John Coltrane Birthday Celebration: Harnessing The Coltrane Effect

Paul Rauch BY

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Richard Cole Group
Tula's Jazz Club
Seattle WA
September 23, 2016

The calendar read September 23, 2016, the 90th anniversary of the birth of John Coltrane, and as in many cities in America, and around the world, the music of this master innovator is being celebrated in performance, by modern jazz musicians who have been musically inspired by his courage, by his absence of compromise, by his relentless impatience, by his quest for an undefined destination that continues to shine a beacon of hope and peace. This was certainly the case for me, as I entered Seattle's iconic Tula's jazz club for the annual rite of passage in Seattle. I was intrigued by the selection of musicians this year, for their undeniable virtuosity, and for their musical parallels to the great master for whom they gathered that warm, early autumn evening.

This year's quartet was led by saxophonist Richard Cole, who cites the seminal performances of Coltrane and Joe Henderson as major influences, as is starkly evident in his approach on both the tenor and soprano saxophone. His angular solos have always reminded me of Coltrane, along with Eric Dolphy, and so his participation and selection of musicians to join him for the occasion made perfect sense, as would become evident from the first selection of the evening, the Coltrane standard, "Lazybird," from the classic Blue Train album. The quartet was rounded out by three of the best players on the west coast, and certainly most suitable in terms of technique and musical IQ. Pianist Bill Anschell, who has carved a diverse and sizeable path as a leader, both onstage, and in the studio, was the perfect foil on this evening, strongly reminiscent of the playing of McCoy Tyner in this quartet setting, his powerful left hand laying down the harmonic structure for his detached, staccato style runs with his right hand, almost maximalist in nature. Veteran bassist Phil Sparks, whose rich tone, steady time, and inventive counter lines were essential ingredients to the sound of this quartet the entire evening. Drummer Matt Jorgensen whose performances have often been compared to the great Elvin Jones, per his sense of timing, polyrhythmic tendencies, dynamic phrasing, and free flowing style, completed this well suited quartet.

This year, the importance, the need, to celebrate this music seemed more relevant, more applicable to our current lives. Coltrane's music has always inspired the spiritual aspirations of the listener, of walking closer to the mysteries of the universe, of finding peace, if not for only that brief moment, in our journey in life through music moving forward. We live in a time when our collective soul as a nation is damaged from the violence perpetrated by both religious fanaticism, and by those whose task it is to protect us, the police, against African American men on the streets of this alleged beacon of freedom and justice in the world. Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott were occupying a place in my heart as I entered the club that evening, I imagined the anguish and torment being experienced by their loved ones, and by all of us who envision a world of peace, united in brotherhood, and on the occasion of Coltrane's birthday, augmented by the light of peace envisioned by John Coltrane, so purposely expressed through his music.

We learned a half hour before the beginning of the performance that five people, including four women, had been gunned down in a mall ninety minutes north of Seattle, life so callously disregarded, violence so randomly perpetrated, my heart was heavy, my soul was bleeding, in need of healing, of prayer, of the rhythmic incantation that only music can provide. I introduced the band, expressing briefly, that I hope we can all find some peace in the music that evening.

The band continued with "Equinox," then "Some Other Blues," and Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," all from the Impulse years from 1961-1965, Cole's brooding, angular, voice like phrasing striking a resemblance to the master, yet uniquely expressive in a very personal way. He was acknowledging, but not quoting or paraphrasing, filling the evening with his rich, modal style that has become his signature. His superb soprano solo on "Soul Eyes," seemed to ignite the evening to a different level, and a stellar bass solo from Sparks upholds the standard.

Coltrane did not separate his music from his personal life, or from current events, and though not an activist in a verbal sense, his music from that era is a testament to his activism as a black man, as a social ground breaker, as a man on an eternal spiritual quest to elevate humanity above the hate, above the violence, above racial injustice in America. His music has as much relevance today, 50 years after the march on Selma, after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as it did in his time. Unarmed black men are still being gunned down in the streets by the police, the very people whose task it is to protect and serve. African-American culture often reflects the political and ideological moods, the hopes and aspirations of the community from which it springs, often anticipating them. Coltrane's music evolved during an upsurge politically, and sociologically, in the African American community. The relevance of the music that evening was evident, while much has changed and evolved in the positive, much has not. Racism still is a cancer in the collective American soul. And so we sought healing, love, and peace through his music on that special evening. We expressed the rage as well, and searched for answers.

At that point, the quartet was really finding a cohesive space, Bill Anschell launched into an intro that becomes "Contemplation," the McCoy Tyner composition, followed by an explosive soprano solo by Cole, that conjured images of joy, of the surrender of the soul to love. The room seemed now to be all in. I visually scanned the room, and saw white faces, black faces, female faces, male faces, young faces, elderly faces, I saw the collective facial expression of humanity united in one intimate room in Seattle, the music igniting the collective energy of the audience. Phil Sparks' high, piercing bowed solo was penetrating at a base, spiritual level, there was no turning back, we were all on the same journey, all residing in the same vehicle, traveling the same winding, ascending path.

Matt Jorgensen was brought to the forefront with his riveting intro to "Pursuance," the third movement of Coltrane's defining work, "A Love Supreme." His work, both as a leader and a sideman has been colored with the influence of Elvin Jones, in the process creating an instantly recognizable style and timbre of his own. Cole ripped through the head with vicious tonality, opening the door for Anschell to rewrite, to redefine the piece as his own, and in turn, return the favor to Cole's dynamic, swinging solo that swept the room into a joyous, frenetic, outburst.

Remarkably, Cole weaved the second movement of "A Love Supreme," "Resolution," into a medley following "Lonnie's Lament," Cole's bold, soaring sonic scream dictating the rhythm, and exploding in the person of Bill Anschell, whose solo utilized similar melodic patterns, phrasing and rhythm. Their dynamic interplay was indeed reminiscent of the interplay between Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, complementing and inspiring an open minded approach. The bass solo by Sparks was equally hypnotic, and secured in the polyrhythmic crispness of drummer Jorgensen, who indeed provided a steady canvas for his mates to accent and color. The evening then turned to the classic ballad from Duke Ellington, "In a Sentimental Mood," that was so brilliantly interpreted by Coltrane on his 1963 release with the American master himself. Bill Anschell's solo referred in phrasing to that of Ellington from this classic recording, made when America's Mozart, the Duke himself, did not have a recording contract. Anschell's expertise as a composer and arranger seemed to define this beautiful interpretation of one of the truly classic melodies in American music history.

Cole decided to end the evening with two pieces not normally associated with Coltrane, "I Hear a Melody," and from "The Fantasticks," "Try to Remember." Indeed, Trane recorded the former on his Lush Life LP in 1958, and the band did not disappoint, swinging it hard behind the strong, pulsing energy of Jorgensen, and the deep, vibrant tonality that defined Cole's playing all evening.

Coltrane's work continues to be an integral part of the musical landscape of the 21st century, and a major inspiration for newer generations of artists. The importance of the music being presented live is undeniable, and so on this one evening in Seattle, the sonic musical vibration of John Coltrane lives in the hearts and minds of these four great musicians, and all those fortunate enough to have attended.

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