself (composer/drums), Brandon Seabrook (guitar) and Ralph Alessi (trumpet). 

Having been recorded live the compositions are free flowing and continuous in sound throughout, with one piece blending into another either through the pieces being merged together through performance, and the possible use of sympathetic editing with Fujiwara’s drums often providing the link.  Fujiwara’s drums generate a scattering of sound and the skittering rhythms create great interplay between the guitar and the trumpet.  Brandon Seabrook is very deft at carefully using effects to colour the guitar’s sound on the one hand and on the other to provide more electronic sounding material, which adds to the contrast in the overall structure of the pieces.  At other times Seabrook can be found providing Ralph Alessi’s trumpet with a melodic sparring partner or harmonic support.

Whilst much of the music is complex with quick interchanges and imitation between the instruments the music is also allowed to breath with other sections providing a good foil for the busier textures.  Another strength of the album is the contrast between the moments which are much more open and free and those which contain much more solid harmonic musical devices such as chord sequences and repeated riffs.  These elements seem to be introduced at very timely points which really help with the continuum of the music and not only makes for exciting listening but increases the intrigue as the music continues to develop.

Stand-out tracks such as A Table’s Stern featuring variations based on a theme by the saxophonist Benny Golson where the music is completely deconstructed and then also referenced with more traditional quotations, and The Comb which starts in a much more reflective manner and contains a catchy guitar ostinato with changing bass notes.  It’s no coincidence that both of these pieces are also the two longest, not only letting the music stretch out but also allowing it to settle on an idea and exploring it more thoroughly.

This is a live set of interesting pieces played by a very solid trio that have a real sense of togetherness and musical understanding whilst being able to improvise independently from one another.  Variable Bets is an album that grows in time, as there is much to enjoy on each subsequent listen.

Available from Instantjazz.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Cagematch - Missing the End All (2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Cagematch is a sax, guitar and drum out of the Washington, DC area. On soprano and alto sax is Kate Olson, a member of recent blog favorite Syrinx Effect. Joining Olson here is guitarist Gary Prince and drummer Tim Cohen. The sum of their efforts is captivating mix of hypnotic melody and atmosphere that unfolds expertly over the course of 'Missing the End All'. 

The album begins with the sounds of space and a gentle melody refracted between the sax and guitar that feels suspended and hardly touching, yet still very connected.  'Childhood’s Proof of Being Wanted' builds momentum through the layering of the soprano sax over sparse accompaniment and minimal percussion. The following 'Fear of Missing Out' takes a different turn - jaunty and melodically rich, the sax and guitar play of each other over a propulsive driving rock groove. Prince doesn't hold back - dipping into power chords and feedback. The yearning melody of 'Snow Leopard' is gripping over the clanking of Cohen's percussion. The arpeggiated follow up from Prince's guitar segues perfectly and as his sax and drum reconnect, the listener is deposited on the other side of a musical experience.

Missing the End All  is a diverse album - from sweet moments to textural soundscapes and flat out rocking moments, there is a lot to take in. Sometimes the sweet moments may be a little too sweet, but the more bitter ones balance it all out.

Give a listen here:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Michel Doneda – Everybody Digs Michel Doneda (Relative Pitch, 2014) ****

By Dan Sorrells

Michel Doneda’s latest is a play on Everybody Digs Bill Evans, complete with quotes from other famous soprano players scrawled across the cover. The similarities end there, however, with this Everybody Digs being solo soprano sax recorded in the resonant La Chapelle De La Planques, a Romanesque church in Tanus, France.

It’s difficult to talk about Doneda’s music. Terms like “extended technique” cause him to bristle—in an interview with Sam Newsome, he objected to the term because it “it standardizes an approach that is very personal.” Certainly no offense was intended, but even in grappling with language to adequately describe his methods, it’s easy to accidentally fence him in, to define him as some sort of negative space that’s characterized by what he isn’t.

Partway down the cover, Gianni Mimmo says Doneda “stands on the threshold that opens to the very flesh of the sound.” This quote—and indeed, the performance itself—brings to my mind Doneda’s fellow Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer, who devoted much thought to addressing how we perceive and are effected by sound and music. Schaeffer once wrote that the musician lives “in an original world which he studies for itself, the world of musical perceptions.” Doneda puts us closer to that inner world of the musician’s perception, closer to the sound itself, which he follows with diligence and curiosity.

