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Bobby Zankel and Odean Pope: Homage to John Coltrane 2017

Victor L. Schermer By

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Bobby Zankel Warriors of the Wonderful Sound Featuring Odean Pope
Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts
50th Anniversary Homage to John Coltrane
Philadelphia, PA
July 21, 2017

Fifty years ago, almost to the date, John Coltrane passed away at mid-career. In an all too brief ten plus year span, beginning with his tenure in the Miles Davis Quintet, and ending with his controversial suite, Meditations (Impulse, 1966), he became a role model for musicians and ineradicably changed the face of modern jazz. One of the many players he influenced, Bobby Zankel, is not strictly speaking what is called a "post-Coltrane saxophonist," but he has absorbed Coltrane's music into his own synthesis of traditional and avant-garde forms. With his acclaimed Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, Zankel frequently pays homage to Trane, most notably with the Warriors' 2012 performance of A Love Supreme. Now, for this 50-year anniversary of Coltrane's death, he used a pared down six-member group featuring Zankel; BNY Mellon Jazz 2017 "Living Legacy" Award recipient, tenor saxophonist Odean Pope; violinist Diane Monroe; pianist, author, and Coltrane scholar Lewis Porter; bassist Matthew Parrish; and drummer Chad Taylor. They honored Coltrane in just the right way, featuring some of his landmark compositions and manifesting his profound influence in a cascading set of arrangements that incorporated Trane's contributions into new and fresh expressions.

Zankel has a marvelous way of writing arrangements and choosing musicians to create concerts noted for their dynamic energy, originality, and exchange of diverse approaches. He has often worked with Odean Pope. Pope was friends with Coltrane, and the concert began with his arrangement of "Coltrane Time." Pope, in recovery from bipolar disorder, was nevertheless in top form as he whipped off rapid-fire improvisations embodying his own evolving combination of compact and expressive chordal and modal lines.

The action continued with "Straight Street," a pulsating tune from Trane's first album, Coltrane/Prestige 7105 (Prestige, 1957). In addition to Pope's and Zankel's solos, the audience began noticing Porter's sophisticated comping and pianistic adornments across all 88 keys. The inclusion of Porter in the group was an inspired move, because there is probably no one who has dug into Coltrane's inventions more than him. He kept the group locked into Trane's groove throughout. Drummer Taylor also inspired notice with his solid rhythmic charge and use of the tone colors of the drum set. Like Trane's drummer, Elvin Jones, Taylor made the drums "instrumental" to the ensemble's sound, movement, and expression.

Zankel's arrangement of "Acknowledgment" from A Love Supreme went beyond Trane in its advanced timbres and harmonic progressions, providing all the musicians with opportunities to explore its complexities. Pope employed subtle progressions of his own, and Zankel did a tribute solo which served as an exemplary salute to just about all of Coltrane's stylistic idioms from "sheets of sound," to preacherly shouts, to well-placed honks and screeches. Monroe's violin solo captivated everyone with its extraordinary transcendence that elevated the music into a truly spiritual plane, as was Coltrane's intent. It was complemented beautifully with Parrish's bass solo, a sophisticated discourse on Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison.

"Venus," from Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1974), released after Coltane's death, exemplified his forays into the avant-garde, but Monroe kept it towing the line with a violin solo that drew liberally from English romanticists like Elgar and Delius! It was an inventive coup that no one could have anticipated. "Pursuance" felt a bit out of place, since it should have followed "Acknowledgment," but it kept the energy going for Zankel's arrangement of "Jupiter," where the whole group began improvising freely, creating a maelstrom of sounds that was unified by a mysterious interplanetary dust that only one of the gods could define. You had to wonder if Coltrane's compositions were inspired by classical composer Holst's The Planets.

"Giant Steps," which some have argued altered the face of jazz by challenging countless musicians to keep up with the chord changes, served as a mini master class in Coltrane, with each musician keeping in lock step with the changes but adding filigree of their own. The audience, totally appreciative of the whole set, gave a rousing standing ovation to these musicians who more than deserved it. For an encore, they played a quickly put together version of "Naima," the most beautiful of Coltrane's compositions. If there was one concern about this otherwise magnificent concert, it was the placement of the tunes. Properly sequenced, they would have formed a wonderful suite that brought the Trane directly to its proper station in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Set List (All songs composed by John Coltrane): Coltrane Time (arr. Pope); Straight Street; Acknowledgment from A Love Supreme (arr. Zankel); Venus (arr. Zankel); Purusuance from A Love Supreme (arr. Zankel); Jupiter (arr. Zankel); Giant Steps; Naima.

Personnel: Bobby Zankel: leader and alto saxophone; Odean Pope: tenor saxophone; Diane Monroe: violin; Lewis Porter: piano; Matthew Parrish: bass; Chad Taylor: drums.
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