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Live Trane: Never Before, Never After

David Liebman By

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Yes, for a variety of reasons. First the LP had time limitations which were about 20 minutes per side. In general, whether it was Coltrane or me or anybody, the studio is a very different situation from the gig and still is. For obvious reasons, you have people in front of you and you feel something, somehow from the audience. Inside the studio there is no public. The lights are bright and the microphone is on. You go back and listen and you check it out. It's more like a laboratory. I love the studio because you can really get things done and can hear really quickly stuff you want to change on the spot. You don't need to wait till the next time you play. On the other hand, it is a little inhibiting to have a microphone capture everything you do and know that it is forever. You don't know how many people will hear it. In those days, records/LPs were a means of communicating to people who were not sitting in front of you.

In Coltrane's case, the live gig was unbelievable. There are some videos now capturing a little of the vibe but they are short. I do remember at least one time a 45 minute to one hour duet between Elvin and Trane which they did quite often. Another time they played one song for an hour and 45 minutes... with everybody soloing of course. The intensity was at a really high level and by the way the volume was very loud with Elvin really hitting hard. You have to remember at that time Jimmy Garrison was not playing with a pickup, just a microphone in front of the bass. The pianos were not the greatest in these clubs and the miking was not like a professional sound system we have now. These were bars really and they weren't made for loud music. When you are so close to the performers the energy is palpable and you could feel it. In a club like the Half Note for example you were really close to the action. You can see the photos on the Trane record One Up One Down-Live at the Half Note. Birdland was a little bigger while the Vanguard was much more compact and so forth. There was an immediacy that you felt in a club.

That group definitely rose to the occasion when they played. I have to think that Trane felt the bandstand was an extension of his practicing because he was a compulsive practicer—even in between sets. When you went to see Trane, you were definitely hypnotized... You would be moving around in your seat, your leg hurt, you had to stretch your back, maybe you took a sip of Coca-Cola or whatever and they were STILL playing a tune. Some time they would leave the stage and Elvin Jones would solo or Jimmy Garrison would take a 15-20 minute solo. It's hard to imagine now. The attention span at the time was sometimes good and sometimes it wasn't. They definitely were a club band; there is no question about it.

AAJ: I guess in '62-'63, jazz fans that were familiar with the early Impulse! albums, which are beginning to get pretty adventurous in themselves were not really well prepared for the live experience. Is that a fair statement?

Well, definitely! When you went to see Coltrane, you were put into another realm because of the intensity and the sheer length and energy of what they played. Elvin was just this incredible powerhouse. You could not help being really knocked out by seeing Trane in a club. In those days, the audience wasn't touristy as it is now—it was a lot of other musicians and people of the night so to speak. Jazz clubs went late, till 2, 3 or 4 in the morning. There weren't many other places to go to at that time. It had a certain kind of crowd, a kind of in-crowd. Not me, I was just a teenager at the time. It seemed people knew each other and what they were doing there, ranging from making some money to worshiping the music, if you get my drift. I always say to students: "It's not your grandmother out at 2 o'clock in the morning!!" There were definitely some characters around for sure. When you saw the Coltrane group live, it could never be forgotten if just for the intensity in which they played.

AAJ: I guess as his popularity grew, his audience expanded and perhaps you had some people who were more casual listeners?

I guess. But around the time of A Love Supreme he didn't have much time left in his life and he started to play less in clubs beginning in 1966. You have to remember jazz then and jazz now as far as the layman goes is quite different. The crowd that loved jazz were dedicated fans and again a lot were other musicians. Jazz didn't leak through to Brooklyn, let's put it that way. You were not likely to see a jazz band in my neighborhood like you would in Manhattan. Jazz was still a small part of the entertainment pie. After the Beatles explosion, by the end of the '60s pop completely consumed the music world... Jimi Hendrix, Cream and all that stuff. The late '60s was a pretty low time for jazz until Miles Davis' Bitches Brew warmed things up again. Now there are schools and there are thousands of students, but on the other hand, very few places to play. I'm not sure how much wider Coltrane's audience got outside of the jazz public that existed at that time. You had Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—the masters were still alive in the '60s and working until rock and roll kind of cooled things down for a while.

AAJ: As the group transitioned—say '64, '65 and I guess into early '66, the music changed and I guess people's reactions changed.

Absolutely and not necessarily in a positive way. When he started going into the late period, the music in general had no steady pulse or recognizable harmony, though the melodies were gorgeous (another discussion). But the audience got confused. There was Pharoah Sanders and sometimes other horn players all playing, often at the same time. Trane was playing flute and other guys would pick up little percussion instruments that were around at the time... tambourines, bells, shakers and whistles and on more than one occasion, two drummers. It could be Rashied Ali and J.C. Moses or Jack DeJohnette—kind of a moving cast of sideman. Trane was by then in a spiritual state of mind, apparently from the titles of his tunes which had religious connotations during this so-called late period. The music became quite chaotic, very, very energetic, loud and difficult for the audience to understand especially an audience that had been weaned on "My Favorite Things" as a signature tune up through "A Love Supreme." That recording was the pinnacle of the quartet's period, but it's very different from what followed. When Trane went in that direction, I don't know if he lost his audience, but he definitely confused them.
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