World Without End: John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, and the Saxophone Summit

C. Michael Bailey By

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In 2004 Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman joined forces as the long-lived Saxophone Summit and entered the studio with the expressed intent of considering the most difficult of the John Coltrane corpus—late Coltrane. This is the Coltrane typified by spiritual melody overwhelmed with the catharsis of improvisation taken to its highest multiple.

The music Coltrane recorded between The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (Impulse, 1965) and his final epochal studio recitals elicit strong, irreconcilable reactions that range from describing Coltrane as the last great jazz innovator to castigating him as jazz's most boring genius.

What Brecker, Lovano, and Liebman did with Gathering of Spirits (Telarc, 2004) was to decode small bits of late Coltrane, making the music more easily accessible. They were, gladly, only partly successful. The music that results retained a healthy amount of challenge for the listener, but not so much to put the listener off. In fact, the Saxophone Summit does successfully stage late Coltrane is such a way that the listener will approach the original material with less trepidation.

Break to 2008 and how things change. January 12, 2007 Alice Coltrane, wife of John and mother of Ravi, died of respiratory failure in Los Angeles. The next day, Michael Brecker perished from the myelodysplastic syndrome he had suffered from since 2004. May 22, 2007 Michael Brecker's final recording, Pilgrimage was released and can easily be considered the best jazz recording of 2007 as well as one of Brecker's finest hours.

In forty years, from 1967 and the death of John Coltrane to 2007 and the death of Michael Brecker, the state of the tenor saxophone was ruled by the two men whose deaths bookend the period. Their respective influences stand as two quasars shining in all directions, a world without end.

Saxophone Summit: Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman
Gathering of Spirits
Telarc Records

The Saxophone Summit's Gathering of Spirits represented a gamble for Telarc because its focus on Coltrane and the music of his late period. This is not the music the 21st Century. It is not even the music of the 22nd Century. Coltrane's late music resides somewhere on the leading edge of the ever expanding universe, defying space and time. Hyperbole, you say? Perhaps, but late Coltrane can be described as "challenging" and "unlistenable" in the same breath. So, highlighting this music is a risk at best.

Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and Dave Liebman began experimenting with their three-horn set up in the mid-1990s, appearing frequently in New York City. They did not collectively appear on CD until Gathering of Spirits. The ostensible ring leader, Dave Liebman, had taken the same course as Steve Lacy with Thelonious Monk's music in the 1970s and 1980s with John Coltrane's music.

The disc opens with a Lovano homage to Cleveland saxophonist Joe Alexander, "Alexander the Great." The piece begins with a serpentine be-bop head before unraveling into the passionate soloing ciaos typical of Coltrane's late musings. Lovano seeks to acknowledge Alexander at the same time he nods at Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957). This is juxtaposed against "India," the Coltrane composition that first appeared on Impressions (Impulse, 1961). Here "India" is spiritually fleshed out by Brecker, who is likewise the spiritual center of the recording.

Liebman's complex "Tricycle" upholds the Coltrane mantel with dense composition and permissive performance. The piece is introduced with a pizzicato/arco bass solo by Cecil McBee, reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison's introductions for late performances of "My Favorite Things." Dave Liebman, on tenor, introduces the sleepy piece with accents by pianist Phil Markowitz. Brecker and Lovano join Liebman in this plaintive head, ethereal and vaporous. Markowitz solos abstractly, taking advantage of the piano's lower register.

The title piece is a portrait of late Coltrane in full flight, noisy, honking, confused, and cathartic. The trio achieves a melodic nexus of sorts, different birds flying in the same arc. This, like Coltrane, is not music of consonance and closure; it is music of anxious searching with no relief. This is music as quest, like Coltrane's on the outer edge.

Saxophone Summit: Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Ravi Coltrane
Seraphic Light
Telarc Records

Four years later and a good deal has changed. Michael Brecker has passed away only a day after Alice Coltrane. The Saxophone Summit as a collective adds Ravi Coltrane and trumpeter Randy Brecker to its role for further considerations of the late repertoire of John Coltrane, this time through the spirit of Michael Brecker.

Pianist Phil Markowitz opens the disc with his angular and edgy "Transitions." This is followed by Ravi Coltrane's "Thirteenth Floor." Joe Lovano introduces the stepwise theme on alto clarinet, a bass line recalling Jimmy Garrison's underpinning of "Acknowledgement" on Love Supreme (Impulse, 1965). Coltrane plays tenor while Dave Liebman plays c-flute and wood flute, giving the piece a world music feel

Randy Brecker's contribution to this installment of the Saxophone Summit is the Latin-flavored romp "Message to Mike." Dave Liebman provides his level best soprano speculations, fluid and slippery. The piece devolves gladly into the modern equivalent of the Dixieland vamp, with all instruments going which way. This is the most notable non-Coltrane composition on the recording.

The master is presented in the last three pieces. "Cosmos," originally released on Live in Seattle (Impulse, 1966), pits all three saxophonists on tenor for a Coltrane "sheets of sound" orgy that unexpectedly coalesces in the code. The title cut, from 1995's Stellar Regions (Impulse, recorded 1967) begins with a canon-like introduction by Coltrane and Liebman with Lovano playing continuo on an autochrome.

Randy Brecker returns for the disc closer, the title track from Expression (Impulse, 1967). Introduced by bassist Cecil McBee, "Expression" stands as the quintessential Coltrane offering. This is Coltrane channeled in his most uniquely spiritual form, his music. The Saxophone Summit brings the necessary gravity to the piece which justly closes this fine recording.

Tracks and Personnel

Gathering of Spirits

Tracks: Alexander the Great; The 12th Man; India; Peace on Earth; Tricycle; A Gathering of Spirits.

Personnel: Michael Brecker: tenor saxophone, kaval; Dave Liebman: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, Indian flute; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, African blackwood flute; Phil Markowitz: piano; Cevil McBee: bass; Billy Hart: drums.

Seraphic Light

Tracks: Transitions; The Thirtheenth Floor; Reneda; All About You; Message to Mike; Alpha and Omega; Our Daily Bread; Cosmos Seraphic Light; Expression.

Personnel: Dave Liebman: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, c-flute, Indian flute; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, African blackwood flute; Ravi Coltrane: tenor saxophone; Randy Brecker: trumpet; Phil Markowitz: piano; Cevil McBee: bass; Billy Hart: drums.


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