Sunday 20 January 2008
I was a teenager when my brother brought home a copy of John Coltrane's 'Coltrane Plays the Blues.' We played it over and over- it took time to understand what was going on, but gradually the music became more familiar; I still played it a lot because it had become a favourite, and when I decided to start a jazz appreciation club at school, I made an approximate copy of the cover for my poster as a kind of manifesto- we wouldn't be listening to any Acker Bilk records.
That cover!- a simple collage on a purple ground,signed M Norman, with the title in lower case and the Atlantic fan at the bottom right- it was so hip, so modern; I loved it.
Blues to Elvin begins with a two-note bass figure doubled by the piano, and answered by a repeated piano phrase. Coltrane enters with such a simple phrase, three notes, a pause, four notes, then constructs a calm, beautifully idiomatic blues solo- no sheets of sound here- which manages to avoid any tired blues clichés. Tyner's solo keeps the mood, single-note lines until the chorded last chorus, raising the temperature a little before Coltrane re-enters with a more impassioned statement, reaching for high harmonics at times, but still keeping his phrasing relatively simple. Then the music subsides and is suddenly ended.
No prizes for guessing that Blues to Bechet has Coltrane on soprano. The sleevenotes by Joe Goldberg suggest that he 'hauntingly evokes Bechet' but neither tone nor phrasing bear that out. He just sounds like Coltrane on soprano playing the blues, and that's good enough for me. The track begins with a snare roll, then Coltrane enters with a phrase that's too basic to bear the weight of the epithet 'theme'. There's no piano, so you can hear more clearly than on the first track the superb Elvin Jones, relaxed and urgent at the same time, and the 'just right' bass of Steve Davis, mostly just walking. Coltrane gradually builds the tension, the phrasing becoming more sinuous, then simpler again and out, ending as it began with a snare roll. No-one else solos.
Blues to You is the track that bothered me most on first hearing. Once more no piano, once more no real theme, but what a difference! The first two tracks are both taken at a slowish lope, this one hurtles along with Coltrane stretching blues tonality to the limit on tenor. I'd never heard so abstracted a blues before, and at first it sounded as if player and instrument were involved in a wrestling match. And with Elvin effectively duetting with Coltrane- Steve Davis is really expendable on this track- there's a constant barrage of sound. Elvin takes some fours and a whole solo chorus, but they didn't come where I expected them; it was as if Coltrane just decided to stop playing.It was scary and exciting, and though I didn't really understand it, it amazed and intrigued me.
I didn't mean this to turn into a track-by track description, so I'll just say that Mr Day has some furious blowing over a bass ostinato and repeated piano pattern and a richly chordal solo by Tyner, and the closing Mr Knight again starts with a bass ostinato; when Elvin enters with a quiet drum figure you know it's going to be a great performance- a modal mid-tempo blues with Coltrane producing a cliche-free solo. Tyner's solo is beautifully relaxed and exciting.
I've left until last my favourite track from the second side, Mr Syms, where Coltrane again plays soprano. We're back with the gentle lope of Blues to Bechet, but whereas that was a straight 12-bar, Mr Syms stretches the form- it's a blues with a bridge (blues avec un pont- Bechet's sparring partner Mezz Mezzrow used to call it). The theme is 48 bars long, with a 12-bar blues as the A section, and a bridge whose melody is close to Summertime. Tyner plays a beautifully relaxed solo, just one chorus, then Coltrane plays the bridge, and the 12 bar A section once.
The cd adds 'Untitled Original' from the same sessions, but the 6 tracks of the lp sound pretty close to perfect to me.
Thinking of Blues to Bechet reminds me of a cd I heard last week for the first time, though it was issued in 2006; it's by a young saxophonist who I'd never heard before: Hugo Siegmeth. It's is on the German ACT label- Red Onions- Celebrating Sidney Bechet. Siegmeth wisely avoids the soprano, sticking to tenor and clarinet, playing songs from the length of Bechet's career. The description of the music on the ACT website is very good, so rather than repeating it I'll just point you here