Between 2011 and 2013, Paul Dunmall (tenor saxophone) and Tony Bianco (drums) recorded three albums as a testament to the inspirational playing, compositions and spirit of John Coltrane, all on the SLAM Productions label -- Thank You to John Coltrane, Tribute to Coltrane and Homage to John Coltrane. In 2015, Dunmall and Bianco were joined by Howard Cottle (tenor saxophone) and Olie Brice (double bass) in two performances which celebrated Coltrane’s Sun Ship (Impulse!, 1971), one of the last recordings of the Classic Quartet, from 1965, and an album which had a seminal impact on Dunmall in his youth. When it came to go into the studio however, rather than record another Coltrane tribute, he decided “to write some heads in the same vein as Sun Ship so we could still capture that intensity, and play with that Coltrane spirit, but make it our own thing”. Underground Underground -- all first takes – is the result.
In this setting, it’s usual to deploy saxophones of different registers for variety and to avoid the saxophonists treading on each other’s toes. Not so here. Rather than adjoining areas, the two tenors occupy the same space, and like Phaeton’s burning chariot, it makes for an exhilarating ride, “With flaming breath that all the heaven might hear them perfectly”.
The heads are often simple figures, such as the title track’s clarion call sounded out on overlapping saxes, and the ardent, jabbing phrases of ‘Sun Up’. As one would expect, the prevailing tone is ecstatic and jubilant, executed at a high-voltage pace, hectic yet never out of control, with Dunmall and Cottle animating phrases until they achieve a molten volatility. Over the whole album, they’re driven by and draw on the kinetic buoyancy of Bianco’s drums and Brice’s taut, gutsy bass. And when the saxophones do play together, it never feels cramped. In “Timberwolf’, the longest track, there’s a passage of jointly sustained virtuosity in which they embrace and blossom, taking the theme to the brink. There’s also intensity of a different kind. ‘Hear no Evil, Play no Evil’ is a ballad, whose yearning melody is beautifully set-off by Brice’s agile bass line. The solos have that Coltrane-esque mix of exaltation with tinges of remorse.
‘Sacred Chant’ is the closing number, with Cottle and Bianco engaged in a fiery duet before, by way of contrast, a stately theme is introduced by Dunmall. The impassioned and the dignified continue in opposition until the whole band is sucked into the whirlpool, but the melody never completely goes away, and eventually is affirmed in noble unison, repeated until the fade.
Coltrane’s music-making was so rich that, even now, just when you think you’ve pinned him down, there’s something more to be found. This album is a fitting tribute to that inexhaustible body of work and the continuing inspiration it provides.
‘Ascent’ from one of the Sun Ship gigs: