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Bobby Zankel: Philadelphia, PA, September 22, 2012


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John Coltrane Birthday Celebration with Bobby Zankel's Warriors Of The Wonderful Sound
40th Street Field, University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA
September 22, 2012

It's unusual to have a jazz milestone take place in a free-for-the-people neighborhood concert on an open urban space, but that is exactly what occurred as saxophonist Bobby Zankel and his avant-garde big band, Warriors of the Wonderful Sound, debuted his stunning arrangement of saxophonist John Coltrane's iconic 1964 recording, A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965). Zankel recruited the great post-Coltrane saxophonists Dave Liebman and Odean Pope, who headed up the reed section and contributed much of the solo work, as well as seasoned gospel and jazz vocalist Ruth Naomi Floyd, who sang the poem put in the liner notes by Coltrane, but whose lyrics he omitted from the recording itself.

This was a concert where everything came together well. The musicians were up for it. The weather was warm and sunny until an early autumn rainfall materialized at the conclusion. The audience came with high expectations and listened with rapt attention to a group of musicians which took a most difficult and complex piece of music and rendered it with captivating beauty and intensity

For his arrangement (really an original composition of its own), Zankel utilized the four sections of .the original Coltrane album: "Acknowledgement" (which contains the chant that gave the suite its name), "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm." Having the structure of a unified piece in mind, Trane intended it to evoke a spiritual journey in music, reflective of a personal struggle for purity and devotion, and expressing the artist's gratitude for his musical gifts and expression. The original recording stimulated others, such as Branford Marsalis, to produce their own versions, so that idea was not new to Zankel, who took the themes, rhythms, and thrusts of each section and elaborated them into his own work for big band, soloists and a soprano voice. For "Resolution," he incorporated a prior arrangement that his bassist, Anthony Tidd, had worked out.

While remaining faithful to the ideas and intent of the original, Zankel went his own way, extending each section into much longer developments, each telling a story of its own. For that purpose, Zankel employed his own musical language, acquired in his sojourns with pianist Cecil Taylor, as well as the great teacher, Dennis Sandole, saxophonist Odean Pope, and Zankel's own groups, including especially the Warriors. Zankel, an alto saxophonist, was strongly influenced by Coltrane but has utilized multiple other sources in developing his unique and highly complex style. After A Love Supreme, Coltrane went very far out in his musical explorations, but certainly not in the same direction that Zankel has moved from his early days with Taylor. Zankel is a modernist, strongly influenced by French impressionism as well as swing and bebop, but utilizing dense harmonic structures and challenging rhythmic devices. He is more like a deep sea diver venturing into the coastal reefs than a naval captain going far out to uncharted waters. With Zankel, things never stray far from home but there are plenty of new things brewing there. By repeated expositions of stated themes, reminiscent of philosopher Friedrich Nietszche's idea of "eternal recurrence," Zankel brought his points home firmly and resolutely.

Thus, always returning to Coltrane for inspiration, Zankel captured Trane's spiritual message and preacher style, as well as the saxophonist's unique phrasings and intervals, but, using the resources of a virtuosic big band, he discovered within Trane the potential for his own self-expression, which is more like a locomotive going relentlessly down the tracks. In each of the four sections or movements, he pursued its development further and further through repetition and variation of themes, harmony, and instrumentation.

Zankel is also outstanding at making space for his improvisers, giving them something meaningful and stimulating to work with but lots of space and air time to say their piece. In this respect, it was a real coup to get Liebman and Pope to join the group. Each displayed his own signature turn to the Coltrane tradition. Liebman played lean and mean, stiff-arming his way through the brass and reed riffs behind him, exemplifying the musical brilliance for which Coltrane—and Liebman, himself—is known. By contrast, Pope was supremely lyrical, using his famed circular breathing to play long and flowing uninterrupted phrases with a beautiful sound that was bright and dark at the same time. Having recently lost his wife, she must have been on Pope's mind on this night, because his playing was especially warm and introspective. Zankel also contributed several solos, and it was remarkable to hear these three unique and seminal players onstage together, and note their similarities and differences.

Floyd is a soprano steeped in gospel, jazz, and classical music, a true artist and creative force in her own right. In the original album, Coltrane played the sound of the Love Supreme poem without words on his horn. Zankel took Trane's improvisation and used it as the basis for a song both spoken and sung by Floyd in the "Psalm Section." This shifted the tenor of the piece from an intense journey of light and darkness to a fervent, heartfelt prayer—a "blues for God," if you will. It was reminiscent of the ways composer Mahler used soprano voices in his symphonies—out of the wilderness comes a clear, truthful message. When the piece returned to its instrumental focus, it was something more than it was before. Something lived, died and was reborn in Floyd's evocation of Coltrane's poem.

There is no question that this composition and event was a stunning achievement for Zankel and his cohorts. It had beauty and passion, and it manifested the unity within diversity, the "family of man" feeling that characterizes jazz as an art form. It was a powerful musical evocation of something from the heart and from the depths. This happens rarely in jazz or, for that matter, any art form, and is both unforgettable and transformational. But in what sense was it a milestone—a breakthrough event? It was groundbreaking because of the way it extended the emotional and spiritual attainments of the compositional tradition of Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, and the precious few others who knew how to give intimate expressiveness to large ensemble jazz.

With this composition, Zankel placed himself among those big guns and, like his friends, saxophonists Steve Coleman and Rudresh Mahanthappa, and others—and like his mentor, Cecil Tayor—he is going deep into those coral reefs in ways that push the limits of contemporary jazz to just where they need to go. In this concert, he let us go there with him, to the human and spiritual core that unites us all.

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