On Everybody Digs, Doneda explores high frequencies and using just enough breath to generate a tone. Often, he seems to be directing air past the mouthpiece, rather than through it. The recording is low-volume, extremely intimate—you can account for nearly every molecule of air that’s pulled into his lungs and then pushed out through the horn. You become aware not only of the tangible substance of sound, of air as a moving, churning medium, but also of your own body, the cadence of your breathing.

Normally I'm not a fan when biological side effects like breath or saliva are emphasized in playing—on some level it feels like a messy reminder of humanness that distracts from the abstract, “elevated” realm of pure music. But Doneda is an exception. His explorations of the saxophone are thoroughly grounded in the unavoidably human connection with the instrument, yet paradoxically shift the focus away from the manner of playing and onto the perception of the very sound itself. To borrow from Schaeffer, the listener is compelled to give “‘oneself over entirely and exclusively to listening’ in order to discover the path from the ‘sonorous’ to the ‘musical.’”

There are a lot of adjectives that can be ventured while working through the performance on Everybody Digs: subterranean, microscopic, eerie, obsessive. But perhaps the one that makes the most sense, that doesn’t feel strained or flimsy, is the one that resonates the most with Doneda himself: personal. For over four decades now, Doneda has been in a personal—even private—dialogue with the soprano saxophone, and as Everybody Digs Michel Doneda gorgeously reveals, it’s a relationship he’s still coming to terms with.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

John Coltrane ‎- Offering & Paul Dunmall, Tony Bianco ‎- Tribute toColtrane

John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse, Resonance Records, 2014) ***½

Paul Dunmall, Tony Bianco – Tribute to Coltrane (Slam Productions, 2013) ****

By Colin Green

“There was a turbulence in the music that gave me a negative feeling at times, but I could not quite put my finger on the trouble...Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading the Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I heard much turmoil. I could not understand it.” (Ravi Shankar)

“Everybody wants to hear what I’ve done. Nobody wants to hear what I’m doing...I’ve had a strange career. I haven’t yet quite found out how I want to play music. Most of what’s happened these past few years has been questions. Someday we’ll find the answers.” (John Coltrane)

The legacy of John Coltrane still looms large, close to fifty years after his death. The only other musicians of the 1960s who continue to exert such an influence are Albert Ayler and Jimi Hendrix who like Coltrane, died tragically young. Offering: Live At Temple University is a recording of a concert given on at the University’s Mitten Hall in Philadelphia – his home town – on November 11, 1966 and broadcast and recorded by WRTI, the student radio station. It features his last quintet: Coltrane (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, voice), Pharoh Sanders (tenor saxophone and piccolo); Alice Coltrane (piano), Rashied Ali (drums); Jimmy Garrison – Coltrane’s usual bass player – was on this occasion replaced by Sonny Johnson. Like Garrison, he plays without amplification so that apart from his solo introduction to My Favourite Things, his contribution goes largely undetected in a sound balance which favours the saxophones.

The recording was made by a single microphone, but mono is often preferable to the somewhat artificially separated channels of many stereo recordings of the era (see: the recent The Beatles in Mono debate). The performance was recorded on two reels. The first, beginning shortly after the opening Naima – here played as a quartet, and a tune of such haunting beauty that it remained a touchstone for Coltrane – and running out before the end of Leo has previously been available as a bootleg, but the original tapes have been cleaned up for this release by Resonance Records in 24/96 sound (though there’s currently no digital download) and are available as a two CD or LP set.

In the Coltrane discography, it comes after two other live recordings by the Quintet (with Garrison): Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (Impulse!, 1966) from May, and two concerts from a tour of Japan in the July – Live in Japan (GRP, Impulse!, 1991) – the zenith of extended solos, with My Favourite Things lasting almost an hour. (“Just take the saxophone out of your mouth” Miles had replied testily some years earlier, when Coltrane told him he found it difficult to bring his solos to an end.)

Due to Coltrane’s virtual deification (there’s even a Church of Saint John Coltrane) which seems to act as a solvent on some listeners’ critical faculties, it has become increasingly difficult to write about his music in terms other than unalloyed praise. As noted by Coltrane’s friend Ravi Shankar, however – and as implicitly recognised by Coltrane himself – his late music can be problematic, although there’s no unanimity as to what exactly makes some of it so tricky. Coltrane always tended towards to the expansive, and the music of his later years can be seen as a search for musical forms and ensembles that would match an increasing range of sounds and the torrent of ideas that flowed from his saxophone. Undoubtedly, it is experimental music – and it can’t have been easy for a musician of Coltrane’s standing to test his musical hypotheses in front of an often unappreciative public – but in order to make a genuine assessment of his musical achievements and those with whom he played, it’s important to recognise that some experiments are only partially successful.

