The elegance returned to the stately El Rey Theater on Wilshire hosting the John Coltrane Foundation’s 2003 scholarship fundraiser. The annual event presents one of the most beloved and highly anticipated concerts on the LA jazz calendar. Co-sponsored by KPFK, the Foundation’s Night of Jazz
struck a balance between the sacred and the ecstatic. In addition to performances by scholarship winners and special guest appearances, the concert usually offers a valuable rare glimpse at one of the music’s most esteemed and reclusive talents, Alice Coltrane.
Rashimi Chaturvedi and Bhuvaneshvari Chaturvedi opened the evening’s program with sweet voiced duets on Hinduistic hymns. Joshua Spiegelman followed with a solo on wooden transverse flute and readings from the Hassidim and the Qabbalah, both passages describing music as a pathway to the Divine.
The night’s first scholarship winner took the stage with the rhythm section from Larry Coryell’s band. Tony Dumas, bass, and Ralph Penland, drums backed alto saxophonist, Jonathan Rossman. Rossman’s already developing his own phrasing and tone, and knew his way around standards. Dumas came to the stage warmed up and played popping solos when not offering tasteful support. Recipient Jeremy Powell brought his tenor and Coryell’s Gerald Clayton on piano. Powell played with daring and push, working with a couple of Coltrane standards, and “On Green Dolphin Street.”
Final recipient Sarah Gazark sang with the trio. Starting with “Squeeze Me,’ she negotiated tricky phrasing and improvised melody. She read the ballad, “Too Young,” like a torch song. After Gazark’s exit, an ebullient Larry Coryell joined his band. They started off with an easy swinging tune and Coryell slid octaves and chords around like he’d greased the guitar’s neck. On Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle,” Coryell masterfully translated Monk’s keyboard peculiarities onto guitar, keeping the squashed harmonies intact. Dumas soloed athletically, and Gerald Clayton showed his ease with Thelonious. Coryell then revealed he had a scholarship program of his own going employing the 19-year old Clayton. On Coryell’s “Spaces Revisited,” Clayton threatened to steal the tune. Possibly inspired by “Impressions,” the complex chorded composition yielded a commanding solo from Clayton, but the younger man’s virtuosity seemed to inspire Coryell who went into overdrive. With Penland fueling the fire, the breakneck tempo and technical brilliance had people jumping to their feet.
After a short intermission, Sandhya Sanjana gave a brief recital of devotional songs. Her translations of Indian lyrics elucidated meanings, and her wordless vocal on “Naima” scored an evening highlight. After her set, Ravi Coltrane introduced a new quartet with some low-key patter. Bassist Drew Gress played with Marty Ehrlich, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, James Emery, and Joe Lovano. On piano, Luis Perdomo, a veteran of New York’s Latin Jazz scene. Happily slapping multiple beats, drummer Steve Hass’ eclectic resume includes Cher, Bo Diddly, Andy Milne, Reuben Wilson, and Mick Jones. With Coltrane, he kicks into polyrhythmic M-Base territory.
As Coltrane has shown himself a deep and witty interpreter of other writer’s material, he showed similar insight into his own. Earlier compositions recorded in more aetheric arrangements, rose up and sweat. A surprising take on “India” turned the rhythm around and funked it up. Coltrane’s playing moved into longer melody morphing lines while sustaining tightrope walker tension.
With a little coaxing, Alice Coltrane left her seat and joined Ravi onstage for a duet. On piano, she played dramatic accompaniment and took an elegant solo. Ravi took rich toned detours through the melody. Gress and Hass returned to the stage for a fierce performance of John Coltrane’s “Leo.” Both seemed at home playing outside. With Alice on her trademark organ the band dug in. Ravi fluently expressed a caravan of free ideas, and rooted Alice on through still hair-raising flights of inspiration.
She called Coryell out from back stage to join the band for an encore. After a moment’s huddle, Alice tried the “Love Supreme” bass line and Coryell looked ecstatic. Once the great rolling rhythm locked in, Coryell explored the blues implications of the tune, and then took off. Likewise, Alice played easy going at first, but then she closed her eyes and entered her zone. She created a long tangled spiraling line that continued unfolding until she asked Ravi to take it. The band churned in powerful group improvisation before calling it a night to a standing ovation.
The only letdowns of the evening involved the non-involvement of Oran and Mickey Coltrane. As brother Ravi explained it, Oran’s back suddenly went out to a degree that precluded his appearing. All references to Michelle’s contributions acknowledged her hard work on the organizational end of things. Hopefully, next year she’ll have time for a song.