That John Coltrane was one of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians ever is not in doubt, but his late recordings still polarise opinion between those who regard them as works of unparalleled, spiritually driven intensity and those who see them as self indulgent cacophony. The release of this album is likely to reinforce those opinions rather than change them, but it is definite evidence of the strength and clarity of Coltrane’s vision, undimmed by the illness that was to take his life some three months later.
The Olatunji concert features the last working unit of Coltrane, his wife Alice on piano, Pharoah Sanders on tenor, Jimmy Garrison on bass and drummer Rashid Ali, augmented by the percussion of Algie de Witt and Hendrix associate Jumma Santos. From the opening bars of Ogunde (a mere three and a half minutes on the last studio date, Expression, but here swelled to a massive 28), it’s clear that the band are on fire. Coltrane opens with a brief tenor exposition, followed by Sander’s skyscraping tenor screams and Alice Coltrane’s rippling, bluesy runs. Alice had found a route into the music that long time pianist Mcoy Tyner couldn’t; while Tyner had retired hurt from the polyrhythmic assault of Ali’s drums, Alice decided to ride the wave, calmly peeling off Monkish chords over the ecstatic maelstrom created by the other players. The leader’s lengthy solo is a gripping, restless examination of repeated phrases, accelerated at dizzying speed till they break up and regroup; though critics bemoaned the loss of the magisterial tone of earlier Coltrane in a welter of split tones and overblowing, his playing still retains its power and grace. Moreover there’s an intention to Coltrane’s playing here which transcends much of the macho free jazz posturing of lesser players who followed in his wake. It’s full of sound and fury alright, but it’s signifying something.
The other track is “My Favourite Things”, long a staple of Coltrane’s repertoire since 1960. Opening with a typically lucid solo from Garrison, stuffed full of blues drenched yearning, the treatment here differs from the gently Eastern modalities of earlier versions; Ali opts for pulse rather than swing, pushing Coltrane’s soprano into darting intervallic leaps; Sanders solos thoughtfully (showing remarkable empathy with Ali) till erupting into desperate screams and finally stating the melody as the leader’s soprano blasts back in. The recording quality is a bit duff, though it’s tempting to think that the distortions and drop outs are a result of the machinery’s inability to capture this music rather than poor engineering. Still, until the invention of a time machine this is the closest we’re going to get to being there. Essential.