Coltrane coined Ali’s drumming “multi-directional” and the same might be said of the quintet as a whole. Coltrane’s solos are not atonal, but polytonal: small melodic cells, centred on a note or chord, which form a stepping stone to the next progression and a sometimes near obsessional examination of the constituent parts of a motif, held together by his commanding musical presence and encyclopaedic technique. As his saxophone moves further from the source, the playing grows more impassioned, with wider intervallic leaps as a counterpoint, broken notes and smears of a kind first introduced by Ayler employed as expressive devices, before eventually returning to the theme, often played straight. His solos form an arc and although radical, one can detect an obvious lineage back to his original Village Vanguard dates in 1961. In many ways, Coltrane’s playing remained modal right to the end, even though the modes became increasingly sophisticated.

In comparison, Sanders is overblowing and honking from the outset, often with only tangential references to the theme, a series of textural blasts that seek to match Coltrane’s energy (his solos usually followed Coltrane’s) but without the progression or underlying musical logic. He subsequently came to wonder what Coltrane saw in his playing. During all of this, Alice Coltrane comps within a clear tonic/dominant framework – one of the most basic tonal relationships – and the tunes, standards or simple ballads played predominately in the traditional head/solos/head form, have a clear pulse which is purposely avoided or abandoned by Ali. All this makes for music in which there is a high level of dislocation and dissonance in a way that’s absent from genuinely atonal music. Where tonal progression is present, the ear expects some kind of resolution – harmonic tension and release – but with this quintet it can be pulled in different directions simultaneously – towards both the traditional and the radical – giving the music a slightly queasy feel, as if it should either settle somewhere or break free from its moorings. For most of its duration it rarely does either, caught between wanting to give the audience something familiar and the need to work new ground, a transition Coltrane did not find easy.

The quintet lacks the cohesion of the Classic Quartet or earlier quintet with Eric Dolphy, at this performance due in in part to the circumstances of the occasion: two young local saxophonists take solos – a testament to Coltrane’s generosity to other musicians – and percussionists from a church with whom Coltrane had been sitting in join Ali during his solo in Leo; but like most percussion solos, the more drums there are the less interesting it becomes.

There’s a remarkable intensity to the playing, but again no consensus as to what inspired it. Much ink has been spilt on whether it is the result of public issues – the social and political Zeitgeist (both Coltrane and Hendrix put their music first and although sympathetic, resisted overtures from Black militants) – or more private, spiritual concerns. The latter not only troubled Ravi Shankar, but continues to baffle Geoff Dyer in his review of the album for The New York Review of Books (itself the subject of review in The New Yorker). Certainly, for much of the time any spiritual element in the music seems more Evangelical than Hindu, but then again, one man’s turbulence is another man’s spiritual energy.

This highlights one of the issues that faced music at the time – the problem of new registers, both technical and emotional. In music, formal and expressive innovation go hand in hand, but the difficulty for both audiences and the musicians themselves was identifying and understanding ways of thinking and feeling that had not previously been associated with the language of Jazz. One should not underestimate the cultural sense at the time that this was a new dawn of opportunities, provoking a headlong rush to push music forward and press on through the boundaries of the old to new frontiers where what had previously been regarded as mere entertainment – to be danced to, or chatted over in clubs – would have the complexity and emotional depth of serious Art. This applied to both Jazz and Rock and was a collective momentum – largely associated with youth – that can never be fully recaptured.

It was this passionate, risk-taking aspect of Coltrane’s music that was probably most influential in the period following his death, inspiring everything from the incendiary performances of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra on a good night to some of the multi-reed blowouts, full of sound and fury, of those satisfied with the simple equation: angry people = angry sounding music; or to put it a slightly different way: as long as your head’s in the right place, your music will be endowed with similar qualities – one of the more pernicious inheritances from the 1960s. In years to come, musicians would retrace Coltrane’s path – and that of other pioneers – at a more reflective pace freed from the pressure of being on the cutting edge, and in many respects this process continues.   

