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John Coltrane: The Penny Whistle Tapes

Derek Taylor By

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The late 1950s were a tremulous time for John Coltrane. In the stark wake of withering heroin addiction, he finally stood stalwartly clean and sober. The future lay wide open and uncertain, replete with possibilities. An all consuming musical quest was about to begin.

After hooking up with Monk for an extended engagement at New York's Five Spot, his harmonic language would expand at a near exponential pace. He would also soon augment his signature tenor sound with the added versatility of its soprano variant. Curiously enough, another instrument also entered his arsenal under the critical and public radar. Tapes of Trane's experiments on this heretofore unknown axe have finally come to light and find welcome release on the tiny Provo, Utah based Gambol label.

As is often the case with revelatory musical discoveries, the story behind the sounds is nearly as fascinating as the music itself. While convalescing at his home in the rut of the liminal period before his stint with Monk, Coltrane discovered an odd relic in a basement crate. The property of his deceased great-uncle Thaddeus, the crate contained an impressive collection of vintage 78s along with various personal effects- among them a tarnished brass penny whistle.

Coltrane, still weak from his recent struggle with smack, used the whistle as a means of strengthening his embouchure and breath capacity. In the bargain he realized its convincing musical potential as well. Anxious to invite friends over for jam sessions, but still too physically diminished to hoist his regular horn, Coltrane set up a primitive portable cassette recorder and single microphone (both on loan from his Jersey friend Rudy Van Gelder) and taped many of the living room whistle performances for personal study. The tapes, recently unearthed by his widow Alice and generously leased to Gambol, comprise this historically important and surpisingly engaging release.

Coltrane's special brand of clever, if self-deprecating, humor comes immediately into play on opening medley of tunes that riffs on the common denominator of his instrument's moniker. In his capable hands the whistle transforms into a startling voice for melodic extemporization. Philly Joe Jones, perched behind a minimalist kit of snare drum and sock cymbal, and Wilbur Ware on stout string bass join him in the jam. Jones proves particularly effective on brushes during the previously unknown Coltrane original "Penniless Pauper from Poughkeepsie," while Ware shines brightly from an under-recorded stance on "Penny for Your Thoughts." The trio steams through a brusque version of the Oliver Nelson tune "Trane Whistle" next where Coltrane affects a startling spate of split whistle tones atop the martial press rolls of Jones‚ snare. This is easily the earliest aural evidence of saxophonist's use of this sort of extended technique.

Both "Copper Penny Keepsake" and "Lincoln's Log Cabin Blues" are impromptu creations, the former based on the chord changes of the standard "Everything Happens to Me." This time Coltrane's wailing whistle is backed only by the ringing guitar chords of Dennis Sandole, his former Philadelphian teacher. It seems Sandole was in town for a composer's conference and dropped by on his pupil. Student and mentor make beautiful music, particularly on the barrelhouse changes of the latter tune- a tongue-in-cheek ode to the one-cent currency's famous visage. Sandole deftly glides the frets of a classic Epiphone borrowed from Kenny Burrell, who adds hearty vocal encouragement from the sidelines. A brief solo snippet of Coltrane working through the simple melody of the Snow White-derived standard "Whistle While You Work" segues into a loose rundown of "Lazy Bird" backed by the laconic bongos of a young Ray Baretto. It's a far more spartan reading than the final cut released on Blue Note's Blue Train.

The notion of John Coltrane, preeminent jazz saxophonist, playing the lowly penny whistle will likely garner legions of skeptics. But the music speaks for itself as an undeniably absorbing listen. Hearing Coltrane adapt his formidable chops to the most modest of wind instruments is worth the suspension of disbelief alone. Soundwise by modern standards the tapes have much the flavor of field recordings, with dodgy spots and various drop outs. But engineers have done a stellar job cleaning up the sonics, especially considering the source. Discographers, however, are hung out to dry as the cassettes contained only hastily scribbled personnel information and lacked definitive dates. The paucity carries over into the plain burlap paper packaging of the disc, a facsimile of the material the tapes were originally wrapped in. Completists and fanatics will probably pick this up in a snap, but even casual listeners should find these sessions of merit. One more chapter in the ever- evolving Coltrane legacy is elucidated by their presence. The folks at Gambol should be congratulated for the coup.

Gambol can be reached at: 801.371.8686. A website is in the works.


Track Listing: Medley: Pennies from Heaven - Penny Arcade - Penniless Pauper from Poughkeepsie - A Penny for Your Thoughts/ Trane Whistle/ Copper Penny Keepsake/ Lincoln's Log Cabin Blues/ Whistle While You Work/ Lazy Bird.

Personnel: John Coltrane- penny whistle; Wilbur Ware- double bass; Philly Joe Jones- snare drum, sock cymbal; Dennis Sandole- guitar; Ray Barretto- bongos. Recorded: Coltrane's living room, late 1957.

Title: The Penny Whistle Tapes | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Gambol

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