Formed in the mid-1990s by three of jazz's leading post-Coltrane exponentsnot just to pay homage to the saxophone legend's exploratory latter period work, but to advance his collaborative and collective soloing aesthetic into a fully contemporary context nearly thirty years after his deathSaxophone Summit was dealt a tremendous blow, as was the entire jazz world, when co-founding member Michael Brecker passed away in 2007.
Still, Saxophone Summit's remaining front-liners, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano, decided that continuing on with pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart would better honor Brecker than throwing in the towel. Recruiting Coltrane's son Ravi to fill the third saxophone chair ("replacing" would be an absolutely inappropriate description) seemed a logical choice, making Seraphic Light not only a moving tribute to Brecker, but a logical extension and expansion of what made Saxophone Summit: Gathering of Spirits (Telarc, 2004) such a powerful record, and an unusually experimental one for the more centrist Telarc label.
That's not to say Seraphic Light isn't completely accessible. Markowitz's "Transitions" opens the disc on a fiery note, but with an attention-grabbing groove and front-line melody that's equally attractive, so much so as to almost disguise the song's full depth. But by the time Saxophone Summit gets to the title track, first heard on Coltrane's Stellar Regions (Impulse!, 1967), it's fully migrated towards the "no-time, no changes, no harmonies" approach that so dominated Coltrane's final two years. Still, as free as it is, and with Lovano using his custom-built aulochrome (a twin-soprano hybrid that allows him a degree of polyphony that even multiphonics can't on a single horn), it's proof that Coltrane wasn't striving for chaos, but rather a deep, transcendent spirituality.
It's no coincidence that the three Coltrane tunes are collected at the end of the disc, including "Cosmos," which begins with poetic beauty but dissolves into greater freedom for one of Markowitz's most stunningly unfettered solos on record. The first seven tracks are a democratic distribution of one song each by the group's six members, plus the up-tempo modal workout "Message to Mike" by brother Randy Brecker, who guests on trumpet on two tracks. Thus, Seraphic Light works its way gradually towards the more expansive freedom of the Coltrane covers.
While Ravi Coltrane hasn't made the leap to broadly influentialyetthat both Liebman and Lovano have, his is a voice evolving in leaps and bounds. Here, while his warmer tone unmistakably alters Saxophone Summit's complexion, it's still a truly mighty meeting of three saxophonists whose lives have been inexorably altered by the spirit of John Coltrane. With Markowitz, McBee and Hart a creative and fluid triumvirate far beyond the restrictive term "rhythm section," Seraphic Light not only captures Coltrane's spirit but, dedicated to Michael Brecker, captures his intrepid soul as well. For those who consider Coltrane's latter period inaccessible, Seraphic Light capitalizes on its dense beauty in a most approachable fashion, without compromising its elan vital one iota.
Visit Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane on the web.
Personnel: Transitions; TheThirteenth Floor; Reneda; All About You; Message to Mike; Alpha and Omega; Our Daily Bread; Cosmos; Seraphic Light; Expression.