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Friday, August 3, 2007

Guitar Tributes To John Coltrane

Once in a while the fusion interest from my younger days is awakened by such publications as these : guitar tributes to John Coltrane. Let's have a look at them.

A Guitar Supreme - Giant Steps In Fusion Guitar (Guitar Nine Records, 2004) *

This awful piece of music is part of guitarist Jeff Richman's tribute series, for which he aligns fusion guitar heroes of the highest caliber, like Mike Stern, Larry Coryell, Eric Johnson, Steve Lukather, Greg Howe, Frank Gambale, Robben Ford and Richman himself. They each receive a Coltrane tune, which they then masterfully destroy, demonstrating their own lack of musical insight, talent and taste. It is obvious that these players probably had never heard of Coltrane before, or at least they do not have the least bit of understanding of his music. This is guitar fusion as you might expect it, with full focus on the guitar technique, as fast as possible with a "mama-look-what-I-can" attitude, but the musical equivalent of plastic, as eloquent as chewing gum, as expressive as a rag. Richman made similar albums "in honor" of Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, which only shows that he needs big names to sell, just for lack of inspiration. So, avoid at all cost.

Jukka Tolonen - Cool Train (Prophone Records, 2006) **

Then Tolonen's take on Coltrane deserves some more credit. At least his approach is sincere. Jukka Tolonen is a great guitar player, with wide-ranging skills from Django over Joe Pass to Hendrix and McLaughlin, skills that he amply demonstrates on his many albums. Despite his technique, he never managed to craft his own style, yet he can play. His approach to Coltrane shows more respect for the sax player's compositions, but again, this is bland fusion, without any of the expressive, expansive, explorative power you would expect from Coltrane's music. Tolonen takes on such Coltrane classics as "Giant Steps", "Naima", "Resolution", "Afro Blue", "Impressions", as if he'd only had the sheet music to base himself on. He carries the tune, the harmony, the rhythm, but turns it into middle-of-the-road fusion. So, avoid at all cost too.

Nels Cline & Gregg Bendian - Interstellar Space Revisited (Atavistic 1999) ***

This album is something else entirely. Nels Cline on guitar and Gregg Bendian on drums take on one of John Coltrane's more controversial albums "Interstellar Space", then also a duet between Coltrane and Rashied Ali on drums, an absolute fest of out-of-this-world unbound creative power. The strength of Cline's and Bendian's approach is that they do not copy tunes, rather, they delve into the very essence of the music and make it into a new version, and although Cline writes in the liner notes that their approach is one of humility, their effort is ambitious and a worthwhile one. This is music is hard, raw and genuine by comparison with the slick and bland tributes reviewed above. And although it will not be to everyone's taste, at least it has the merit of being authentic.

Listen to Jupiter