Whenever words such as A Coltrane Tribute
adorn the front cover of an album, one question that inevitably springs to mind is, which John Coltrane
? Trane, after all, was never one to stand still, or, as the saying goes, to rest on his laurels (truth be told, he hardly ever rested at all, choosing instead to use almost every waking hour to pursue his spiritual muse). Saxophonist Steve Heckman
, a long-time admirer of Coltrane, makes no apologies for loving "his sound, his harmonic approach, and the spiritual feeling of his music"which is why he has devoted his fifth recording to honoring the legacy one of the jazz world's legendary figures. Fortunately for those who may have parted ways with Coltrane during his later, more "spiritual" and "free" period, Heckman's tribute is by and large devoid of any departures into the realms of ambiguity or dissonance. A clue may be found in the fact that Heckman plays tenor sax, which Coltrane favored in his earlier years before focusing more on the soprano, on all but one of the album's ten numbers ("The Promise").
The choice of material is fairly plain-spoken as well, embracing compositions from Coltrane's primal phase ("26-2," "Fifth House"), three fast-moving modal works ("Resolution," "Impressions," "The Promise") and a trio of more "spiritual" themes ("Dear Lord," "Wise One," "Reverend King"). They are amplified by the standard "It's Easy to Remember" and Heckman's delightful salute to Coltrane, "The Legacy." Everything was recorded live at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, CA, on October 18, 2013, with Heckman supported by an exemplary rhythm section: pianist Grant Levin
, bassist Eric Markowitz
and drummer Smith Dobson V
, each of whom also possesses a strong and persuasive solo voice.
In his notes, Heckman writes that some arbiters say he has claimed to be the "next" Coltrane, while others have criticized him for failing to live up to that profession. For his part, Heckman says he has never intended to replace Trane, only to honor him and his legacy. Be that as it may, when it comes to tone and technique, Heckman isn't far removed from his illustrious role model, and there is quite a bit of (early) Coltrane in his vocabulary and phrasing. This is especially apparent on the faster numbers, wherein Heckman leans toward Trane's formative years with the Miles Davis
quintet and his own small groups. What is equally clear is that Heckman and his colleagues are there to honor Coltrane, not to supplant him or in any way besmirch his peerless reputation. It's a warm and generous tribute that stands firmly on its own, thanks to Heckman and his dexterous teammates.