One notable feature of the performance is that there are two brief passages when Coltrane lays down his reeds and chants, Buddhist style, while beating his chest, producing a wobbly sound that’s not very convincing. It may have felt right at the time, but it would seem he did this only during a few performances and not in the recording studio: again, an indication that what we’re hearing is work in progress rather than anything Coltrane would have regarded as a finished product, or worthy of release (however important it might be as an historical document to later generations).

The most memorable number – after which the album has been named – is Offering, which was subsequently recorded as a trio (without Sanders or Garrison) in what were to be among Coltrane’s final studio sessions the following February, and appears on Expression (Impulse!, 1967), the last recording sanctioned by Coltrane before his death a few months later. This piece, together with others recorded at those sessions, gives us an idea as to some of the answers Coltrane was finding, and which lay in distillation rather than proliferation. The studio environment allowed him to produce terser poetry – but with the same emotional and technical range as his more loquacious playing in public – and the reduction of musicians to the essential resulted in a more satisfactory balance, as heard at this concert where Offering is played almost entirely as a duet for tenor and (somewhat distant) piano. In the studio version, this was followed by a contrasting duet between tenor and drums, a format that gave rise to what is arguably the most significant product of those sessions: the posthumously titled Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1974), featuring just Coltrane and Ali. Freed from the gravitational pull of other tuned instruments, the subtle trajectory of Coltrane’s playing is laid bare against Ali’s pulses and washes. It was an album that more or less defined a genre.

This is the format we hear on Paul Dunmall and Tony Bianco’s Tribute to Coltrane, the second in a trilogy of homages by the duo, though curiously none feature works from Interstellar Space (not a conscious decision, I’m told).  The first was Thank You to John Coltrane, and the third (a double CD) should be released by Slam next year.

Coltrane’s music has been with Dunmall from the beginning. He speaks fondly of listening to Sun Ship (Impulse!, 1971) laid out in his parents’ loft at the age of seventeen – “a religious experience” – and he played and studied with Alice Coltrane during the three years he lived in America in the early 1970s. Along with Evan Parker, David S. Ware, Kidd Jordan and Charles Gayle, Dunmall is among the few tenor saxophonists to have absorbed Coltrane’s style, without imitation. This may be a tribute to Coltrane, but Dunmall and Bianco have their own distinct voices, even when playing Vigil, the only piece prior to Interstellar Space that Coltrane recorded with just saxophone and drums (Elvin Jones). Both pairs start from the same place, but their journeys are quite distinct. Indeed, Dunmall and Bianco’s richness as improvisers means that their different performances of the same tune can highlight an aspect passed over or only alluded to on other occasions, a comparison that can be made on the release of their third CD which will include a live set from Cafe OTO. 

The dialogue in this music is not between Dunmall and Bianco, but within Dunmall’s playing as he shifts between carefully demarcated lines, phrases and tonal areas – exploiting the harmonic ambiguity of many of Coltrane’s tunes – set against Bianco’s backdrop of ever-shifting patterns of energy. The dynamic is altered for The Drum Thing, with Bianco’s more sharply etched figures to the fore against a sitar-like drone and as with the original, bookended by statements of Coltrane’s memorable theme.

Dunmall’s highly focussed playing explores the kind of development that so fascinated Coltrane – a world in a grain of sand – unpacking some of the infinitely variable implications of even the smallest melodic cell, often in contrasting textures that move from a warm buttery tone to something coarser, slightly frayed round the edges. In Ascent, the tiny rising motif is something to which Dunmall keeps returning afresh, each time twisting and turning in a new direction. By way of contrast, in Reverend King he avoids any great elaboration, leaving the gentle nobility of the melody to speak for itself. It seems that rather less is said about Coltrane the writer, but many of his tunes have become iconic in modern music, bearing a dignified authority that still resonates with many. Despite their apparent simplicity, they produce a fecundity of ideas – something Coltrane may have learnt from his time with Thelonious Monk – and which surely accounts for the continued inspiration that musicians draw from both men’s music. 

As one would expect from any homage to Coltrane, Dunmall displays a considerable technique, but always sympathetic to the emotional tone of the material, whether assertive, questioning, yearning or conciliatory. This drama – sometimes struggle – is part of its story, and one which listeners have found it easier to accept in the years since Coltrane’s death.

A steaming (quite literally) performance by the Classic Quartet of Naima in 1965:

And Dunmall and Bianco from Leicester in 2013, including Naima and My Favourite Things: